Innovation comes in many forms, and not all of them are predictable

As we move into a New Year, COSIA is in a stronger position than ever to meet its central mandate of accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands sector. Our member companies are well-equipped to innovate and collaborate in ways that will not only produce great results for them, but they are developing new technologies that could potentially do great things for the planet.

If that sounds like a bold statement, consider this: even at its founding in 2012, COSIA offered a unique and unprecedented model for collaboration. Simply put, there was no other example anywhere of long-time industrial competitors coming together in ways like they do in COSIA, to share knowledge and technologies that had traditionally been considered proprietary.

Since then, the level of mutual trust and collaboration has only deepened. Today, COSIA’s member companies are committed to working together on an ever-expanding portfolio of technology solutions, both above ground and below surface. As we do so, we keep improving the ability to discover, develop and deploy technologies that will address our collective environmental challenges and help create a positive energy future.

“Different companies have different institutional knowledge, different competencies about the same problems. Our challenges are the same.” Dipo Omotoso, Senior Technology Advisor, Tailings & Extractions, Suncor

We are certainly not perfect, and are constantly looking for improvement opportunities. As with any new organization, COSIA and its member companies have been on a learning curve these past five years. Initially, our instinct was to compartmentalize technology development according to our four environmental priority areas — tailings, water, land, and greenhouse gases. What we’ve learned with experience is that strict adherence to those kinds of distinctions is almost always arbitrary. In many cases, the most promising projects in our portfolio have multiple benefits across all four priority areas.

Another thing the companies have learned is that a good culture of collaboration is as much a mindset and a commitment as it is a matter of governance. You can’t just use structure, process and legal agreements to encourage historic competitors to collaborate. Good governance is critical but you need to foster trust, respect and a mutual recognition that we are all stronger working together than we are operating in our individual silos.

“Our member company CEOs have made it possible for their companies to collaborate in COSIA on anything technical in the oil sands with no limits on what types of technologies they can develop together.”

As COSIA has evolved, our member companies have become more comfortable with the sharing of knowledge and technologies. Critical in this regard is the leadership shown by Canada’s Oil Sands CEO Council, which meets about every six weeks to discuss issues of mutual interest and collaboration.

When COSIA began, our member companies had some key areas they wanted to focus on. But those priority areas did not cover the whole spectrum of technology development. As they’ve become more comfortable with the COSIA innovation model, the company CEOs have made it possible for their companies to collaborate in COSIA on anything technical in the oil sands with no limits on what types of technologies they can develop together.

At the same time, COSIA members have identified three areas for new collaboration in particular that offer great potential for lowering carbon intensity, minimizing water and land use and reducing production costs. They are:

  • sub-surface in situ best practices
  • in situ non-aqueous extraction, and
  • reservoir characterization

As we move forward, the research and development COSIA facilitates will not only benefit the oil sands industry, but the larger economy and society as well. A good example is the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, where we are offering $20 million to teams that can best take carbon and turn it into a valuable resource. That kind of research is applicable to any country, sector, company or individual producing carbon dioxide in a flue gas. So, as we crack some our industry’s big environmental challenges, we truly do have the potential to make a positive impact on the well-being of our planet.

In this newsletter, meanwhile, readers can see the broad scope and ingenuity behind just a few of the hundreds of technology solution projects currently underway by COSIA and its member companies.

There’s the “eureka moment” of discovering how something as simple as a home filtration system can point the way to treating tailings water using petroleum coke. Or the determination to prove conventional wisdom wrong by reconstructing one of the world’s first sustainable fens in the boreal forest. There’s the beam centrifuge that’s allowing researchers to predict, in a matter of days, consolidation patterns that would take 100 years to study in real time. Or a series of highly focused challenge competitions that are connecting COSIA to innovators with bright ideas for reducing GHG emissions associated with oil sands extraction.

If there is an overarching theme to these stories, it’s that innovation comes in many forms, and not all of them are predictable or linear. It all begins with smart people looking at challenges in new ways. We adopt an approach where, if it seems like a good idea, then let’s try it. If, at first, it doesn’t work, then let’s understand why and fix it the next time around.

For me, it’s energizing to see creative, talented people working collaboratively in this way. I hope you feel some of that energy as you read their stories in this latest issue of The Collaborator.