Oilsands alliance won't produce environmental breakthroughs overnight

November 27, 2013 2:29 PM

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Oilsands alliance won't produce environmental breakthroughs overnight

In the 21 months since its launch, the oilsands group COSIA has initiated 185 projects, shared 560 environmental technologies, established the legal framework for unprecedented collaboration in a market economy, put the concept of the tragedy of the commons on the table and found a way to herd "lions and tigers."

Yet there's the lingering question of "why haven't you done more?" In fact, it was Devon Canada chief executive Chris Seasons who acknowledged the skepticism that exists among some people over the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance during a blue-chip public relations event Tuesday to update stakeholders on COSIA's progress and future direction.

For all the incremental advances and process improvements, COSIA hasn't yet delivered what Total E&P Canada chief executive Andre Goffart called "breakthrough technologies" that will substantively reduce the environmental footprint of oilsands development. And don't expect that type of announcement any time soon.

"The world rarely changes overnight," cautioned ConocoPhillips Canada president Ken Lueers.

As part of the update, COSIA released a set of aspirational goals for its 13 member companies to address issues around greenhouse gases, water, land and tailings ponds. The aspirations may lay the foundation for long-term success by industry but they don't include publicly stated targets for improvement by the companies.

More than 1 billion barrels of bitumen have been produced in the oilsands - and COSIA's members account for 90 per cent of production - since the science-focused organization was established in March 2011 in response to public concerns over what environmental critics disparaged as "dirty oil." Anecdotes about collaboration among members abound, but there's no industry-wide data that demonstrates COSIA initiatives have improved performance.

"It's fair to say there's still much more road in front of us than there is behind us," acknowledged COSIA executive director Dan Wicklum.

Measurable performance goals are being developed and will be made public, he said.

There are real-time examples of collaboration. Canadian Natural Resources chairman Murray Edwards said it used contacts made at COSIA to address the ongoing bitumen emulsion leaks at its Primrose in situ oilsands project and is sharing the learnings with other members. However, the reality is technological progress is often intangible. Change can be incremental and major advances are only evident over time.

Development of the oilsands effectively goes back 50 years. It's been largely characterized by eras when draglines gave way to truckand-shovel mining operations from the 1960s to the 1980s and the point in the 1990s when steamassisted gravity drainage technology emerged and brought into play 80 per cent of reserves too deep to mine. Continued technology advances are seen as crucial if industry projections for 5.2 million barrels a day of oilsands production by 2030 are to be realized.

Given the political maelstrom surrounding oilsands development, there appears to be little willingness to accept the historic time frames for better environmental performance. Certainly, public perception issues are now every bit as daunting for the industry as technical challenges.

At COSIA's launch, Wicklum made a point to say "COSIA is a science organization, run by scientists for scientists. We don't see COSIA playing a role in flashy media campaigns."

At Tuesday's update, he conceded COSIA's role includes communication and said one of the key messages is "more collaboration needs to happen."

It is one reason COSIA established an associate member designation that includes 24 companies outside the producer community. It allows for incorporation of additional knowledge and new perspectives to address the issues. It was Suncor Energy vice-president Gord Lambert who acknowledged the challenges in the oilsands go well beyond any individual company to the cumulative impacts of the 127 projects now in operation.

He listed the broad environmental challenges as "issues of the commons" that prompted the broad-based approach to performance.

The executives attending the Calgary Convention Centre event repeatedly stressed the sense of accomplishment at getting the otherwise independent-minded, competitive companies - and especially their ever-cautious legal teams - to work together on a common cause. When BP Canada CEO Christina Verchere likened the effort to herding cats, Wicklum suggested "lions and tigers."

Wicklum's assessment that "COSIA is an innovation unto itself" may be true, but that only goes so far given the high level of expectation from the public and the companies paying the bills. Seasons agreed COSIA will need more success stories backed up by hard numbers to be seen as more than a "media window dressing exercise," but Wicklum welcomed the challenge.

"There a high level of expectation ... and personally I welcome it," he said. "We're in a sector here where technology can take two, four, eight, 10 years to go from idea to implementation ... in the context of an extremely complex and high technology sector we're making good progress."

Source: calgaryherald.com

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