Innovative Solutions to Climate Change

How Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance is lowering global greenhouse gas emissions through development, collaboration, and technology deployment.

Climate change is one of the most pressing environmental issues globally. Scientists claim increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are contributing to global climate change and businesses and individuals are directly and indirectly contributing through transportation, agriculture activities, mining, oil and gas, manufacturing and more. The ongoing challenge is how to reduce emissions while meeting the growing demand for energy.

What are Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Greenhouse gases (GHG) are created when hydrocarbons (natural gas, oil, etc.) are burned, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide into the air. Increased levels of GHGs in the atmosphere create an increase in temperature, causing changes in our climate and planet which have long-lasting effects.

We use natural gas and oil mainly for electricity, industrial uses, and transportation. Innovations in natural gas and oil are currently being developed, including cleaner ways for extracting oil and processing natural gas. They are being utilized to replace more emission-intensive hydrocarbons, like coal. While there have been advancements in cleaner technology such as wind and solar, there is still a large need for oil and gas to power the globe. In 2019, the Government of Canada stated that the oil and gas and transport sectors were the largest GHG emitters in Canada, with transportation and oil and gas contributing 25 per cent and 26 per cent of our country’s total emissions respectively.

Transportation and oil and gas are involved in almost every part of our lives, from the food we eat, to the cars we drive, to the clothes we wear. More emission-intensive energy sources (i.e., coal) are being reduced but advancements in cleaner technologies (i.e., wind and solar) have not kept pace with global demand for oil and gas, creating pressure on the oil and gas sector to develop new ways of meeting demand with cleaner energy sources.

However, not all is doom and gloom – there are a lot of ways to help reduce these emissions and make the world a better place. Canada continues to work towards declining its emissions and is making progress. In 2017, Climate Watch stated that Canada only accounts for approximately 1.5 per cent of global GHG emissions, but it is one of the highest per capita emitters. There have been many fluctuations in emissions in the last 20 years and in 2019, Canada’s GHG emissions were 730 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, which was a 0.2 per cent increase from 2018 emissions and a net decrease of 1.1 per cent from 2005 emissions.

A New Way Forward

A group that is making strides is Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), who are on a mission to make a more sustainable world by supporting the development and deployment of reduction technologies that lower GHG emissions.

Established in 2012 by an alliance of oil sands producers, COSIA’s vision is to enable responsible and sustainable growth of Canada’s oil sands while delivering accelerated improvement in environmental performance through collaborative action and innovation.

COSIA has identified four priority areas to improve environmental performance, which are: greenhouse gases, land, water, and tailings. By bringing together thought leaders from industry, government, academia and the wider public to improve measurement, accountability, and environmental performance – COSIA is taking innovation and environmental performance in the oil sands to the next level.

COSIA’s Vision in Action

COSIA is advancing innovation in the GHG environmental priority area through five technical working groups including carbon capture, utilization, and storage; low carbon heat and power, (including natural gas decarbonization); in situ energy efficiency; mining; and area fugitive emissions.

Since 2012, COSIA members have invested $249 million in 175 GHG technologies and made significant progress on emissions reduction.

In 2020, there were 14 active GHG projects underway through COSIA at a cost of $11 million. The GHG environmental priority area for COSIA utilizes a number of tools and approaches to quantify and report GHG emissions from oil sands operations.

Greenhouse gas intensity is the amount of CO2 equivalent emission produced per barrel of oil.

COSIA has helped reduce GHG intensity by 14 per cent for mining operations and eight per cent for in-situ operations.

Since 2013, the production weighted average upstream GHG intensity of the oil sands has been reduced by 14 per cent for mining operations and 8 per cent for in-situ operations. In-situ operations refers to oil sands production that uses drilling and steam to produce product.

Carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) is a promising emissions reduction technology to significantly reduce global CO2 emissions from large industrial sources. COSIA supports the Alberta Carbon Conversion and Technology Centre (ACCTC), which is a CCUS technologies testing facility near Calgary, Alberta. In 2021, the ACCTC invited innovators from across Canada and the world to join them.

In 2020, a CCUS project shared through COSIA reached a major milestone of capturing and sequestering five million tonnes of CO2 in five years. The captured CO2 is now stored regionally and safely.

Fostering Collaboration Worldwide

As part of COSIA’s commitment to environmental innovation, they have partnered with XPRIZE Foundation and NRG to challenge the world to reimagine what we can do with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by accelerating the development of technologies that transform CO2 into valuable products. They have proven that it is possible to capture carbon and convert it into useful products ranging from plastics to concrete and even vodka.

What’s on the Horizon for COSIA

Natural gas decarbonization (NGD) captures CO2 from the natural gas stream, either before or after it is burned for extracting or processing operations. COSIA is working to understand decarbonization better and find ways to leverage the hydrogen and carbon by-products. Hydrogen has a lot of potential to be used on-site as a clean-burning, or low emission fuel alternative. It can also be stored or converted into a variety of valuable materials.

COSIA and other third parties are also evaluating the feasibility of geothermal energy to potentially supply commercial-scale hot water for mining operations. They have conducted preliminary assessments which included extensive modelling to determine if injecting water into high-temperature rock several kilometres below ground and then bringing heated water back to the surface for bitumen extraction is feasible. At present, the industry is considering the next steps in the research and development process to further assess geothermal.

“We all rely on products derived from oil and gas in our daily lives – from fuel for cars and planes to plastics and textiles. As producers, Canada’s oil sands companies know that they must be part of the solution and are working diligently to reduce not just emissions, but all environmental impacts from their operations,” says Wes Jickling, COSIA’s Chief Executive.

“Through COSIA, Canada’s leading oil sands producers have made great strides – as evidenced by more than 1,000 environmental projects, including 175 and counting emissions focused projects. These range from putting satellites into space to improve emissions measurement to capturing and creating new uses for carbon. What’s really exciting is that many of these projects have applicability to other industries and parts of the world. I really feel that we are collectively at the start of a giant leap forward in terms of emissions and climate management”.

COSIA continues to lead the charge for oil sands operations emission reductions. In 2020, IHIS Markit Analysis confirmed there has been a 20 per cent decline in oil sands GHG intensity in the past decade – and things are consistently improving.

In order to support sustainable long-term development, all environmental factors must be considered and COSIA is working towards a sustainable future for generations to come.

Contributor | + posts

Allison Penton is a passionate communicator, storyteller, and writer. She is currently working on the Trans Mountain Expansion Project in British Columbia. Allison has a Bachelor of Commerce (Co-op) and Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Memorial University of Newfoundland. She has experience working in utilities, major projects, and non-profits.

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