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The footprint in the sand

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

The full version of this article can be read in the September 2012 issue of Hydrocarbon Engineering. Subscribers can sign in here.

Centred in Alberta’s provincial capital, Edmonton, a community of researchers numbering in the thousands has laboured for decades to find innovative ways to make the oilsands more economically viable while reducing their impact on the environment.

The birthplace of the oilsands is arguably the University of Alberta (U of A), where nascent research in the 1920s eventually led to commercialisation in the late 1960s. Today, the U of A’s engineering faculty has more than 1000 professors, post doctoral and graduate students at work on research related to the oilsands.

Many at the U of A collaborate with Canada’s National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), an advanced research institution located on the campus. In the suburban town of Devon, another 450 scientists, engineers and technicians work at the federal CanmetENERGY research centre, where the focus is on developing cleaner energy sources. At the Edmonton Research Park, large corporations such as Schlumberger and Syncrude plus dozens of smaller companies bring innovation to commercial markets.

Since 2007, Alberta industrial plants that fail to meet carbon dioxide reduction targets have been required to pay a penalty of CAN$ 15/t of excess CO2 emitted. The money collected (more than CAN$ 250 million to date) is invested by the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC) and utilised to share the cost of development and implementation of clean technologies.

CCEMC, based in the Edmonton region, issued a call in April 2012 for proposals to support CAN$ 40 million worth of energy efficiency projects in industries, utilities and municipalities to a maximum of CAN$ 7 million each. Efforts previously supported by the corporation include:

Carbon capture at a Devon Energy steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) project.

  • A biogas cogeneration project in Lethbridge.
  • An energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction programme at the oilsands operations of Suncor Energy.
  • A project to demonstrate the use of electrodes as a heat source to liquefy bitumen underground.

In March 2012, the 12 major oilsands companies formed the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, to coordinate research and share environmental innovations. Companies now share expertise in cleaning up tailings ponds, recycling water used in oil extraction, regenerating forests after surface mining and finding economical ways to capture and store CO2.

In all, Natural Resources Canada estimates the oil and gas industry spends more than CAN$ 1 billion/y on research, development and technology demonstration. Approximately another CAN$ 2 billion/y is spent by the government of Canada on greenhouse gas reduction and clean technology. Funding for environmental research is also a priority for provincial, institutional and private sources.

Economy versus environment

For Alberta, which is home to 3.7 million of Canada’s 34.8 million people, the oilsands industry drives a booming economy, but it also poses substantial environmental challenges. These include greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, and the degradation of boreal forestland due to surface mining and (to a much lesser extent) by SAGD infrastructure.

In recent years, environmental opposition to the oilsands has reached a fever pitch. Intense political efforts have attempted to stop construction of pipelines in the US and tanker terminals in British Columbia to serve Asian markets, and to ban the importation of Alberta’s so called ‘dirty oil’ into Europe. Although environmental activism could affect the industry’s long term growth, Alberta continues to build capacity to serve its core markets in central and western Canada and the US. These concerns are also attracting international thinking and innovators to Edmonton in order to help solve the environmental challenges through research.

The U of A has developed relationships with a global network of researchers working on energy and the environment. In May 2012, scientists from China’s Tsinghua University visited Edmonton to plan research collaborations in carbon capture and storage (CCS), coal upgrading, water, the environment, energy policy and economics. China is the world’s largest coal consumer and potentially a large market for Alberta bitumen.

Since 2009, the transatlantic Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative has paired leading researchers at the U of A with counterparts in four of the 18 institutions in the Helmholtz Association, which is funded by Germany’s federal and state governments and employs 10 458 scientists. The Edmonton based initiative focuses on six areas of investigation: bitumen and lignite upgrading, carbon capture, carbon storage, geothermal energy, tailings water management, and mine reclamation and reforestation.

Reducing the footprint

 Reducing the footprint of the oilsands is a vast undertaking in which great strides have already been made. With the scientists and technicians working in Edmonton leading the way, producing a barrel of oil from bitumen now requires less energy, consumes less water, produces less greenhouse gas and has less impact on the land than ever before. With continued innovation, researchers and the industry move closer to fulfilling the goal of producing oil from the Athabasca sands that is as clean as conventional oil.

Written by Bruce White.

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