Energy Innovation: Oilsands Becoming Leaner and Greener

4 Minute read

The author of a recent New York Times article is reveling in his scathing indictment of the Canadian oil sands – describing them as “the world’s […] dirtiest oil reserves,” and it isn’t hard to see why. As one of the largest oil reserves in the world, Canada’s oil sands have an image problem. Open pit mining, tailings ponds, and trucks the size of houses are not very appealing to look at, which makes the oil sands an easy target for the current wave of energy activism. Growing concerns relating to climate change, biodiversity, and marine health have spurred a ferocious appetite for more robust and stringent environment, social, & governance (ESG) standards – and rightly so. Climate change is a paramount concern that needs to be addressed with innovation and collaboration. These evolving standards are providing Canadian producers with the opportunity to adapt to a new world order and be leaders in an industry often criticized for being resistant to change.

Some of Canada’s largest energy producers have responded with extraordinary achievements in greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions. Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) has invested more than C$3.4 billion since 2009 in research and development to reduce its carbon footprint. Canadian Natural is a leader in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), removing approximately 2.7 million metric tonnes per year through its Quest, Horizon, and NWR facilities. CNRL is continually making improvements to lower its carbon intensity, and has successfully reduced GHG emissions from its Horizon Oil Sands mine by 27 percent between 2012 – 2018. Furthermore, CNRL has committed to reduce its oil sands GHG emissions intensity by an additional 25 percent through 2025. To achieve these ambitious targets, CNRL is trialing new cutting-edge technologies such as molten carbonate fuel cells (MCFC), solvent enhanced oil recovery, and In-Pit Extraction Processes (IPEP) for tailings ponds.

In response to growing climate change concerns, Canadian producers have stepped up in a big way. The carbon intensity of upstream resource extraction in the oil sands is at an all-time low. GHG emissions for barrels sourced from the Canadian oil sands are increasingly comparable with major energy producers across the globe (See Figure 1.1). The magnitude of this accomplishment is even more impressive when viewed with the lens of a total energy mix. Many of the world’s largest energy companies produce large amounts of natural gas, and light oil which typically have lower emissions than heavy crude. However, despite the recent successes of Canadian producers, challenges remain. As the molecule moves down the supply chain from transportation to refining these processes can contribute significantly to a barrel’s total lifecycle GHG emissions. Unfortunately, this can largely be out of a producer’s control, and for many producers without integrated downstream facilities, the primary focus must be on reducing emissions during extraction.

Figure 1.1 – Source: Peters & Co (2019), Global Integrated E&P Carbon Emissions.

The industry is rife with innovative collaboration and partnerships. Virtually all oil sands producers (90 percent) are contributing members to the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). COSIA functions as a research collective that brings companies together to share game changing technologies, intellectual property, and expertise. COSIA was formed to elevate the status quo and challenge its members to pursue operational excellence in the areas of GHG reduction, land reclamation, tailings ponds, and water management. Industry collectives are the new normal in Canadian energy and have extended beyond hydrocarbons to help facilitate the global energy transition. Nearly all of Canada’s top energy producers are among the 456 active members in the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN) – which aims to share resource and expertise to accelerate and commercialize revolutionary energy technologies.

Canadian energy companies are the most active clean tech investors in Canada. According to Natural Resources Canada, the industry accounts for two thirds of the C$2.4 billion spent annually to fund cleantech research and development. New partnerships between energy companies and clean tech investment funds are helping to fuel the growth of energy innovation in Canada. Suncor and Cenovus have partnered with the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance and committed C$100 million to form Evok Innovations – a clean tech fund created to develop technologies aimed at addressing the world’s most pressing environmental and economic challenges. Canadian energy producers have been carefully listening to the concerns of stakeholders calling for greater environmental stewardship. Through innovative partnerships, cutting edge technologies, and capital investment, the industry is setting the template for responsible resource development.    


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This work has been funded by Viewpoint Capital Corporation.