Podcast: Innovation hub aims for net-zero future via Canadian cleantech

Energy Examined speaks with Soheil Asgarpour, president and CEO of Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada

Soheil Asgarpour is president and CEO of Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC), an innovation hub that leverages industry investments to produce cleantech: technologies that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate environmental impacts to land, water and air. Their key is building collaborative relationships among industry partners, investors, government, academia and cleantech entrepreuneurs, with a focus on solutions that address real market needs.

Energy Examined chats with Asgarpour about the progress PTAC is making on hydrocarbon cleantech, including CCUS, and methane mitigation technologies that could result in close to 90 percent reduction in emissions. He also discusses the importance of finding cost-effective, marketable solutions to improving environmental performance, and the “moon-shot” but attainable goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Podcast Transcript

Leighton: Hello and welcome to another edition of the Energy Examined podcast, the podcast that discusses the issues facing Canada’s oil and natural gas sector with the insiders in the know. I’m Leighton Klassen. Today, I’m joined by Soheil Asgarpour. He’s the president and CEO of Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada, also known as PTAC. He’s going to talk to us today about the organization’s initiatives and an upcoming Net Zero conference. Welcome to the show.

Soheil: Hello, I really appreciate the opportunity. I would like to thank you and also thank CAPP. Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada, as you mentioned, works in collaboration with oil and gas producers and sectors to improve their environmental, safety and financial performance. To put things in perspective, each year, 450 producers, 230 member organizations, and 250 experts from a vast array of stakeholder groups collaborate on approximately 120 research and development projects through PTAC’s consortia.

Leighton: That’s a lot of working parts!

Soheil: We are a small organization in terms of our staff, but we do a significant amount of work. Not because of us — it’s because of the people that work and collaborate with us. So, we use their energy to get most of this work done.

Leighton: You mentioned the number of innovation hub organizations out there. What’s unique specifically about PTAC in terms of your mandate and your approach to innovation?

Soheil: PTAC is unique in that it is first, neutral, it is not-for-profit and also an international organization. What also makes PTAC a unique hub for innovation is massive collaboration. We know that innovation without collaboration is possible, but the road would be lengthy, costly, difficult. Innovation makes a big difference when it’s done through collaboration.

Leighton: Exactly.

Soheil: So, most other organizations simply provide funds or do research and development activities themselves. What we do differently is create significant financial and expertise, leveraging through our collaborative outreach approach, thereby expanding our research and development activities drastically.

Take PTAC’s Alberta Upstream Petroleum Research Fund as an example. Over the past 15 years, we have spent over $180 million to conduct over 500 applied research projects to develop best practices to reduce environmental footprints of the oil and gas sector. Thirty million dollars of this $180 million was provided by producers with the remaining dollars were secured through other, external stakeholders.

So, through those best practices, Alberta producers have been able to significantly reduce the environmental footprint in the areas of clean air, water, remediation and reclamation, ecology, biodiversity and well abandonment, while reducing their costs by $93 million per year. So, this is simply one example of a PTAC model proving that there does not need to be tradeoff between financial and environmental performance. Collaborative innovation allows both to be achieved simultaneously.

Leighton: I was going to talk about some other interesting projects. Is there anything else you wanted to mention?

Soheil: I mentioned applied research. Why don’t we also talk about some technologies?

Leighton: Sure.

Soheil: A good example is REMVue SlipStream technology, which captures methane emissions from compressors and utilizes it in the field as fuel. PTAC, along with other partners form a consortium of several producers secured sites and funds for field testing this technology.

The ability to move from one side to the next with different producer companies enables technology to address operational challenges and be perfected. This technology is currently reducing greenhouse gas emissions equal to removing CO2 emissions from 170,000 cars off the road annually, while the industry is saving $20 million per year.

Another example would be the Alberta CO2 Purity Project. This was a first-of-its-kind assessment of CO2 purity not only in Canada but also worldwide. The purity specifications had never been evaluated across the entire chain and more importantly, across an entire spectrum of impurities in combination. The project examined four elements of integrated CCUS system capture transportation via the pipeline, enhanced oil recovery and direct CO2 storage or sequestration.

It was a massive collaboration effort, including government participation from the Canadian federal government, the province of Alberta, as well as representation from both the American and Australian governments along with 30 producers and other organizations. So, that resulted in financial leveraging of one to $100; if you bring one dollar to the table, you get $100 worth of research and developing the value. The software developed through this kind of project is essentially for the optimum design of an integrated CCU system. And the software would optimize the net present value by introducing impurities that would be allowed through the whole system.

Leighton: That’s innovation at its best and significant cost savings for industry. So, I want to step back a bit and just get a little bit of background on you. How long have you been involved with PTAC and how did you get involved in this kind of work?

Soheil: I’ve been with PTAC for at least the past 15 years. What got me interested was the focus on collaborative innovation. It is what I would classify as a joyful stress. Using collaborative innovation in solving extremely complex problems could be very fulfilling. I’m also president of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, and we are doing the same level of complex work, what we call grand engineering challenges and trying to find solutions for them. Those are extremely fulfilling in terms of getting your mind working, etc. And it’s rewarding at the same time.

Leighton: With industry increasing efforts towards lowering GHG emissions, how has this affected PTAC — has this shifted it at all or what role do you play in that?

Soheil: An extremely important role. As we have always done, PTAC adapts to the needs of our members and our members are the market. So, whatever the market wants, we deliver. We have worked on numerous projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some of which include CCUS assessment of innovative application of electricity for oil sands, development of scenarios and technologies for SAG-D, etc. The bottom line is any technology that PTAC helps develop and/or commercialize. The central focus had to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We can start trying to reduce cost or increase reserves or increase value-added opportunities, but [reducing] greenhouse gas emissions are definitely an important element that we’ve got to do. I’ll give you an example. We developed this multilateral junction through PTAC. This technology would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but reduce cost while increasing reserves and production.

Leighton: You talked about a previous initiative on methane reduction. While we’re talking about greenhouse gas emissions — and there’s various different emissions, methane being one of them, which PTAC has a focus on — explain to our listeners why reducing methane particularly is something that we should focus on and something you guys focus on?

Soheil: That’s a very good question. PTAC has been heavily involved in the methane space, especially over the last several years. We were way ahead of everybody else. We said, ‘this is an important area that we need to get in ‘ because we saw the potential of it. Methane is the catalyst where traditional oil and gas and leading-edge cleantech meet.

This is very important to notice because we can help our technology providers and help our producers simultaneously. It has the potential to forever change how we do business. We recognize that reducing methane emissions is the most cost-effective and fastest approach to creating a clean Canadian oil and gas brand. This brand is extremely important. I think Canada by far has a much, much cleaner oil and gas, but this can put us to be number one in the world.

Reduction of methane emissions allows more natural gas to be sold for profit while simultaneously would improve our environment. We know that again, people are focused on action, but in my opinion, action without getting results means not much. So, what we have done through PTAC-led consortia, numerous methane emissions mitigation technologies have been developed, field tested, commercialized, deployed, and we increase the market uptake of those technologies.

In fact, the methane emissions mitigation technologies that have been launched through PTAC consortia currently can collectively reduce the oil and gas sector’s methane emissions by 48 per cent. And this is not just in Canada. Many countries can benefit from those technologies. Many of these technologies are currently actually being used in Canada and globally. And currently we are working to increase the technology capacity of reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sectors by 90 per cent by 2030.

Leighton: That’s really impressive. Let’s get into energy security, and this is where we can talk about Canada’s role in it. It’s been an issue from everything from politics to individual Canadians talking about this because it’s affecting all of us. How has this issue affected PTAC and specifically, how does it relate to how we can help Canada be the number one choice for oil and natural gas?

Soheil: I should mention first that Canada is well-positioned to provide more energy security to the world while providing cleaner oil and gas. We have the resources and we we’re top quartile when it comes to environmental management. Of course, the challenge that we have is access.

I think that that needs to be solved to provide good solutions globally to many, many countries, especially what we are seeing right now happening. Europe is in big need of cleaner oil and gas, etc. I should also say that we are assisting the oil and gas industry in terms of not only energy security on an international scale, but also by helping deploy world-class Canadian cleantech technologies, we are helping this happen globally as well.

Leighton: It’s a big challenge. You touched on the access part of it. Are you optimistic?

Soheil: I’m cautiously optimistic. We really need to see what we can do to help solve this major problem globally. We have the tools. We have the resources. It’s just a matter of opening access to major global consumers and provide them with energy. What happened recently proved that we cannot just quickly shift to renewables or other things. The world still needs hydrocarbons and needs clean hydrocarbon. And that is something we can provide.

Leighton: I want to shift to talk about an exciting event coming up. As you know, one of the key objectives set out by governments and industry is that of ‘net zero,’ the idea we can find a path to achieving net zero additions to atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions in most timeframes by 2050. Now your organization is hosting the Net Zero Conference and Expo later this month here in Calgary. Tell me about the goals of the conference. What do you want to accomplish here?

Soheil: The Net Zero Conference and Expo, what it can do is bring together stakeholders from government organizations, regulatory bodies, oil and gas producing companies, service and supply companies, research centres and academic organizations, transporters, etc. to discuss regulations, policies, innovation and best practices.

What we have created is six streams to talk about methane, CCUS, hydrogen, electrification and nuclear with a unified perspective toward achieving net zero by 2050. We are hitting the most important areas, those are all enabling tools that we have to make net zero happen. Innovation, especially collaborative innovation, I believe, would play a major role in solving the problems.

Leighton: If you can, who are some of the notable speakers that are going to be there?

Soheil: We have what I call top-notch speakers and presenters:  Minister Savage [Alberta’s Energy Minister]; Minister Nally [Associate Minister of Natural Gas and Electricity]; David LaSalle, David is the energy systems architect for the Transition Accelerator; Dave Collyer, past president of Shell Canada and also president past president of CAPP; Drew Leyburne is assistant deputy minister of NRCan; Marc D’Iorio is assistant deputy minister of energy policy [Government of Canada]; and Joy Romero is CRIN president. We have many top-notch speakers.

Leighton: That sounds great. This is a big conference with some notable speakers like you said. What gives you hope for the future?

Soheil: The simple answer is, really when you look at innovation, and the pace of what is happening with innovation. Big data, for example: essentially, 90 per cent of big data was created just in the past two years and major innovation is happening. Especially now that we are looking at collaborative innovation, I see really good solutions.

Leighton: Looking ahead, we have this conference coming up. I know you’re spending a lot of time focusing on that and your team. What’s next for PTAC in the next year? Any notable initiatives or projects worth mentioning?

Soheil: We talked about methane [reduction], right, that we want to get it from 48 per cent to 90 per cent. There are three areas that we are working on: oil and condensate tanks, we don’t have good technologies, leaky wells, we don’t have good technologies and engines. So, we are focusing on developing those technologies. If we are successful, I think we would be close to the 90 per cent target that we are talking about.

We want to reduce NOx [nitrogen oxides] and VOCs [volatile organic compounds] emissions. We are closing knowledge and technology gaps on CCUS and hydrogen. We are developing more cost-effective technologies while reducing the environmental footprint of oil and gas. We are also helping the oil and gas industry transition into digitization. This digitization is going to be extremely important and profitable and would also help reduce emissions and environmental footprint. So, that would be a great opportunity for the industry.

Leighton: Before we go, is there anything else you wanted our listeners to know about PTAC and your initiatives?

Soheil: What I really want to mention is that what we really need to do to move forward is this collaborative innovation. For that, we need to trust each other and expand our efforts and work together because we are going to be faced with massive challenge. Net zero is not simple. I compared it to putting a man on the moon and I can tell you this is maybe 10 to 100 times more difficult than what happened there. And we did it. It requires massive collaboration — it’s not just oil and gas, but working with all other industries, sectors, consumers, etc. And if we do it together, we can make it happen.

Leighton: And that’s the challenge, right? That’s the big challenge. Well, I’m hopeful. I know you are. So, like you say, we’re in this together.

Soheil: Thank you. And again, thank you for the opportunity.

Leighton: Thank you as well. My guest today is Soheil Asgarpour, the president and CEO of Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada, also known as PTAC. To learn more about PTAC or the Net Zero Conference and Expo, visit www.ptac.org. Stay tuned for our next Energy Examined podcast. And if you like this one, please share it with a friend and make sure you subscribe on whichever podcast you have. For more stories and interviews on Canada’s energy industry, check out our website, www.energyexamined.ca. See you next time.