Beauty & the Beastly
While headlines around the world continue to criticize almost everyone and everything associated with Canada’s oilsands, the truth of the matter is that those companies taking the brunt of the media’s abuse are in fact, silently taking care of business on their own and are gradually correcting matters of concern to everyone.
The environment, regardless of what critics may say or write, is of the utmost concern to Canada’s oilsands’ producers, and cutting carbon dioxide emissions is a top priority.
In fact, efforts by integrated producers (companies that both produce and upgrade bitumen) cut their carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2e) per barrel produced in 2009 (2010 figures are still being compiled by Environment Canada) to an average of 123 kg of CO2e emissions per barrel of syncrude (bitumen that has been upgraded to synthetic crude oil) from 2009 against 150 kg in 2008.
Granted it’s not a huge improvement but even the most ardent of critics can’t argue with the fact that emissions are going in the right direction. Emissions from in situ projects were also down for a second consecutive year, emitting 93 kg for every bitumen barrel produced compared with more than 110 kg in 2007.
While many hard-rock miners still have a difficult time accepting the oilsands as being a “mining” project, there are commonalities between the two that make them technically similar.
Both, for example, involve moving massive amounts of materials using huge, monster-like machines unknown to the general public. Shovels and trucks capable of hauling the equivalent of the entire basement for a house in one scoop or dozers with blades broad enough to clear a two-lane road in one pass are common to both.
In other words, the quantities of materials being moved in and around the oilsands is almost impossible to describe and, just like with hard-rock mining, great quantities of waste are produced: millions of tonnes of it every year.
Unwanted material, or waste, is simply a fact of everyday life and it’s especially true in mining, where waste far outweighs the rewards, be they diamonds frozen in rock or bitumen encased in sand in a sticky and nasty form.
In any event, waste is still the ugliest part of any mining project and probably the biggest headache for all miners, but it’s a part of doing business.
As expansion and production continue to grow in the oilsands, emissions have also grown with increased production over recent years (up 42.5% from 2004 to 2009), but as already mentioned, lower CO2e per barrel emissions represent hard-won efficiencies for the oilsands project operators.
In situ projects, again mentioned earlier, are being implemented more frequently to inject high temperatures into bitumen reservoirs that are too deep to mine. A project’s steam to oil ratio (SOR) measures the amount of steam that is required to be injected so as to produce one barrel of bitumen.
Operators have implemented a wide range of methods to improve these operating efficiencies, applying improved technologies, heat recycling equipment, and solvent assisted recovery. As a result of these efforts, the average 2009 project SOR was 4.03, down from 4.27 in 2008.
Based on further information from The CanOils Database Limited* of Calgary, Cold Lake is, by project, the largest of the in situ emitters of green house gas (GHG), producing a total of 4,235,313 tonnes of CO2e emissions in 2009. Peace River and Christina Lake projects produced a total of 98,873 and 237,148 tonnes of CO2e respectively, and achieved the most efficient per barrel CO2e emissions ratio during these operations, 43.8 and 48.8 CO2e (kg/bbl) respectively. Christina Lake and Jackfish offered the most improved performance in GHG emissions at 35% reductions in CO2e per barrel between 2008 and 2009.
In total, nine of the 14 projects operational between 2008 and 2009 cut their average CO2e emissions on a per barrel basis.
As almost everyone knows, there are two main ways of extracting oil from sand: mining, in which the bitumen is located within 80-100 ms of the surface, and in situ, whereby the bitumen is located in deeper reservoirs and is produced using steam injection or other enhanced recovery methods.
Mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction accounted for 24% of total Canadian GHG emissions in 2009, according to Environment Canada, and as the oilsands sector has grown economies of scale have also had an effect on the level of emissions.
In 2009, Foster Creek added 60 mb/d of additional capacity through Phases D & E, but operator Cenovus was still able to cut CO2e emissions from 60.8 kg produced in 2008 to 59.9 kg in 2009.
Integrated projects which extract bitumen and upgrade on site to syncrude also saw an overall decrease in CO2e GHG emissions. Total integrated production increased from 1,160 b/d in 2008 and 149.8 kg of CO2e emissions per barrel, to 1,532 b/d and 123.2 kg per barrel in 2009.
This sector of the industry includes mining, a sector that has undertaken significant steps to try to reduce the impact of its operations upon the environment, including the recent Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Imperial Oil, Shell, Suncor, Syncrude, Teck Resources and Total SA agreement to “work together in a unified effort” by fostering “innovation and collaboration in research and development.”
In keeping with this commitment to address matters of environmental concern, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) has also embarked on a multi-million dollar campaign to change public perceptions of the industry; namely that serious efforts are being made to reduce the environmental footprint of the oilsands and to accelerate the process of rehabilitation the massive tailings ponds that have been the target of so much international consternation.
One of the more recent steps taken by a major oilsands’ producer to answer any questions about its tailings ponds came from Suncor Energy when it announced that it has received approval for its “Tailings Management Plan” from the Energy Resources Board.
Basically, what Suncor is doing is investing more than $1 billion into a new technology that, according to Kirk Bailey, the company’s Executive Vice-president, Oil Sands, will potentially reduce tailings reclamation time by decades.
Technically, oilsands mines produce tailings that are a mixture of water, clay, sand and residual bitumen and, when released into a pond, the heaviest material (mostly sand) settles to the bottom, while water rises to the top. The middle layer, the mature fine tailings (MFT), is made up of fine clay particles suspended in water. Some of these particles settle, but much remains suspended.
The challenge, according to Suncor, is that the MFT does not settle within a reasonable timeframe and, as a result, the company has needed more and larger tailings ponds over the years.
Bailey explained that with its new technology, MFT is mixed with a polymer flocculent and then deposited in thin layers over sand beaches with shallow slopes. This drying process occurs over a matter of weeks, allowing more rapid reclamation activities to occur. The resulting product is a dry material that can be reclaimed in place or moved to another location for contouring and replanting of natural vegetation.
What Suncor is doing with its tailings ponds is timely because, as you will read in greater detail in Maurice Smith’s article later in this issue, the deadline (set by The Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board’s Directive 74) requires oilsands mining companies to convert at least 20% of the fine particles in their tailings ponds to solid waste is June 2011, rising to 50% by 2013 and annually thereafter.
Regardless of its tailing ponds or carbon dioxide emissions, the oilsands are under the world’s microscope and as the headline reads, “Canada’s oilsands have many faces” – some “Beastly” and in need of some serious cosmetic attention while, in fairness, there are a growing number of project
s that are improving, thanks to conscientious efforts to restore the sites to their original “Beauty.”