Some progress in oilsands tech sharing, but still much to do: COSIA

CALGARY – Forget herding cats. The head of the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance says when it comes to getting 13 oilsands companies to share technology with each other, “these are lions and tigers.”

But COSIA has made some progress since it was formally launched 21 months ago, CEO Dan Wicklum said Tuesday, though he admits there is still a ways to go.

“I think it’s fair to say that there’s still much more road in front of us than there is behind us,” he said.

Since COSIA’s inception, 560 technologies that collectively cost $900 million to develop have been shared amongst Canada’s biggest oilsands players and 185 projects are currently in various stages of development.

One of the most difficult parts was drawing up legal agreements from scratch that would enable the companies to contribute their technologies without running into intellectual property concerns, Wicklum said.

On Tuesday, COSIA laid out some broad “aspirations” related to four priority areas: land, water, greenhouse gases and tailings.

But the alliance has not yet set firm targets in those areas or a firm timeline by which members plan to meet those goals.

Wicklum said COSIA members are working on pinning down some quantitative performance goals, which will be made public.

“It’s important to get these right,” the one-time CFL player told reporters. “They need to be realistic.”

Since its launch, COSIA has broadened its reach beyond oilsands producers to other companies with relevant expertise to bear. So far there are 24 so-called “associate” members of COSIA, including GE Canada, which recently pledged $20 million to work on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption.

On Tuesday, some COSIA member companies provided examples of the technologies the’ve shared and used through the organization.

For instance, as Shell Canada pursues its Carmon Creek oilsands project in northwest Alberta, it will draw on Devon Energy’s expertise in building pipelines that have a smaller impact on land, said Kim Code, Shell’s vice-president of heavy oil development.

And she said Shell has ideas of its own to contribute — based on its experience operating in the Gulf of Mexico — that can reduce the amount of land disturbed.

ConocoPhillips Canada is contributing cogeneration technology that can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 17 per cent, as well as “vacuum insulated tubing” that improves heat efficiency in wells, said president Ken Lueers.

The mechanics of sharing the technology aren’t easy, Wicklum said, describing COSIA as the “oil on the cogs” of a rather complicated process.

Various levels of management at COSIA companies meet regularly. Technical experts are involved in the process to determine which technologies are most promising. There are seminars to make sure the shared technologies are well understood.

“It’s not just throwing a stack of documents on the table,” said Wicklum. “There’s a true relationship and interpretive function to make sure it becomes real.”

Devon Canada president Chris Seasons said some may see COSIA as little more than a “media window dressing exercise,” but that he’s witnessed a major cultural shift amongst companies that are otherwise “fierce competitors.”

“If anything I would say that the passion and energy that this group of people has moving forward has accelerated,” he said.

“That’s not to say there isn’t conflict from time to time in the pace and how we all do it. But the fundamental passion, the desire to do it is absolutely there.”