Solve(nt) For X

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


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.

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