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Research begins to turn bitumen into ‘radically different products’

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A sharp drop in the price of Western Canadian oil has many in the industry looking for solutions.

New export pipelines and more space on the railways would help alleviate the backlog of oil in Alberta, but some researchers are focusing on a long term fix to achieve better prices, as well as create jobs and lower the impact of oilsands production on the environment.

Next month, Alberta Innovates will award $2 million in funding to several research projects that focus on turning bitumen into products other than gas, diesel and other fuels.

Originally, those product ideas included fertilizer and adhesives, but the list has been narrowed down to four areas with the most potential for big impact. The products are asphalt, vanadium batteries, plastics and carbon fibre. Some of that research is already underway in the province.

The products are several years away from commercial readiness, but researchers say the low price of Alberta oil, has added urgency to the quest to find new uses for bitumen.

Suncor’s Fort Hills mine north of Fort McMurray is seen in this file photo. Carbon fibre made from bitumen could be used by the aerospace industry and to make high-end sports equipment. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Limited export pipeline space and a series of refinery maintenance shutdowns have created a backlog of oil in Western Canada and sent prices spiralling downward. Prices have fallen below $25 US per barrel of heavy oil in Alberta, while  south of the border oil is selling for around $70. 

“Right now 90 per cent of the bitumen produced in Alberta ultimately goes to combustion products like diesel, gasoline and other fuels. Only 10 per cent goes to solid, so we’re trying to look at changing that product mix. To do that, we need to consider some radically different products,” said Bryan Helfenbaum, with Alberta Innovates.

Helfenbaum said he’s most excited about the potential of carbon fibre — a light weight material that’s stronger than steel. It’s used by the aerospace industry and in high-performance sports equipment. There’s already global demand for carbon fibre, and if researchers can create a low-cost feedstock from bitumen, demand could grow rapidly, he said.

One of the criticisms of oilsands development is about the high carbon intensity of the oil it produces. Some companies have even decided not to use the lowest quality bitumen, considered the bottom of the barrel, since it requires more energy to process. 

But for researchers looking to use bitumen for products other than fuels, the high carbon content is a positive, not a negative. 

“We need to re-think a little bit how we think about carbon,” said Helfenbaum. “Carbon is a bit of a bad word in its gaseous form, but in solid form, carbon is building materials that we use everyday.”

Alberta Innovates will award $2 million in funding to several different research projects which focus on turning bitumen into products other than gas, diesel and other fuels. 2:33

The projects that will receive funding must have the potential to scale up to process at least 100,000 barrels of bitumen a day, so they can achieve significant job creation and help diversify the economy. Helfenbaum said there should also be a reduction in greenhouse gases since around 80 per cent of emissions associated with oil come from its combustion.

Alberta already has thousands of engineers within industry and post-secondary institutions who have worked with bitumen for decades, Helfenbaum said. These projects all require several years of research and development, but industry is on board.

“They get it, they see it. The challenge is it’s very long term. Companies try really hard to look long term, but unfortunately they are measured quarter to quarter and they struggle to devote significant resources to look at some of these concepts,” he said.

At current heavy oil prices, some companies are struggling to break even. The oil industry is losing more than $100 million a day in potential revenue, according to one estimate.

“We’re not getting anywhere near what we need to make this business sustainable,” said Gerald Bruce, a Calgary-based chemical engineer with more than 35 years of experience in refining and bitumen processing.

“It’s just a reality check on what kind of business are we in?” he said. “What does the industry have to do to re-invent itself to move forward?” 

Alberta Innovates will award $2 million in funding to several different research projects which focus on turning bitumen into products other than gas, diesel and other fuels. 1:55

That’s why Bruce says the industry must look at non-combustion options for bitumen as the industry of the future. In addition, these new product ideas could ensure all of the bitumen pulled from the ground will be used.

“I certainly have a strong belief that the resource is there to be utilized,” said Bruce, who is also president of GWB Process Consulting. “Ultimately, you’re not really efficiently using the resource if you don’t use it all.” 

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Real Estate

Couple from Toronto buys dream home in Mushaboom

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MUSHABOOM – A couple who lived and raised a family in downtown Toronto developed a five-year plan in 2015 to purchase their dream home.

In September they moved into the home – located on Malagash Island in Mushaboom on Nova Scotia’s stunning Eastern Shore – that met and exceeded their best dreams for their retirement.

The Camerons, Bruce and Tanya, decided in 2019 they would explore the Maritimes to see what real estate was available to become their potential retirement home. In the spring of 2020, during a global pandemic, the real estate boom hit their city, and they were hearing the same for Nova Scotia. Our province was their first-choice for attaining their desire for an entirely different lifestyle – away from the busyness of the city.

“We had $300,000 to $350,000 as a home value in mind to buy. Our semi-detached located off Danforth in Toronto was priced at $850,000. We wanted to come out ahead, so we would be secure in retirement,” Tanya said.

Their century-old home had prime location near the subway and GO Transit Line for a great 13-minute commute downtown.

“We enjoyed our community,” explains Bruce “… we had great neighbours, young children around and street parties – lots of social activity.”

Bruce says, “Our agent suggested a starting quote of $899,000. We did not do any renovations and only some staging. Fifty couples went through and we received four significant offers. Six days later we sold – with zero conditions – and a price of over a million dollars. We just requested a closing of September 2020 to get the kids off to school – which we got.”

The couple got more than they had anticipated.

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Real Estate

Rabobank Announces Leadership Changes in U.S., Canadian Offices

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NEW YORK, Dec. 16, 2020 /PRNewswire/ — Rabobank, the leading global food and agribusiness bank, has appointed two of its top executives, Tamira Treffers-Herrera and Robert Sinescu, to become Co-Heads of North American Client Coverage, positioning the Bank for future growth in the region.

Treffers-Herrera has also assumed the role of Vice Chairperson and Head of the Atlanta office, where she additionally oversees Rabobank Mexico, which is led by Eduardo Palacios. Sinescu is the Head of the Chicago office, and also oversees Rabobank Canada, led by Marc Drouin, who was recently appointed as Canada’s General Manager.

Treffers-Herrera and Sinescu report to David Bassett, Head of Wholesale Banking North America, the Bank’s corporate and investment banking business for the region based in New York.

“Both Tamira and Robert have a demonstrated history of strong leadership, operational excellence and passion for our clients,” Bassett said. “Their broad experience and deep sector expertise will be invaluable in delivering dynamic results for clients while accelerating our growth trajectory in North America.”

Each office will have an even greater focus on key Food & Agribusiness sectors and clients: The Chicago office will drive growth in sectors including Dairy, Farm Inputs and Grains & Oilseeds, which are also key areas of focus for the Canada office. The Atlanta office will focus heavily on sectors such as Animal Protein, Beverages, Sugar, and Supply Chains, which are important sectors in Mexico as well.

“Rabobank is fully committed to our clients throughout North America, and we believe our new sector-focused coverage will improve our ability to provide knowledge-based, value-added solutions that benefit our clients,” Bassett said.

Treffers-Herrera was most recently based in London as CEO of Rabobank’s European Region from 2016-2020, where she took the organization through Brexit. Prior to that, she worked in the Atlanta office from 2002-2016. During her tenure in Atlanta, Treffers-Herrera served as Global Sector Head – Consumer Food & Beverages, and prior to that she was a senior banker for a portfolio of large beverage and consumer foods clients. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Kentucky, a Master of Arts from the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce and has studied at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Harvard Business School.

Sinescu has been with Rabobank for over 21 years and was previously General Manager of Rabobank Canada, where he oversaw all operations, business development, commercial strategy and relationships with regulators. In addition, he continues to serve as CEO of Rabo Securities Canada Inc. Prior to Canada, he was a senior banker, Head of Corporate Banking, European Sector Head for Sugar, and a member of the Management Team for Rabobank France. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Business from the Bucharest School of Business, a Master of Business Administration & Management and a Master of Science in Banking and Corporate Finance from Sorbonne University in Paris, and has studied at Brown University.

Drouin has worked with Rabobank’s Canadian team for more than nine years and most recently served as a senior banker, Head of Rabobank Canada’s AgVendor Program and a member of Rabobank Canada’s Management Team. He brings extensive wholesale banking experience within the Dairy, G&O, CPG and Supply Chain sectors. Drouin holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from McGill University and a Master of Business Administration in International Finance, Marketing and Management from the Schulich School of Business at York University.

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Real Estate

Greybrook Realty Partners & Marlin Spring Brand Jointly Owned Asset Manager – Greyspring Apartments

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TORONTO, Dec. 14, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Greybrook Realty Partners and Marlin Spring are pleased to announce the new branding of their jointly owned investment and asset management firm, Greyspring Apartments. With a portfolio of more than 2,000 units and CAD$375 million in assets under management, Greyspring Apartments is focused on the acquisition and repositioning of multi-family assets throughout Canada.

The new name and branding is an important step in Greyspring’s evolution as an independent operating business. Formed in 2018 by long standing-partners Marlin Spring and Greybrook Realty Partners, Greyspring Apartments was established with the goal of building a leading asset management firm with a robust portfolio of residential rental real estate assets in primary and secondary markets across Canada.

Greyspring’s talented team of real estate, asset management and finance professionals is overseen and guided by the Management Board, whose members include Benjamin Bakst, CEO, Marlin Spring; Elliot Kazarnovksy, CFO, Marlin Spring; Sasha Cucuz, CEO, Greybrook Securities Inc.; Peter Politis, CEO, Greybrook Realty Partners; Chris Salapoutis, President & COO, Greybrook Realty Partners; Ashi Mathur, President, Marlin Spring; and Karl Brady. In addition to his role on the Management Board, Karl Brady leads Greyspring Apartments as its President. 

“We are pleased to announce the official name and branding of a business we formed with our partners at Marlin Spring a few years ago,” said Peter Politis, CEO, Greybrook Realty Partners. “Greyspring has been diligently focused on the execution of strategic value-add programs across its portfolio that are improving the quality of housing for tenants and overall asset values. For Greybrook investors, expanding from our core business in real estate development to the value-add space through Greyspring, has allowed us to provide our clients with investment opportunities that diversify their real estate investment portfolios.”

“Marlin Spring and Greybrook have partnered on many residential real estate projects in recent years,” said Benjamin Bakst, CEO and Cofounder, Marlin Spring. “To a great extent, Greyspring illustrates our approach to partnerships. We believe in, and strive for, responsible growth through deepening our relationships with our trusted partners. With Greyspring, we’ve formalized our focus on providing better and more affordable living experiences for Canadians. This vision aligns with our mission to deliver exceptional real estate value to all our stakeholders with an uncompromising adherence to our core values.”

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