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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

KONRAD YAKABUSKI

Wanted: Vision and the latest oil sands extraction methods Add to ...

At 83, Clement Bowman hasn’t lost any of his vision.

We’re not talking about his eyesight, but rather his dogged determination to see potential where others only see pitfalls. It’s not hard to see why Peter Lougheed tapped Mr. Bowman as the first head of the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority in 1975.

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The late Alberta premier, who also came by the vision thing naturally, had founded AOSTRA a year earlier with what seemed like an impossible mission. All but a small proportion of oil sands bitumen was buried too deep to extract using existing strip-mining techniques. The big oil companies, clueless about how to get at the resource, were turning their backs on their leases.

True visionaries such as Mr. Bowman never let the negative groupthink get them down. With an initial $100-million from the Alberta Heritage Fund, AOSTRA took the lead in developing the now-universal steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technology that unlocked the oil sands’ potential and brought Big Oil rushing back. Mr. Bowman got the Order of Canada, Alberta got filthy rich and the world took notice.

Fast-forward to the present and the two biggest challenges threatening the resource. Unless Canada can dramatically reduce carbon emissions from the oil sands and squeeze more value from raw bitumen, we risk environmental blacklisting and technological underdevelopment.

It only makes Mr. Bowman wish he were a few years younger. “You can’t make the argument that other countries can extract value from our resources but we can’t. If we say that, we’re doomed,” he says. “Government has to set the vision. Industry won’t do it.”

Is anyone in Ottawa or Edmonton listening?

So far, Alberta Premier Alison Redford has not followed through on her campaign promise to resuscitate AOSTRA, which faded into obscurity during the Ralph Klein era. Ms. Redford had vowed to devote $3-billion to a new AOSTRA, but last month’s provincial budget came and went without any mention of it. Let’s hope she’s not getting cold feet in the face of budget woes and the opposition Wildrose Party.

Ideological strictures can be make life comfortable but not terribly innovative. If public policy were determined only by people who believe that government mucks everything up or that every public cent spent on research is corporate welfare, then we’d still be living in a world without CAT scans, the Internet, Google and – just to drive the point home – SAGD and shale gas.

Desperate for Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, Ms. Redford’s government is said to be considering embracing aggressive targets to reduce per barrel greenhouse-gas emissions by 40 per cent. Analysts predict that, even if she overcomes resistance from Ottawa and industry, most oil companies will opt to pay a penalty rather than figure out how to cut their carbon output that much. One investment analyst called a 40-per-cent reduction “a fantasy.”

Mr. Bowman recognizes that mindset. He was up against the same inertia decades ago. He also sees it in the recent decision by Suncor and France’s Total to abandon the construction of their $11.6-billion Voyageur upgrader. By his calculation, Canada will forgo about $60-billion a year by 2020 if it exports new oil sands production rather than upgrading and refining it here. “There has to be some mechanism to get Suncor and Total back in play, just like AOSTRA did in 1975,” he says.

As for reaching those fantastical emissions target, a Calgary-based start-up called N-Solv has already developed a way to extract bitumen using warm solvents – instead of the carbon- and water-intensive SAGD technique – that reduces per barrel emissions by 85 per cent. Its $70-million demonstration plant is soon set to begin operating on a Suncor site in northern Alberta adjacent to the one where SAGD was developed.

Boston-based Lux Research, a technology scouting firm that reviewed 1,380 start-ups, has identified N-Solv as one of 10 “companies to watch.” Yet, in Canada, N-Solv is an outlier. Established players prefer the status quo. They say they’re developing low-carbon techniques in-house, though, with the exception of Cenovus, none seems to be in much of a hurry.

The big companies have formed something called Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance with an aim to eventually sharing intellectual property that might make the sands greener. So far, the group appears to be employing far more lawyers than innovators.

It might be different if Peter Lougheed and Clem Bowman were still in charge.

 

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