At the nexus of high tech and natural resources

To mark the British Columbia Tech Summit, Resource Works looked at how foundational industries are at the leading edge of innovation. You'll be amazed at what we discovered.

BC Tech Week 2017 provided the opportunity to observe the nexus between tech, academia, and the resource industry in BC, in all its variations. Partnerships created serve not just to advance BC’s reputation as a leader in high-tech innovation, but they create jobs, drive economic growth, and further the environmental sustainability of natural resource projects in BC, Canada, and beyond.

Many of the benefits are challenging to quantify, especially when they represent frequent collaboration and the exchange of knowledge and services across industries. Economic statistics collected by public agencies tend to be broad and under-representative of work done by individuals and companies between classified industries. Fortunately, there is ample evidence that companies and organizations based in BC are actively leading the charge in creating high-tech solutions for industry.

Employment value by the numbers

Let’s take a quick look at existing economic statistics, using mining in BC as an example.

In Northwestern BC, the land is rich in gold, copper, and molybdenum deposits. Many coal mines can be found in the Interior of BC. But what is sold at market from the Northwest, or the Interior, or anywhere else where mines operate in our province, represents so much more than the value of raw materials – it plays right into people and their communities. The jobs created pay well, they usually provide competitive benefits, and they result in more spending in the economy.

In 2015, the average hourly wage for a person employed in forestry, logging, and support in BC was $30.38, compared to $27.29 across Canada in the same industry. In mining, the BC average hourly wage went up to $38.28. Compare that with an average of $23.63/hr in jobs across BC. A full-time job in the mining industry at that average hourly wage could mean $70,000 a year.[i] A 2013 Business in Vancouver report placed base wages for a person employed in mining at 2.3 to 4 times higher than the average for the rest of province. Benefits and bonus plans add up too – all mines in BC, according to BIV’s survey, offered comprehensive benefit packages for employees.

According to the Canadian Survey of Employment, 36,000 British Columbians were directly employed in 2015 in forestry, mining, oil and gas, and their support activities. When including manufacturing of petroleum/coal, primary metal, and wood products, as well as petroleum and petroleum product distributors and retail gas stations, that number rises to just under 80,000 jobs, 4% of all jobs in BC.[ii]

Partnerships between industry, tech, and academia in BC

The benefit to workers from mining isn’t restricted to those directly employed by mines.

In 2011, during the 2011 Canadian Census of Population, 3,285 individuals whose occupations were in natural and applied sciences were employed by the mining and oil and gas industries in BC, as well as about 300 in the legal field. Of the 147,000 across the BC in a natural and applied science occupation, 5 per cent were deemed to be employed by a company in the natural resource industry.[iii]

None of these figures, though substantial, fully represents the industries and jobs implicated in the evolution of BC’s resource industries.

For those in academic disciplines such as engineering, physics, geology, economics, forestry, and business, to name a few, the non-profit Mitacs is renown as a funder for partnerships between researchers and industry. As well as numerous highly technical projects with applications to mining, oil and gas, and forestry, Mitacs has provided grants to graduate students from schools like UBC, UBCO, UNBC, and SFU to study the socio-economic benefits of resource industries, partnering with the Association for Mineral Exploration BC in one such case.

A 2015 Mitacs-funded project tasked a UBC graduate student to assess “Education, Community Engagement and Unconventional Oil and Gas Development” in the north east of BC, focusing on skills training for LNG. Dr. Dawn Mills, a UBC professor with a PhD from the Faculty of Law with expertise in engaging indigenous communities with respect to mineral development, oversaw the project.

At SFU, Mitacs funded work for a post-doctoral researcher to review Teck’s sustainability practices, aimed at reinforcing “cultures of sustainability” both at Teck and across the industry. In the fisheries and forestry field, a UBC team was funded to assess the impacts of fisheries and hydroelectric infrastructure on sockeye salmon migration.

Resource development: job creation and innovation go hand in hand

An immense amount of enhanced human capital is required for a resource project of any size, at every stage of the lifecycle.

To continue the mining example: a typical mine project development process begins with exploration. The land is surveyed and geologists are employed to assess whether a mineral property is likely to yield enough precious minerals to make development profitable. The hiring doesn’t end with there though – British Columbians with specialized professional and technical training are vital to the success of exploration efforts across all the stages of mineral exploration and development, including advanced exploratory drilling.

BC’s stringent regulatory framework mandates that mining projects, like all resource development projects, undergo environmental impact assessments and create actionable plans to mitigate environmental damage. Qualified environmental scientists are tasked with reviewing all aspects of a project’s impacts on the local environment. In BC, the Environmental Assessment Office, under the Ministry of Environment, is largely responsible.

In the energy sector, comparable projects aren’t just assessed for their local impacts by provincial and territorial regulatory bodies – large enough projects can go to the National Energy Board. The federal environmental regulator, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is now actively studying upstream emissions for proposed projects – as in the case of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion project. This creates the need for educated economists, climate scientists, and researchers in other related fields.

On occasion, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency steps in for mining projects too.

Once approved, a mining project enters the priciest part of the cycle, development. Skilled workers are employed to prepare the mine for operations and construct facilities.

A mine can operate for decades – depending on the availability of minerals and the rate of extraction. Throughout that time, the industry continuously innovates new and improved ways of mining and processing. Even towards the end, as a project shifts to reclamation activities, innovation plays a central role. And it’s not difficult – the support for initiatives to increase sustainability and efficiency across the resource industry is plenty, coming from governments, non-profits, and private investors.

Investing in innovation

The BC-based Clean Mining Alliance was launched in 2012 to promote the adaptation and development of clean technologies in mining, such as “membrane-based water filtration, hydrometallurgical processes, biologic remediation, carbon capture, near-zero emissions processes, closed-loop systems and other innovation.” Though the Clean Mining Alliance has been recently been inactive, the companies and innovators it represents are anything but. One of the founding partners, Kemetco Research, is headquartered in Richmond and provides specialized chemistry and metallurgy services for the mining, forestry, and oil and gas sectors in BC and abroad.

With a little digging, it’s easy to find dozens, if not hundreds, of examples just from BC of high-tech private companies innovating for industry.

Axine Water Technologies is offering a water treatment and purification product that can treat “high concentrations of complex, toxic organics and ammonia in industrial wastewater”, with ground-breaking possible applications in water treatment for mining and oil and gas around the world. In 2015, Axine made the list as one of 100 top global companies in cleantech.

Over the past couple of years in BC, government, the private sector, and collaborations between the two have created venture capital funds and accelerators to drive innovation in clean technology and the energy sector.

Foresight Cleantech Accelerator was BC’s first clean tech accelerator, started in 2013 – it has been spearheading ARCTIC (Advanced Resource Clean Technology Innovation Centre), which is aimed at generating and bringing to market solutions for industry by holding competitions, “sprints”, directed at solving specific issues.

Most recently, ARCTIC partnered with COSIA, the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. During steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), a method of producing heavy oil and bitumen, natural gas is used to generate steam. ARCTIC’s first competition was launched to find a way to capture and re-use the waste heat that is generated using this process, either as heat or as electricity.

Two international finalists have been identified, and a winner will be announced sometime this year.

Another competition is currently ongoing at ARCTIC to identify more cost-effective methods of collecting data on forestry inventory for the BC forestry industry.

On the government funding side, the federal government offers a “Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive Program” for qualifying Canadian businesses and corporations. BC offers a similar one for research and development.

What is cleantech anyways?

BC is home to rapidly growing base for energy and sustainability solutions targeted domestically and globally. The BC Cleantech CEO Alliance, just released their 2016 status report on companies in “clean energy production, transmission, storage, or use; water treatment and management; and/or efficiency in energy or resource management and use.” The Alliance estimates that in 2016, BC cleantech companies employed 13,900 people, including 8,560 right here in BC. Fourteen percent of primary customers for surveyed companies were from oil and gas, mining, LNG, and forestry. These industries represented 25 per cent of secondary customers.

On the equity front, 63 per cent was raised in BC. And it’s no surprise. There’s renewed interest in clean technology.

Just last year, a $100 million fund was announced to drive innovation in the energy industry  – Evok Innovations, the result of a partnership between the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance, and Canadian energy companies Cenovus and Suncor.

“Evok’s vision is to bolster the competitive advantage and environmental performance of the Canadian oil and gas industry through the accelerated adoption of innovative, low impact products and services, resulting in lower carbon emissions, more sustainable water consumption and waste water disposal, and working towards minimizing the risk of future marine and land spills and disturbances.”

The Western Diversification Project funded by the federal government makes strategic investments in non-profit initiatives concerned with clean technology.

[i] Table 281-0030 4, 15, 16, 18 Survey of Employment, Payrolls and Hours (SEPH), average hourly earnings for employees paid by the hour, by overtime status and detailed North American Industry Classification System (NAICS)

[ii] Table 281-0023 Survey of Employment, Payrolls and Hours (SEPH), employment by type of employee and detailed North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), unadjusted for seasonality, annual (persons)(4,15,16,18)

[iii] Occupation - National Occupational Classification (NOC) 2011 (691), Industry - North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) 2007 (122), Age Groups (5) and Sex (3) for the Employed Labour Force Aged 15 Years and Over, in Private Households of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2011 National Household Survey


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