To Green Oil Sands Mining, Solvent Instead of Steam?

Cutting steam from the mining process could slice emissions, but the new process may not be ready in time to matter

Syncrude oil sands mining

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WASHINGTON—In their Canadian laboratories, engineering professors Murray Gray and Zhenghe Xu can demonstrate the science necessary to minimize the bulky carbon footprint of extracting fuel from Alberta’s abundant oil sands.

It’s putting it into practice in the field that will prove more difficult—but not out of the question within a five- or six-year timeframe.

Right now, the mining industry heats enormous quantities of water and uses the resulting steam to draw up the coveted oil buried deep beneath northeastern Alberta’s boreal forests. Eliminating or dramatically reducing that need for heated water, the researchers say, would drastically curb emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Environmental advocates told Solve Climate News the concept certainly has merit. However, they are concerned that such advanced technology will stay trapped in university labs unless Canadian global warming regulations pack enough punch to force industry to become greener.

Plus, they stress that a still-on-the-drawing-board idea would not staunch the flow of emissions from existing mining operations or those opening anew during the current oil sands boom.

Gray and Xu joined three of their Edmonton-based University of Alberta colleagues to participate in a whirlwind visit to the nation’s capital last Tuesday, and no doubt, public relations was the main reason for their two-hour stop at the National Press Club.

As rising concerns about national security force the United States to seek out transportation fuel from friendlier and more reliable sources, its northern neighbor is only too willing to oblige. But Canadian authorities know they could make a more convincing sales pitch if the mining and harvesting process wasn’t so destructive and energy intensive.

“In Alberta, this is the smell of money,” Gray told the audience as he uncapped a small glass vial of bitumen—the rich, black, tar-like, viscous type of crude oil that is a sought-after substance buried amidst the province’s sand and clay soil.

The tiny sample didn’t have an overpowering odor of petroleum. But that’s not the case at a typical mine handling at least 10,000 tons of bitumen an hour.

Emissions Part of Keystone XL Controversy

Alberta touts itself as the Saudi Arabia of crude oil. Geologists estimate that trillions of barrels of potential fuel are lodged in the province’s oil sands and that somewhere between 175 billion and 300 billion barrels are realistically available with today’s technologies.

Currently, some 1.2 million barrels are being extracted daily, Gray said, and that figure is supposed to more than double during the next five years.

“We’re only really scratching the surface of this resource,” he added.

Harvesting bitumen is now split about evenly between two different methods. One, open pit mining, is used to access the 15 to 20 percent of the deposits that are close to the Earth’s surface. It leaves an unsightly barren mess of scars behind because huge swaths of land are denuded of trees, plants and soil.

The steam-dependent second option, which allows access to mother lodes of bitumen deep underground, is referred to as “in situ” or “in place.” Not only is it much more carbon intensive than open pit mining but it is becoming more prevalent because that’s where nearly 80 percent of the bitumen is. This is where Gray and Xu are focusing their research.

In situ requires massive amounts of water to be warmed with natural gas. Basically, the steam heats and separates the bitumen from the surrounding sand, causing it to pool closer to the surface. Horizontal drain wells capture the bitumen. Gray and Xu say it takes about 2.5 barrels of water to extract one barrel of bitumen.

Cutting steam from the equation has the potential to slice planet-warming gases significantly.

U.S. is Canada’s No. 1 Oil Customer

Canada is already among the five top suppliers of crude oil and petroleum products to the United States. Much of the estimated 1.9 million barrels of oil that Canada exports to the United States daily is harvested in the oil sands. Overall, this country imports 9 million barrels of crude oil per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

However, millions more of those barrels from Canada could be pumped to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas if the U.S. State Department gives TransCanada permission to construct and operate a 1,959-mile oil pipeline that would wend its way from Alberta through six U.S. states. A “yes” or “no” on what’s known as the Keystone XL is up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because of the international nature of the project. A decision is expected within weeks or perhaps months.

TransCanada, based in Calgary, Alberta, already operates a Keystone oil pipeline in the United States. Adding Keystone XL would allow TransCanada to deliver more than a million barrels of oil from Alberta to the United States daily.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have made it abundantly clear that their agency wasn’t at all impressed with the State Department’s initial go-round on a draft environmental impact statement concerning Keystone XL last July. They gave it the lowest possible ranking of “inadequate.” Deficiencies EPA officials cited greenhouse gas emissions affiliated with the pipeline, lack of safety and spill-response planning and inattentiveness to the potential impact on Canada’s indigenous communities.

The EPA also asked State Department reviewers to consider the national security implications of expanding the U.S. commitment to a relatively high-carbon source of oil with a well-to-tank carbon footprint 82 percent larger than conventional oil.

“The big commitment is to reduce energy intensity,” said Gray, chairman of his university’s engineering department. “The industry’s big No. 1 issue is carbon dioxide.”

Solvent Instead of Steam?

Xu’s research focuses on reducing the amount and temperature of water used in the process, while Gray is concentrating on eliminating water all together. Both solutions would require that some sort of gasoline-based solvent—instead of steam—be injected to draw the “tar” upward.

Solvents could also shrink the need for tailings ponds that now already cover about 80 square miles. These sludge ponds gained global notoriety after flocks of birds that landed on the toxic waters ended up dying. That prompted the industry to be slapped with hefty fines.

Xu receives half of his funding from industry and the other half from the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation. One-fifth of Gray’s research dollars are from the Canadian government and the remaining 80 percent is split between Alberta’s provincial government and industry.

“We see this as a potential game-changer,” Gray said about heading toward waterless extraction technology. “The solvents would have to be harmless and recoverable. But if we can get the engineering right, the biological impact would be very clear.”

The University of Alberta requires that all of their research be published in peer-reviewed journals, he added.

“It’s fun to be able to be able to play around with ideas in the lab,” Gray said. “But anything we suggest, it has to be feasible for it to function on a large scale for the industry.”

Long Journey From Lab to Field

Even if their technology is perfected for use in the field within five or six years, Xu, Gray and environmental advocates all lament the fact that only oil companies opening new mines would adopt it because industry isn’t going to replace expensive infrastructure at existing mine sites. Also, Gray pointed out, a company would have to spend millions of dollars pilot-testing the equipment before making a final investment.

Within the last year, however, the oil company Cenovus announced its intent to build the first commercial solvent-assisted in situ oil sands project, according to a newsletter published by Northwest & Ethical Investments.

One watchdog group that carefully monitors oil sands developments is the Pembina Institute.

“The real game-changer is when governments get serious about improvements,” Danielle Droitsch, the institute’s U.S. policy director, told SolveClimate News in an interview. “Right now, the signal they are sending is to approve and effectively lock-in these old technologies.”

Droitsch also pointed out that Canada does not regulate greenhouse gas emissions for oil sands mining and that Alberta’s timid attempts to price carbon will lead to those emissions rising above 1990 levels by 2050.

“Strong government regulations are needed to make way for new technology,” she stressed. “It won’t just happen by itself.”

End Use Matters

In the meantime, Pembina predicts that about one-fifth of Alberta could eventually be open to in situ harvesting of oil. An area about the size of Scotland—about 30,888 square miles—has already been leased for development.

Even if extracting oil via in situ generated zero greenhouse gas emissions, Gray emphasized, what matters even more is where the transportation fuel is burned afterward as drivers travel from Point A to Point B.

Indeed, a 2009 study from the California Air Resources Board shows that a mere 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions result from the production, refining, transportation and distribution of crude oil. Conversely, nearly 80 percent of emissions come from driving the vehicle the fuel eventually powers.

“End use still has the biggest impact,” Gray said, emphasizing how crucial stringent fuel efficiency standards are to slicing greenhouse gas emissions. “That’s why efficient vehicles and public transportation matter.”