Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Canada’s most-awarded
newsroom for a reason
Stay informed for a
lot less, cancel anytime
“Exemplary reporting on
COVID-19” – Herman L
per week
for 24 weeks
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

The Suncor tar sands mining operation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, November 3, 2011. Suncor is one of the largest oil sands producers in Alberta.

© Todd Korol / Reuters

For an industry struggling to persuade the world that its dirty oil image isn't deserved, stagecraft matters. And so, before a broad stage in the Imperial Ballroom of Calgary's Hyatt hotel, some of the country's most senior business leaders lined up, one by one, to sign a document intended to herald a greener future for the oil sands.

Everything from the stately location, to the parade of often media shy executives, to the former CFL linebacker chosen to lead the newly created Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, was intended to show how seriously industry takes a technology sharing group formed in the face of global criticism of its environmental performance.

Steve Williams, the Suncor Energy Inc. chief operating officer, called it "a new era in oil sands development." Chris Seasons, the president of Devon Canada, added: "We intend to set public goals and will report on progress toward meeting these goals. This is a first for our industry."

Story continues below advertisement

But hidden behind the grand rhetoric and big pledges was the list of unanswered questions, and it is long. Those public goals, for example, have yet to be set. Even the types of goals – will companies commit to a certain level of greenhouse gas output? Or just to a certain percentage of improvement? – haven't been determined. Nor has the baseline to measure improvement against.

And despite an army of lawyers labouring over this agreement for more than a year, no one quite knows what information, exactly, will be shared.

"It's going to take some time to understand where this is going to lead us," said Dan Wicklum, the former Calgary Stampeders player and PhD in aquatic ecology who was named chief executive officer of the new alliance. "This is a fundamentally different model. No one is doing this at this scale anywhere on the planet that we know of."

In signing the document establishing the alliance, the dozen executives agreed to open their environmental research repositories to competitors, allowing a degree of technology sharing they believe is unparalleled in any industry anywhere. They will work through COSIA, a barebones organization with just a few staff, including one person to head, and co-ordinate work in, each of four environmental priority areas: land, water, greenhouse gases and the toxic mine effluent industry calls tailings.

But the lack of concrete goals provoked criticism from environmental groups, with Greenpeace campaigner Keith Stewart arguing that "in the absence of any commitments to real reductions in pollution, with penalties for not meeting them, this is simply another example of 'greenwash.' "

Ed Whittingham, the executive director of the Calgary-based Pembina Institute, said he is "cautiously optimistic" on the alliance. But, he added, "We'll have to see what the targets look like."

For industry, the trickiest area has involved what technology gets spread around, and what doesn't. "COSIA is very much about sharing what we've already created and less about creating new things thereafter," said Bruce March, chief executive officer of Imperial Oil Ltd. "We're going to try to capture what's working best now by each individual company."

Story continues below advertisement

It was tough to determine "how we would share and treat intellectual property," Mr. March acknowledged. The system they've come up with allows companies to swap innovations inside the alliance, although it seems likely there will be a mechanism for financial compensation, too.

"People will put into the pot what they have, and there will be some allocation of value associated with that," said Mr. Seasons, with Devon.

But it's unlikely some of the most important new technologies will be shared by the group. Companies, for example, are developing more efficient ways of extracting oil sands using novel well-placement techniques and new hydrocarbon solvent cocktails.

Such innovations can create dramatic savings in greenhouse gas emissions – but under the COSIA umbrella, "that's not environmental," because environmental savings is not the primary goal, Mr. Seasons said. Anything deemed a "reservoir improvement" will be classified a "commercial" technology and "we'll remain competitive on those technologies," he said.

Still, industry sees in this alliance a chance for real betterment.

"This is not just going to be about visuals," said John Abbott, an executive vice-president at Royal Dutch Shell PLC's Canadian operations. "What this technology sharing does is it just reduces the learning period, so that you can get to better performance faster."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Tickers mentioned in this story
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies