​CRIN: How a ‘network of networks’ is helping support asset retirement

In recent years, environmental management of legacy oil and gas assets has become a major focus for industry and government stakeholders. Alberta has an extensive inventory of wellsites and facilities at or nearing the end of their productive lives, meaning efficiently removing that infrastructure and reclaiming the land is important.

Fortunately, through collaboration and streamlining innovation, companies can perform highly-technical reclamation and remediation work that involves numerous specialists and contractors.

The Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN) is a network of networks. Established in 2017, CRIN’s members include energy producers and service providers, innovators, government entities, nonprofits and academic institutions focused on seven technology theme areas. The ‘Novel Land and Wellsite Reclamation’ technology theme area focuses on identifying and promoting technology and process development that supports asset retirement.

In terms of reclamation, CRIN goals include streamlining innovation by identifying challenges, seeking and supporting solution providers, as well as raising awareness when tools and best practices become available.

“Identifying key challenges is one of the first steps in being able to develop solutions,” says Simone Levy, ‘Land’ theme lead for CRIN and a researcher with InnoTech Alberta.

Area-based closure: a team effort

A key reclamation challenge for industry and government stakeholders is figuring out how best to reduce the backlog of inactive sites, whose licensees include both large and small producers.

As part of its collaborative effort, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Explorers and Producers Association of Canada (EPAC) and Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC) developed an area-based closure program to collaborate, innovate and streamline field operations in defined geographical areas to maximize closure work.

Based on its first year, this voluntary program has resulted in significant cost savings for industry, and there have been inventory and liability reductions.

James Agate, manager of reclamation at Canadian Natural Resources Limited (a CRIN member), is instrumental in Alberta’s area-based closure program. Currently, Canadian Natural has 10-plus active area-based closure projects using the AER’s mapping portal, as well as similar projects in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

“There are huge synergies that come by working together,” he says, adding operators can centralize and share such things as camp facilities, fuel services, medical support and specialized equipment, as well as lessons learned in dealing with sites often built within similar timeframes.

“From an actual field-level execution perspective, the need for communication amongst those stakeholders is really high, particularly between the well-abandonment, pipeline and reclamation teams.”

When “things are hopping,” notes Agate, planning meetings occur almost daily. This helps ensure stakeholders can collaborate without “tripping over one another” in the process.

While aligning activities between stakeholders takes time and requires effective communication between and within organizations, he says, there is still a lot more to gain from collaborating to enhance efficiency of asset retirement, based on results so far.

“Every dollar saved is re-invested in conducting this work, and essentially we’re all in this together — all stakeholders win when we become more efficient.”

Technology transfer

As a consulting service provider working on area-based closure programs and other upstream oil and gas activities, North Shore Environmental has witnessed the benefits of both collaboration and effective technology use.

Jeremy Paul, vice-president of innovation at North Shore Environmental, highlights advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as GPS technology, imagery and unmanned aerial vehicles deployed for agricultural and/or forestry purposes.

“In response to the current economic climate we’ve been able to lower costs by being more efficient and changing processes, but I feel there’s so much more we could do. In this industry, we’ve started adapting tools from other industries, and with more support we could really change the way this work is done.

“At the same time, Albertans could become leaders in asset retirement with potential to share technologies and processes with other [industries and sectors]. That’s what I hope happens with CRIN.”

Also instrumental in supporting scientific innovation for various aspects of asset retirement are Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC) and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), both CRIN members.

Through COSIA, Imperial’s researchers Dr. Asfaw Bekele and Dr. Michelle Young have shown firsthand that scientific innovation can overcome site reclamation challenges. The Imperial team led bench-scale, greenhouse-based and field-based research to develop a method to transform subsoil into topsoil in just five years.

“Sometimes sites that were constructed long ago have deficiencies that can make reclamation challenging,” Young says. “We needed a proven and cost-effective method of generating topsoil to meet requirements and [we] found that using products made from waste (biochar) were not only effective, but provided a sustainable approach as well.”

Following discussions and AER pre-approval, one site using this engineered topsoil successfully received a reclamation certificate, and this tool is now available for those that need it.

Through CRIN, stakeholders have an opportunity to address the asset retirement challenge by harnessing the power of collaboration and innovation in process and technology. Not only does this positively impact ongoing efforts, but it also integrates technologies, supports entrepreneurship and commercialization, and demonstrates leadership in the way industry does business in Alberta and across Canada.

According to Levy, CRIN helps to drive change, doing so with input from those working “on the ground.” Researchers and technology developers need insight and the ability to form collaborative teams to streamline innovation, she says, and the network needs people with bold ideas.

Some of these people and their fit-for-purpose technologies will be showcased in a dedicated session at this fall’s annual Remediation Technologies Symposium. Also, CRIN will be hosting a workshop in November to focus on high-priority initiatives, aiming to develop a ‘roadmap’ for fostering innovation in this space.

“Essentially, we’re trying to harness learnings from the past, take stock of current initiatives, and together, figure out what the future looks like in this space for the greatest possible impact.”

CRIN: joining the network

In its March 2019 budget, the federal government committed $100 million to CRIN over four years, conditional on its leveraging co-investments to develop collaborative cleantech and emission-lowering solutions that are national in scope.

For now, CRIN’s research concentrations include: cleaner fuels; digital oil and gas technology; low emissions value-added products; methane monitoring, quantification and abatement; innovative hydrocarbon extraction; novel land and wellsite reclamation; as well as water technology development.

CRIN’s 2019 goal is to “operationalize the network.” In May, the network gathered entrepreneurs focused on oil and gas cleantech to explain their technologies and to articulate their needs to policymakers in Ottawa. CRIN also hosted a number of webinars and events through the spring.

More programs are lined up in the upcoming months with more to be announced this autumn. Alberta Innovates and NRCan also support CRIN, pushing shared challenges out through their networks.

Joining CRIN is easy and free on the network’s website (cleanresourceinnovation.com). Anyone with a possible solution (i.e. provincial or federal research institutions, start-ups and large R&D companies, et cetera) simply signs a social contract reflecting a shared belief of continuously growing a culture of innovation and enabling Canada to be a clean-energy leader.

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