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The Syncrude oil sands site, on April 27th, 2015 outside of Fort McMurray, Canada.Ian Willms/Getty Images

It's a dilemma that haunts the oil sands.

When times are good, companies make so much money they scoff at investing any of it on cleaner and more efficient ways to get oil out of the ground. Now that the price has collapsed, cash-starved companies are equally reluctant to invest in anything new and unproven – even promising technologies that could secure their future.

Consider the experience of Nsolv Corp., a Calgary-based company that is running a highly energy-efficient oil sands pilot project in Fort McKay, Alta. Nsolv extracts bitumen without water and a fraction of the natural gas that other oil sands producers do by injecting warm solvent instead of hot steam into the ground. The operation generates a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional steam-assisted projects, and it's profitable even at today's low prices.

The company has some powerful backers, including engineering firm Hatch Ltd. and Enbridge Inc. It's a pilot project, which is on a Suncor lease, and has received millions of dollars from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, a federal agency.

But Nsolv has hit a bit of a funding wall as it tries to pull together the $300-million to $400-million it needs to build a commercial-scale plant, capable of producing 10,000 barrels of oil a day.

It isn't that investors aren't interested. The company is having "multiple discussions with multiple companies," insisted Joseph Kuhach, Nsolv's chief executive officer.

"Getting the funding in there to do that certainly is a challenge in this environment," Mr. Kuhach acknowledged. "There is money out there that is looking for opportunity to come into the oil sands. It may not be as much, in total, but it's out there, for the right project, the right technology."

Raising cash was equally tough when the industry was booming. Back then, "nobody wanted to look at the technology because they were making tons of money doing things the old way," he argued.

Even assuming the price of crude continues to recover, the challenges facing the energy industry remain daunting.

If Canada's oil sands industry wants a future, it will have to get out of its comfort zone and explore radically different ways of doing business. It's not just about curbing emissions, reducing the industry's environmental footprint and producing more oil at a much lower cost. It's about being innovators rather than followers.

That hasn't typically been the strength of the Canadian industry, according to Hatch chief executive John Bianchini. He said there is an "innate skepticism" of new technology that has left clean-tech companies in a "commercialization valley of death."

Too many oil sands producers are watching and waiting to see what their competitors do before taking the technological leap.

"There is this reluctance to be first. It's the race to be second that is common in the oil patch," Mr. Bianchini lamented. "It's bigger in Canada than in most parts of the world."

The story goes beyond Nsolv. Investment in the oil sands is continuing to plummet at a time when companies should be ramping up. Money flowing into the oil patch has fallen more than 60 per cent since 2014, putting innovation and much else on the shelf.

With an oil price of $45 (U.S.) to $55 a barrel, many oil producers are losing money, or just barely scraping by. At $30, most are bleeding cash.

And yet long-term survival in this new environment may hinge on the investments they make now in cleaner and more efficient operations.

There are plenty of good ideas in the oil sands, but the dismal investment climate is getting in the way of commercialization. Shell Canada's Quest carbon capture and storage project is looking at taking carbon dioxide emissions and permanently storing them underground. Like Nsolv, Cenovus and Imperial Oil are also experimenting with solvents to cut water and energy use.

Nsolv officials conceded it may take significant investments by the federal and Alberta government to get their and other promising technologies into full commercial production. The company is hoping those governments will put up as much as a third of the total cost of a commercial-scale operation. Mr. Bianchini said that would be the "catalyst" it needs to get private investors to commit.

"We're close," he said. "We just need a little bit of additional support to overcome that inertia."