As we celebrate International Women’s Day – honouring the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, the power of the personal story is the best means to bring such achievements to life. Here, in a Canadian energy context, we profile Laura McIntyre, chief technology officer at Acceleware. This also continues JWN Energy’s focus on emerging Canadian cleantech leadership firms.
Laura McIntyre has a lot on her plate.
As chief technology officer of Acceleware, she’s currently leading the Marwayne, Alberta-based commercial pilot of what could be a transformative — and sustainable — way to produce heavy oil and oilsands.
That pilot may also produce other benefits: showcasing both the role clean technology plays in the Canadian upstream sector, but also how shifting gender demographics are helping drive change.
When McIntyre stepped into the “oilpatch” as a newly minted engineer in the early 2000s, they were exciting times. Capital spending was strong, ambitious projects were leaping off drawing boards and the future looked promising.
Like other new sector entrants, McIntyre could bank on a future rooted in ambition, imagination and talent — complemented by a passion for learning. But it was also a time during which women were vastly outnumbered across most disciplines — a fact that, while it didn’t bother her, was to stay with her in ways that helped shape a career.
Call it something she took as a “positive challenge.”
That the theme for International Women’s Day in 2021 is #choosetochallenge, it seems appropriate that McIntyre’s career has been about doing just that: positively choosing to challenge industry to take bold risks and create rapid change through diversity and technology implementation.
Her first job was as a sales engineer for a drill bit company, an incredible business to be in as the rig fleet was busy and drilling technology was evolving. It was also a way to learn from the ground up. These early years also helped cement her understanding of the “network effect.”
Prior to moving into drilling and reservoir roles at Suncor and subsequently operations and production at Devon Energy’s Jackfish project — the beginning of her heavy oil journey — the original sales engineering position and subsequent roles helped her in two ways: it etched into sharp relief that the patch is not a monolithic culture; it is more of a complex mosaic of corporate and disciplinary culture and that women had a role to play in shaping its future.
That engineering would be her calling pre-dated her actual university work; as a high school student she was drawn to the sciences. Her father, also a professional engineer, encouraged her to explore engineering options. She found within “the math” much scope for creative thinking.
“Upon graduating and entering the workforce I now realize that engineering is so much more than equations, it is the ability to critically think about challenges. To integrate data into your decisions is essential. I am an emotional person by nature, so have found I make the best decisions when grounded in logic and science.”
Most career paths have pivotal moments — times and circumstances that illuminate the path’s next steps. McIntyre sensed a particular industrial inertia in her thermal community; an inertia that turned on a fear of failure and risk-adverse thinking. To her, it seemed the sector was stagnating. Pushing beyond that was important to see change take root.
It also laid the foundation for increasing responsibility charted along a leadership path.
Her first role in the service side taught McIntyre the art of “making a pitch.”
“Making the pitch … and winning people over, … these are skills that translate well over your career. The best way to learn was to head out to the field. I had countless trips out on the drilling rig and the central processing facilities at both Suncor and Devon. There I was watching, listening and beginning to understand what really drives our industry: the hard work of so many individuals, the incredible pride and dedication.”
Fast forward nearly two decades, and while the “patch” may look similar from the outside looking in, insiders will acknowledge it’s a fundamentally different sector. And within those changes — some subtle, others more obvious — three key threads of change were weaving together in a way that was to dramatically influence McIntyre’s career. Indeed, the job she does today sits neatly at the intersection of heightened environmental consciousness, innovations in clean-tech and the cementing of women in leadership roles.
Now, her leadership at Acceleware (see sidebar) is helping define a technology frontier and pilot project that seems poised to transform thermal heavy oil production in Western Canada and beyond. The move from mega-corporation to smaller — and nimbler — firm helped McIntyre recognize that “innovation” looks and feels different in specific contexts. And it also introduced her to a vibrant innovation ecosystem populated by similarly sized companies.
“I came to Acceleware in 2018; this was my first time at a small company. After years of having days filled with meetings and a process for absolutely everything, it was a mental shift to join this small group of hard working, hands-on individuals with a passion for progressing a transformational technology.”
Her role at Acceleware — with its focus on independence and entrepreneurialism — also gives her scope to embrace another passion: exploring the power of female-led networks. As the corporate sponsorship lead for the DirectHer network, McIntyre sees first-hand how the “network effect” — but one different from the gender-imbalance of the early 2000s — is achieving results.
“This amazing not-for-profit seeks to empower all women across the spectrum of diversity with the knowledge, confidence and community to take their seat at the board. I love being a part of this movement,” she noted. “While learning about board governance, I am also growing my network and supporting other women on their board journeys.”
Added McIntyre: “I strive to build connections with curiosity and empathy. I find as women we often connect on shared experiences of motherhood or being female in a male-dominated sector, but that single connection point and willingness to learn about others has evolved into some of the most interesting work or experiences I have been involved in, such as speaking at technical conferences, attending workshops on building your brand, or being part of a panel encouraging students to become involved in our industry.”
Early on, through ongoing industry engagement and networking, McIntyre saw the rise of sustainability — an aspiration that can be often achieved through “clean tech.” But clean tech as a mindset transcends mere technology.
“In my production engineering role, safety was number one, making oil was number two. ESG always felt like an add-on. Success was often measured by focusing solely on one task, driving daily and monthly production or SOR metrics. Too often in these roles, individuals are not given the time and space to think about how things could be done differently, more sustainably. Keeping capital costs low and production stable was the number one message. I also felt change was impeded by big company process and procedures. There was little incentive to take risk.”
In many ways, just being a woman seeking to define a career and leadership path is also a risk in an industry perceived by many to be a male purview. McIntyre cites a motivating quote from Karyn Twaronite, EY’s Global Vice-chair, Diversity & Inclusiveness: “The world is being disrupted … but the forces of sameness are quite strong.”
“I have memories of going out to the field and being the only female on the rig. Or sitting in a boardroom with 10 male peers and 10 male operators. This never seemed to bother me. I almost saw it as a bit of a challenge. For me it was speaking up, using the power of building relationships and developing trust amongst my team members that drove the best outcomes,” explained McIntyre. “It is easy to work with those that you immediately connect with. But it is those teams that are built from a unique cross-section of skills and experience that I have found are generally the most successful. We need to be aware of the teams we form and challenge ourselves to seek out those that will test us, with different experiences and biases.”
As diversity momentum builds, McIntyre believes it’s critical that ongoing support of STEM pathways will help young women navigate education pathways — as well as creating opportunities for them to have role models.
Said McIntyre: I truly believe in the ‘if you see it, you can be it’ mentality. I also find women supporting women is huge. So often I encourage a friend to go for that role … or take that course. Women are truly crushing it these days … opportunities will come. I feel it.”
Sidebar: Acceleware is an innovator of clean-tech oil and gas technologies.
Acceleware is developing RF XL, its patented and patent-pending low-cost, low-carbon production technology for heavy oil and oilsands that is materially different from any heavy oil recovery technique used today. Acceleware's vision is that electrification of heavy oil and oilsands production can be made possible through RF XL, supporting a transition to much cleaner energy production that can quickly bend the emissions curve downward. Further, Acceleware’s RF XL technology could be a key component of an end-to-end integrated carbon management system that can eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with heavy oil and oilsands production, whether for fossil fuels, or for future clean bitumen by-products such as petrochemicals, carbon fibre, and blue or green hydrogen production. RF XL uses no water, requires no solvent, has a small physical footprint, can be redeployed from site to site, and can be applied to a multitude of reservoir types. In shallow oilsands implementations, no tailings ponds will be required.
Construction of Acceleware’s commercial scale RF XL pilot was started in January 2021. The pilot will validate Acceleware’s all-electric RF XL clean heating technology at Broadview Energy’s Marwayne asset, which is located in the Alberta oilsands designated area. Though the pilot test is greenfield, RF XL can also be adopted into brownfield projects, leveraging existing processing infrastructure to increase throughput volumes without the expansion of capital intensive water treatment and steam generation equipment.
The commercial scale pilot is intended to demonstrate RF XL’s heating capabilities, alongside immediate and sustainable environmental, economic and social benefits. These include ~40% operating and capital cost reductions, no external water use requirements, near-zero GHG emissions through direct or indirect use of renewable power, a significant reduction in surface disturbance and no requirements for the addition of solvents.
Acceleware has also partnered with Saa Dene Group (co-founded by Jim Boucher) to create Acceleware | Kisâstwêw to raise the profile, adoption and value of Acceleware technologies. The shared vision of the partnership is to improve the environmental and economic performance of the energy sector by supporting ideals that are important to Indigenous peoples, including respect for land, water and clean air.