Oil Sands: Suncor continues to grow
Bitumen production at Alberta’s first oil sands producer has doubled to 225,000 bbl/day per day since 1999, and will double again over the next decade. The first increase was accomplished during the $3.4-billion Millennium Project (see CMJ, August 1999, page 31). The redoubling will be accomplished during a staged expansion, named Voyageur, which carries a budget of about $1-billion each year.
Details of the Voyageur Project have yet to be finalized. Markets, sustainability, environmental protection, and potential new technologies will all have a role in determining the final design, but reaching a daily output of 500,000 to 550,000 bbl/day by 2012 is the goal.
Already under development is the Firebag in situ project. It is located 40 km northeast of Suncor’s active open pit mines, on 1,000 km2 of land containing an estimated 9.6 billion bbl of recoverable bitumen.
In situ recovery has been practised by other oil sands producers in the Athabasca Basin, but it is new to Suncor. The creation of an in situ operation has several advantages. It has a low capital cost, requires disturbing less surface area, and is less labour-intensive. The number of construction jobs will peak at about 200, while permanent employees at the site will number only 40. And it is a low cost-per-barrel technology despite its high energy inputs. Construction of the infrastructure, camp, drilling pads, and two of the four steam generators started moving ahead last August.
Firebag will rely on steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technology to recover bitumen. This involves drilling two horizontal wells. Steam will be injected into one, and bitumen released by the heat will be collected in the other. The steam will be generated by natural gas-fired plants; the water will come from wastewater streams of the extraction plant. Suncor is considering injection of carbon dioxide and light hydrocarbons into the Firebag deposit. This would decrease Suncor’s total emissions and reduce the amount of natural gas needed to generate steam.
When the $465-million first phase is complete in 2005, Firebag will have a rated capacity of 35,000 bbl/day. A pipeline will transport the bitumen directly to the plant for processing. At the same time Suncor is expanding its upgrading facilities including a new vacuum distillation unit to process the additional bitumen from the Firebag project. Future expansion at Firebag will increase output to 140,000 bbl/day by the end of the decade.
The timing of the Voyageur project depends on Suncor achieving a base production capacity of 260,000 bbl/day in 2005. Growth will then proceed in incremental steps grouped into two phases. Proceeding in incremental steps will allow for the application of new, cleaner technologies as they become available. Phase I involves expanding existing facilities and building a new upgrader to reach 400,000 to 450,000 bbl/day in 2008. Phase II involves adding more processing units to reach a production capacity of 500,000 to 550,000 bbl/day during 2010-12.
Open pit mining and in situ extraction will also expand during this time to meet greater feed requirements. Suncor is considering two options to increase mining output. One is to accelerate production within the existing mining operations. The other is to build a new pit north of the Steepbank River in an orebody estimated to contain 550 million bbl of bitumen.
Whatever form Voyageur takes by the time it is completed, Suncor has a huge commitment of time and money ahead of it. Alberta’s original oil sands producer is poised to take advantage of everything the future has to offer.