They lack the shiny packaging of an Apple gadget. They won’t inspire celebrities to tweet about them. And they most certainly won’t spawn consumer line ups.
They are technological improvements in oil sands. And they are as important to past and future oil sands development as microchips are and will be for our much-loved electronic gadgets.
Technology has been applied to drive performance since commercial oil sands production commenced in the 1960s. Though a relatively new industry, the oil sands development story is marked by a few innovation milestones worth noting, including:
- Steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) oil recovery method. Extracting bitumen has always been the first concern of oil sands producers, and no technology has been as transformative as SAGD. In the 1980s, SAGD oil recovery technology was developed for commercial application, providing access to previously uneconomical in situ resources.
- Trucks and shovels. By the early 1990s, oil sands miners had ditched bucket wheels and draglines in favour of trucks and shovels, dramatically boosting production and reliability.
- New tailings management techniques. Recently, new approaches for dealing with tailings offer the potential to reduce the time required to reclaim lands previously covered by ponds. Guided by the Tailings Roadmap and Action Plan, a roadmap designed to focus the industry’s use of improved tailings technologies, oil sands developers have access to today’s most innovative approaches.
Barriers to innovation
With oil sands development under constant scrutiny, the public continues to expect timely and dramatic improvements. In fact, some industry observers believe that enough isn’t being done, particularly when it comes to mitigating development’s environmental impacts.
Technology and innovation are keys to driving improvements in all aspects of development, but there are some barriers, as a former oil sands executive noted. Solutions that might work on a small scale in a laboratory, for example, are often unfeasible in harsh, northern Alberta conditions. Additionally, oil sands development requires huge volumes of capital, and companies can be reluctant to invest in approaches that could prove costly and disrupt existing operations. Finally, taking a technology from the lab to full scale implementation can take significant time. This is an ongoing challenge for developers as optimal results may take many years to achieve.
Sharing intellectual property
The good news is that in relation to environmental performance, oil sands developers are collaborating to overcome these challenges and bring technology to bear like never before. Fourteen companies which account for 90 per cent of oil sands production have come together through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovative Alliance (COSIA) to drive environmental performance improvements.
The COSIA companies have determined it’s better to share intellectual property than compete on environmental performance. In a year, 446 distinct technologies have been shared that cost over $700 million to develop.
While the industry is proud of past technological developments and optimistic about future ones, it is unlikely oil sands innovation achievements will ever knock our established technology darlings off the pop culture pedestal.