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Despite considerable progress, thermal oil sands producers desperately need to reduce their water consumption. Are solvents the answer?
The most important resource in thermal bitumen production isn’t oil – it’s water. Fortunately, solvent use is cutting down on those costs more than ever
FOR THE PEOPLE WHO
operate and manage steamassisted gravity drainage (SAGD) projects, oil is almost treated as a byproduct to what is actually their primary concern: water. Indeed, SAGD operations are basically just “water facilities with an oil problem,” according to Darren Massey, a programs leader at GE’s Customer Innovation Centre, a Calgarybased facility where energy companies try to tackle the fundamental challenges inherent in developing heavy oil. “Water is really the main resource that you have to manage here,” he says. “The energy that you put in to generate that high-temperature steam accounts for a substantial portion of your total costs.”
Water management and consumption is one of the central questions in addressing how to make thermal oil sands development cost-competitive with horizontal fracking or conventional production methods. Turning water into steam accounts for the largest cost in thermal oil production, both in terms of economics and its environmental impact. And, since oil prices began their rapid descent in late 2014, oil sands producers have faced a heightened pressure to reduce costs. Over the past 18 months, those companies have wrung substantial costs from across their operations by cutting staff and paying less for services and materials. But perhaps one of the most substantial and long-term cost savings could come through the use of solvents – typically propane or butane – that are used in the SAGD process to reduce water consumption and carbon emissions while boosting production yields.
Thermal developments are expected to make up the majority of future oil sands production, most of which will come from SAGD. A report published in December 2015 by IHS CERA (Cambridge Energy Research Associates) projected that SAGD production will increase from 34 percent of oil sands production in 2015 to more than 43 percent in 2025. Cyclic steam stimulation (CSS), for its part, is expected to fall to 8 percent of total production within the same time frame. It seems the longevity of the oil sands business is inextricably linked to water consumption.