The Greening of Alberta’s Oil Sands: New Oil Extracting Technologies in the Works

Oil Extracting

Canada’s lackustre participation in the Copenhagen Summit has generated much criticism. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, for example, criticized Prime Minister Harper for treating Copenhagen like a “trip to the dentist.”

There is no doubt that Prime Minister Harper could have used the summit as an opportunity to flex some technological muscles. Considering the work that has been done within the past 10 years to develop new oil extracting technologies that promise cheaper and greener production, Harper could have seized the moment to showcase some of these new oil sands innovations.

While these technologies are fraught with risks and may be decades away from implementation, they are, nonetheless, a move in the right direction.

Petrobank and the THAI Process

The current process of mining oil leaves a heavy carbon footprint. It razes forests, burns natural gas to create steam to liquefy oil, and overuses water in the bitumen stripping process, leaving a trail of toxic contamination in waste ponds.

A new technology developed at Petrobank called the toe-to-heel air injection (or THAI) process promises a greener form of extraction. Instead of using natural gas, it uses pressurized air to induce an underground combustion front in order to heat the crude oil, partially refining it in the process before pushing it to the surface. This technology dispenses with the use of natural gas and it uses almost no water.

Not proven yet, the THAI process will be critically tested in the field within the next few months. If all goes well, it could be a boon in reshaping the oil industry.

E-T Energy and Electro-Thermal Technology

The brainchild of electrical engineer Bruce McGee, E-T Energy is at the forefront of new oil sands technology with its dependence on electricity to heat bitumen-soaked sand reservoirs. Electrodes inserted into vertical wells provide enough current to melt the bitumen. Existing underground water acts as the conductor passing the current from electrode to electrode.

The process produces almost zero emission and does not consume water. Although it requires deforestation, provision can be made for the replanting and reclamation of processed areas.

Imperial Oil and the Use of Solvents

For years, Imperial Oil has injected steam into the ground to soften and mobilize oil from the sand, after which the oil and water are pumped to the surface. Now it has added hydrocarbon solvents to lessen the viscosity of the oil and enhance the efficiency of its delivery.

Other companies are doing away with steam entirely, relying solely on the use of hydrocarbon solvents. The result is greener production – reduced reliance on water, natural gas and fewer emissions.

Imperial Oil has also built a state of the art water recycling facility at its Cold Lake plant,enabling it to recycle 95% of approximately 625,000 barrels of water used daily for production.

Royal Dutch Shell and the High-Temperature Froth Treatment.

A new technology developed by Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil promises to eliminate environmental contamination and energy waste in the Canadian oil sands. According to Shell chemist Brad Komishke, this process cuts carbon emissions by 10-15 percent.

While current technology repeatedly heats the sand until crude oil is extracted, a process that consumes considerable energy and time, the new process called High-Temperature Froth Treatment, involves heating the tar-like bitumen into a froth at higher temperatures so that the extraction process can take place more quickly. The result is less energy use, less emissions and cheaper production.

Promising as these technologies seem, they are by no means guaranteed. One reason is financing. As Nathan Vanderklippe of the Globe and Mail indicates,”New projects cost billions and few have the stomach to devote those vast sums to something unproven. ” Another crucial factor is the need for visionary leadership from the federal government focusing on “preparing Canada [and the world] for a new era in energy.”

The question one needs to ask is this – can the current Canadian leadership seize this opportunity to reinvent the oil industry?

Oil Extracting Technologies

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