Upstream research

We’ve been an energy innovator for generations of Canadians. Looking forward, we plan to build on this legacy by continuing to invest in industry-leading research and development.

In this article

Upstream research

Our commitment

Our charge is two-fold: to dependably deliver energy that supports human progress, and to do so in a way that positively supports the communities and environments in which we operate. We believe that smart innovation and new technology will help us meet this dual challenge.

Taking an innovative approach is part of who we are. More than 100 years ago, we established Canada’s first oil and gas research department. Today, we’re one of the country’s only energy producers with dedicated research laboratories, and a leading research spender across all industries. Through these efforts, we aim to continually identify new ways to recover oil that are safer and more efficient, while contributing to local economies and minimizing impact on local environments.

In the past 20 years, we’ve spent more than $2.1 billion in research and technology development (R&D) – one of Canada’s largest R&D investments in any industry. That’s in addition to ExxonMobil’s global R&D spending of $1 billion per year, which grants us access to industry-leading insights and experts at all times.

In addition to our in-house research, we partner with academic institutions, industry peers and third-party companies to accelerate the pace of environmental performance improvement in Canada:

  • Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA): an alliance of oil sands producers focused on accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands through collaborative action and innovation. Learn more about COSIA.
  • Institute for Oil Sands Innovation: we are the founding sponsor of IOSI at the University of Alberta. Through the institute, university experts are conducting groundbreaking research to address a variety of environmental challenges associated with oil sands development, including climate change. To date, we have contributed $24M in funding to this institute.

Learn more about our research in the following areas:

Oil sands research: air

How we are tackling oil sands emissions head on.


We are currently conducting field tests on cutting-edge steam-reduction technologies that could reduce GHG emissions at our Cold Lake operation by about 90%.
Cheryl Trudell, PhD

Vice President, Research

Oil sands research: land

We carefully consider land use, biodiversity and ecosystems in project planning, operations and reclamation.


Starting at the start

Reclamation of the land at the Kearl oil sands mine is a continuous process. From the outset right through closure and beyond, we will continuously refine our plans and manage the land for its ultimate return to traditional use.

Our Aboriginal Reclamation Planning group has taught me successful reclamation is not just about the plants, but also about how animals can be attracted and encouraged to remain on the reclaimed land.
Lori Neufeld, P. Biol.

Imperial land use and biodiversity lead

Goals at the Kearl oil sands mine

We’ve set out to leave behind self-sustaining boreal forest that support wildlife and traditional uses by Indigenous people.

Using local native seeds, selected through our work with Indigenous communities, we will restore an ecosystem that supports varied medicinal plants plus traditional uses such as trapping, fishing and hunting.


Did you know?

The lands over the oil sands are the vast Boreal Forest Natural Region of Alberta. This visually stunning area is known for short summers, long winters and is made up of deciduous, mixed-wood and coniferous forests amid extensive bogs and fens.

Oil sands research: water

We continually aim to minimize our use of water and protect this resource.


How we use water

  • To recover the oil: We inject steam into underground reservoirs to heat the thick, heavy oil, so it is able to flow to a producing well.
  • Mining: We use water to separate heavy oil from sand and clay.
  • Tailing ponds: We form ponds to hold the water, clay, sand and residual oil we use in the separation process. Over time, these solids settle and allow us to reclaim the ponds and reuse the water. This, in turn, helps us reduce reliance on freshwater sources, such as rivers and lakes.
Since the 1970s, we’ve reduced the amount of fresh water we use at our Cold Lake operation by 90%. Today, we’re working on technologies that could make even more positive impact, by completely replacing steam with a recovery solution in the process.
Cheryl Trudell, PhD

Vice President, Research

Real gains

  • 80 to 95% of water recovered from our oil sands production is treated, recycled and re-used as steam, significantly reducing freshwater use.
  • 90% less freshwater is needed for each barrel produced at Cold Lake since the 1970s.
  • Fish habitats. We build viable lakes to compensate for any disruption of fish habitats during oil sands development.

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