Canadian Mining Journal


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From concept to completion, North West Upgrading Ltd. of Calgary is a company that knows every nut and bolt that goes into its work. In fact, the company credits much of its success to a hands-on approach that keeps it involved with every...

From concept to completion, North West Upgrading Ltd. of Calgary is a company that knows every nut and bolt that goes into its work. In fact, the company credits much of its success to a hands-on approach that keeps it involved with every aspect of a job from the initial design stage right through to commissioning of the project.

To some, that’s an overwhelming responsibility, but for North West Upgrading, it’s how they’ve built their reputation, and that’s exactly the approach they are now taking as they are about to start construction (late 2011/early 2012) of a $5 billion bitumen refinery northeast of Edmonton, near Redwater.

The new refinery, a three-phase project designed to eventually process 150,000 barrels of crude oil a day, is a world’s first in that it is the only refinery designed from the ground up to help reduce its environmental impact by incorporating gasification and a carbon capture and storage (CCS) solution.

Through a partnership with Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, also from Calgary, to build, manage and operate the new refinery, the companies will invest approximately $15 billion over the three phases of the project. The refinery is fully permitted and long-lead equipment has already been delivered on time and on budget, and is waiting transport to the site.

The first phase, slated for completion in mid-2014, is expected to create about 8,000 jobs and will produce more than 5.5 million litres (1.45 million gallons) per day of ultra low-sulphur diesel and other products, such as diluent, to be sold into the local as well as the export markets.

As already mentioned, the new bitumen refinery incorporates North West Upgrading’s CCS process to capture high purity CO2 emissions before they are released into the atmosphere. They are then used for enhanced oil recovery and ultimately safely stored underground in existing geological formations. Injecting CO2 into abandoned reservoirs will also enhance the recovery of conventional oil and could potentially help recover nearly a billion barrels of light oil that would otherwise go untouched.

Designs also call for the capture of about 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 per year, per phase, (or about the equivalent of taking nearly 300,000 cars off the road per phase) which will be sold to Enhance Energy Inc., a company which is building Alberta’s first CO2 distribution pipeline, the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line.

North West Upgrading chose gasification because it says it allows for the efficient elimination of upgrading waste products, such as coke, as well as a reduction in natural gas consumption, and for the ease of carbon capture. Technically, NWU’s decision to use gasification as an integral component of the upgrading and refining process enables capture of a greater portion of the CO2 in a simpler process step.

Gasification also minimizes resource use for water and natural gas and has other benefits for other waste products produced in typical upgraders, including sulphur and trace metals.

As mentioned at the outset, the new refinery’s CCS design is intended as just one solution to help reduce the environmental impact of the facility, but NWU says it has also complemented its CCS by adopting several other environmental initiatives to help ensure a more proactive approach to cleaner upgrading.

For one, the company will minimize fresh water by utilizing higher efficiency water treatment systems, maximizing air cooling for process purposes, and maximizing water recycling from within the refinery.

Process water from the North Saskatchewan River will be treated and recycled multiple times, and surface water runoff from within the project site will be contained in engineered retention ponds and utilized for process purposes, again reducing the amount of water drawn from the North Saskatchewan River.

As for groundwater, the refinery’s site (45 km northeast of Edmonton and immediately west of Agrium’s Redwater fertilizer operation in Sturgeon County) has low soil permeability and meets all strict requirements for secondary containment and handling of stored process fluids. NWU will also establish a comprehensive groundwater monitoring network within and around the project site.

And finally, in consideration for the ecological value of the wildlife corridors in the Alberta Industrial Heartland region, North West Upgrading and its partner, Canadian Natural Resources, are making great efforts to protect the environment and have set aside a portion of their lands, with approvals from Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, to act as a wildlife corridor around the project site.

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