Why CRIN is the most important new acronym in Canadian oil and gas

Ours is an industry that loves its acronyms.

In fact, it’s only partially a joke when the rule of thumb is that if you don’t hear a new acronym by 10 a.m., you make one up and get it into circulation before lunch.

But there’s an important new acronym in town to which everyone should pay attention: CRIN.

That’s the Clean Resource Innovation Network.

It’s an acronym entity without an executive director, president or staff. It has no physical address or even letterhead. No one strolls Calgary’s Plus-15 passages with a CRIN business card. You won't find a CRIN website with a Google search.

But it’s a network in the truest sense of that word. And the challenge(s) it has set itself are significant and ambitious in every sense of those words. Executed properly, its objectives will positively reshape the way Canadians think about energy and help the oil and gas sector overcome some of the socio-political barriers that have so far frustrated its attempts to build credibility with an increasingly disengaged (and disillusioned) population.

CRIN’s mandate is to do what no one has successfully done to date: create a “synthesis process” by which the diverse and often disparate nodes in the clean-resource innovation space can align with, and communicate to, each other in a synchronized and systemic kind of way.

Think of it via another metaphor: CRIN is attempting to be the maestro by which the various components of a philharmonic orchestra perform in a pleasing harmony; each performer and section no more or no less important than the next in terms of contributing to a best-in-class performance.

The ability to make sweet music comes via individual talent collaborating to contribute to something bigger than itself.

What CRIN can do is to put definition and tangibility to the term “clean resources.” Indeed, the very notion of something being clean in terms of resource development all too often conjures up the converse: if this is clean, de facto, something else must be “dirty” at worst, or “unclean” at best.

But the reality of being clean in an energy context is to be somewhere on a continuum via which “resource cleanliness” is iteratively evolved by innovation and investment processes.

Our industry is replete with examples of this at work. We just haven’t been very good at all defining energy cleanliness as a state of being that evolves toward an end point that should be constantly (and deliberately) moving tantalizingly out of our reach.

Being clean in energy can’t be static; being clean means to be constantly in measurable motion against ever-cleaner goals.

Operating companies and their service providers can point to myriad examples of this innovation tradition in action in terms of operational enhancements dating back, in some cases, decades.

In our unconventional resources sector, we’re now drilling farther and faster horizontally and directionally than ever before with accuracy that would do a stealth bomber proud. We measure metres drilled by the thousands now as a matter of course. Our completions technologies lead the world in terms of understanding at a level of acuity what’s happening downhole in terms of pressure activity.

In the oilsands, it’s challenging just to keep track of the innovation pace; from advances in hydro-transportation of bitumen in mining to incredible achievements in thermal recovery that include well pads with longer wells and dramatic reductions in costly equipment, enhanced solvent-based recovery and electromagnetic reservoir heating.

Autonomous heavy haulers crawl across a Suncor oilsands mine in the final stages of testing while paraffinic froth treatment spreads across the truck and shovel industry, reducing emissions and producing partially upgraded product right on site.

The achievements can be tabulated in the hundreds. All add up to a global leadership position in ever-cleaner hydrocarbon production that positively impacts air, water and land dynamics.

So why don’t the public, politicians and activists know—and why aren’t they pointing with pride to oil and gas as an innovation system that fuels our economy and way of life? Why are university and college students not actively considering energy careers? Why are investors often perceived to be skittish about fossil fuel opportunities?

Quite simply, it is because we haven’t told the story well.

CRIN is the chance to change that—to achieve and communicate with an ethos around clean energy that Canadians should find quite compelling in terms of key touchstones such as economic diversification, community building and environmental sustainability.

As well, CRIN can do much to improve and enhance what is a major concern in energy: a view that our sector is increasingly less attractive to investors. CRIN can be an effective and credible counterbalance to the whispered and too-often ill-informed anti-oil narratives of dirty energy.

CRIN is “structured” insofar that it has a steering committee and various sub-advisory committees to coordinate and develop its activities But here’s the nuance: the talent on those groups is drawn from within the network itself; the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada, Energy Futures Lab and Innovate Calgary to name a few nodes.

There are also leading companies (Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus and Suncor, to name a few) and affiliated agencies with hands on the steering and subcommittee tillers.

CRIN’s network membership ambitions include governments (and agencies), post-secondary institutions, corporations, investors and economic development authorities. As well, and of particular importance, it has reached out to embrace the innovation communities (such as the Rainforest) which typically stand at a distance from legacy corporations and organizations.

This linkage is particularly critical in that it defines real-world connections to subject matter experts and technology companies looking to gain traction within Canada’s energy transition.

Here’s another key: CRIN seeks deliberately not to duplicate existing innovation efforts. Rather, its goal is through more powerful collaboration, to “juice” current initiatives to achieve synergistic results. In that sense, it’s a true catalyst toward “hyper-innovation.”

That is, innovation at a pace only made possible through leveraging existing and accretive capacity.

The pairing of “clean” and “resource” in CRIN’s moniker is a subtle but critical nuance. Cleantech is a warm and fuzzy notion that feels good to talk about. But technology is not inherently clean in and of itself; it’s the creative application of technology to a particular energy problem (accompanied by measurable results) that creates an existential state of cleanliness. And we know enough that today’s energy cleanliness is not tomorrow’s cleanliness. Nor should it be; that’s what continuous improvement is all about.

CRIN’s first major outward thrust is its effort to tap into the federal government’s innovation supercluster funding coffers via a next-generation program announced in the March budget. Its “letter of intent” will be submitted this week, along with similar applications from other sectors. By fall, it will know if it’s successful.

If Ottawa is serious about clean energy of all types underpinning Canada's economy and energy future, the bureaucrats and politicians pulling the decision levers would do well to learn about our sector’s latest acronym and how it can create both cleaner resources—and cleaner conversation.

Bill Whitelaw is Managing Director, Strategy & Business Development at geoLOGIC Systems Ltd. & JWN Energy. Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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