Funded by Canada’s largest oil sands companies, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) operates as a networking and funding hub for academics, oil sands producers and government intent on researching methods to lessen the ecological impacts of oil sands development. Described by one pundit as “crowdsourced problem solving for the oilsands,22 it currently funds 308 active projects, totalling $545 million.23 COSIA, Project Portfolio 2017: Improving Environmental Performance through Open Innovation, https://www.cosia.ca/sites/default/files/attachments/2017-COSIA-Project-Portfolio.pdf.
With members including Syncrude, Suncor, Nexen, Imperial Oil, Devon, ConocoPhillips, Cenovus Energy, Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL), British Petroleum and Teck, COSIA’s membership represents 90 per cent of Canada’s oil sands production. Through their affiliation with COSIA, member companies are able to access government funding and pool resources to reduce their “carbon costs” and sustain social licence with an increasingly climate-conscious public, making it one of our Top legitimators.
COSIA began in 2012 when 13 companies signed the “COSIA charter”—a document claiming that oil sands are a “vital resource for providing energy security for the future of Canadians and the world,” but that their environmental impacts would need to be minimized.1
The political context surrounding COSIA’s inauguration helps explain its strategy: in an environment of increased public awareness of the oil sands’ ecological impacts, COSIA’s founders sought to directly address the needs of oil industry majors to “green” their image. Normally acting as competitors, its corporate members acknowledged the imperative of coordinated action: “As company leaders, we realized that…our destinies were tied together because the oil sands industry has regional, cumulative environmental and social impacts,” noted Gordon Lambert, Suncor’s former Executive Advisor, Sustainability and Innovation, and currently interim CEO of the Alberta Energy Regulator.2
COSIA’s research targets some of the most critical areas of concern, including greenhouse gases, land impacts, water usage and tailings created from oil sands production.3 COSIA also focuses on advancing carbon capture and storage technology, intended to harvest carbon dioxide produced in oil sands extraction and inject it into deep underground wells or repurpose it to create other materials.4 One of its funded research projects suggests that oil sands companies should release treated oil sands process water into the Athabasca River—instead of the current practice of storing the untreated toxic waste water in pit mines.5 COSIA’s Xprize program, co-funded by US-based NRG Energy and led by ConocoPhillips,6 for example, provides two US$10 million prizes for teams of researchers successful in converting the most carbon dioxide emissions into the most value-accruing product, including other fuels and building materials.7
Indeed, COSIA’s close ties to government are exemplified by its public-private collaborations to discover new methods of using, and marketing, carbon. In 2017, the Alberta government announced a memorandum of understanding with the federal Ministry of Natural Resources for the creation of the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC) in Calgary. Each level of government committed $10 million to the new centre.8 The ACCTC will host the research of the winners of innovation Xprizes awarded by NRG/COSIA.9
Given its role as a convenor, COSIA acts as a networking hub, hosting conferences such as the “Oil Sands Innovation Summit,” an annual conference on technological research and development for the oil sands. Support funding comes from major Canadian corporations such as TD Bank, 10 which in 2018 donated over $20,000.11 In 2018 the Summit’s featured speakers included faculty from the University of Calgary, University of Alberta and University of Toronto; scientists from Natural Resources Canada; and industry representatives from the likes of ExxonMobil, Syncrude and CNRL.12
COSIA’s “associate memberships” enable public and private stakeholders who are not oil sands producers to “work closely” with COSIA’s corporate members.13Associate members include Stantec, SNC Lavalin, Natural Resources Canada, Saskatchewan Research Council, National Research Council Canada, Mitacs and the Canada–Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation.14 Academic associate memberships also extend to major research universities, including Calgary, Alberta, Toronto, Waterloo and Saskatchewan, as well as both the Northern and Southern Alberta Institutes of Technology. 15
COSIA enjoys a unique reach into government and academia, providing it with access to substantial pools of public funding.
Through a complex network of legal and institutional arrangements, COSIA and its member companies receive grants paid for by Alberta’s carbon taxes, providing major oil sands companies with reimbursement for their carbon costs. Under the Alberta government’s “Specific Gas Emitters Regulation” (SGER), large-emitting companies were required to pay a fee per tonne (the “carbon levy”) into the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund if they failed to meet a given benchmark for emissions-intensity reduction.16 The proceeds from that fund were funnelled into the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC)—a funding body which has directly bankrolled a number of COSIA projects. Between 2009 and 2017, 20 of the largest carbon emitters regulated under the SGER were awarded a total of $168.8 million for 28 projects—amounting to 39 per cent of all CCEMC disbursements during that time.17 “The CCEMC cares about COSIA’s mandate, and we fund projects led by their member companies that will help Alberta implement its climate change strategy,” said Kirk Andries, managing director for CCEMC at the time.18 Dan Wicklum, COSIA’s chief executive, held a seat on the board of CCEMC during the period when the funding occurred.19
In 2016, CCEMC was rebranded to Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA)20
and has since attempted to distance itself from explicit ties to COSIA, suggesting that it now maintains an “informal” relationship with the organization.21
At the advent of ERA’s rebranding, Wicklum was no longer on the board.
Learn more about Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) at LittleSis.org
The intent of the Corporate Mapping Project database is to engage Canadians in a conversation about the role of the fossil fuel sector in our democracy, by “mapping” how power and influence play out in the oil, gas and coal industries of BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
COSIA’s website indicates that “Summit”-level sponsors are required to donate $20,000 to COSIA: COSIA, “Sponsorship Opportunities,” accessed April 12th, 2019, https://www.cosia.ca/events/2018-innovation-summit/sponsorship.
Climate Change Emissions Management Corporation, 2016-2019 Business Plan, August 2016, https://www.eralberta.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/CCEMC-Business-Plan-2016.pdf. The SGER was replaced in 2018 with the Carbon Competitiveness Incentive Regulation, which bases reduction requirements on “best in class” performance. Designed in consultation with the large emitters, the new system retains the SGER’s four options for compliance—including payments into the CCEM Fund. For a description of the new regulation, see Government of Alberta, “Output-Based Allocation System Engagement,” accessed February 20th, 2019, https://www.alberta.ca/output-based-allocation-engagement.aspx.
Emissions Reduction Alberta, “Collaboration”, 2018, Accessed via the Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/20180904040310/http://eralberta.ca/about-era/collaboration/