Oilsands companies hope to innovate cleaner, more profitable future

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Reducing costs and mitigating environmental impact are the “double bottomline” issues that a new Canadian clean technology partnership will tackle in coming years. Two of the country’s major energy companies, Cenovus and Suncor, both based in Calgary, announced that they would put up $100 million over ten years to solve economic and environmental challenges facing the oilsands industry.

Along with BC Cleantech, the two oil companies have formed Evok Innovations of Vancouver with the aim of funding innovative technologies that will allow the transitioning to a cleaner energy future. The new CEO of Evok, Marty Reed, said that the organization will identify and fund promising cleantech innovations and accelerate the commercialization of those technologies. Lowering carbon emissions, minimizing spill risks and improving wastewater disposal sustainability are some of the big issues it will deal with.

According to Reed, Evok already has several hundred companies it can tap for ideas to solve the challenges facing the oilsands. Reducing the size of tailings ponds is one of these. Reducing diluent used to liquefy heavy oilsands bitumen for transport through pipelines is another.

Reducing production costs will likely be the greater challenge. At current market prices for oil, below $30 a barrel today, the cost of producing oil from oilsands or other non-conventional sources such as fracking is unprofitable. Always an expensive proposition, oilsands production could only be profitable when world oil prices soared. But low oil prices are forecast to be with us for the foreseeable future. Even the Saudis are suffering. Cenovus and Suncor are counting on the Evok team being able to find innovative companies that, while not necessarily qualified to attract traditional venture capitalists, can nevertheless come up with smart new technologies that will help the oil companies reduce expenses.

On the same day as the Evok initiative was announced, Prime Minister Trudeau said at the opening of a major new Google facility in Waterloo, Ontario, that Canada’s econonic recovery and growth depended on lessening its reliance on oil and commodities and focusing more on the high-tech sector.

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