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Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance CEO Dan Wicklum during an update conference hosted by the organization in Calgary, Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014. COSIA members on Tuesday pledged to halve the amount of fresh water used to produce a barrel of oil from steam-driven projects by 2022, but are delaying setting greenhouse gas-reduction goals.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The industry group representing 13 large oil sands companies is delaying an earlier commitment to set greenhouse gas-reduction goals, citing the complexity of establishing a legal framework to share new technologies.

But members of Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, known as COSIA, on Tuesday pledged to halve the amount of fresh water used to produce a barrel of oil from steam-driven projects by 2022. The commitment marks the first hard target established by the technology-sharing alliance more than two years after it was set up to blunt criticism about the rapid pace of oil sands development.

Companies are under pressure to reduce the environmental toll on land, air and water of extracting tar-like bitumen from northern Alberta. Fast-growing carbon emissions from the sector have fuelled opposition to multibillion-dollar pipelines designed to boost the value of Canadian oil, but the industry has been slow to adopt mitigation measures.

Steve Williams, chief executive officer of COSIA member Suncor Energy Inc., said in July that the group was "very close" to announcing long-awaited commitments to cut carbon emissions in a matter of "days or weeks."

But that effort has been delayed in part because of legal wrangling over competition laws and the use of proprietary technologies.

"That's one of the key things," Lorraine Mitchelmore, president of Shell's Canadian unit, said Tuesday. Shell is also a member of the alliance. "Land and water are easier, but GHGs are tougher, and so we're getting that legal framework in place where we can share, so that's why it's taken a little longer."

The agreement announced Tuesday aims to reduce fresh water used to produce a barrel of bitumen at steam-driven operations, from 0.4 barrels of water today to 0.2 by 2022. The alliance is also planning to establish goals covering land use and tailings from mining operations.

Mr. Williams said that oil sands companies aim to match the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional oil. New mines, such as Imperial Oil Ltd.'s Kearl operation and Suncor's planned Fort Hills project, already meet that threshold, he said.

This year, COSIA has overseen 68 projects that cost more than $200-million. "It's encouraging to see that they're taking steps in the right direction," said Amin Asadollahi, oil sands director at the Calgary-based Pembina Institute, an environmental advocacy and consultancy group. "However, from promises we would like to see results."

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