Syncrude 21: Plans to Double Production
In a marathon, a runner must pace himself to get through every stage of the race and remained focused on the finish line. This is also true for oil sands developers like Syncrude Canada Ltd. whose ambitious 13-year, $8-billion, Syncrude 21 expansion plan must seem like a marathon, now well into the third of a four-stage race. The company’s ultimate goal is to increase its oil production from 73.5 million to 150 million barrels (bbl) of oil per year, which represents a change from approximately 13% to 25% of Canada’s petroleum needs, by the year 2008.
Early development stages
Syncrude’s marathon, which began in 1996, has completed two development stages so far. The first stage, which included expanding and innovating the North mine operations and debottlenecking the Mildred Lake Upgrader, cost $470 million and increased annual production to 81.4 million bbl of oil from 73.5 million. The second stage followed in 1998 at cost of $1 billion and included the start-up of the first train at the Aurora mine and additional debottlenecking at the Mildred Lake Upgrader. Aurora is located 35 km northeast of the Mildred Lake plant.
Some of the technological innovations that have helped increase production have been the introduction of large-scale truck-and-shovel mining and the first full-scale hydrotransport system. The 400-ton trucks are the largest in the world as are the 43-m3 bucket hydraulic shovels. Hydrotransport, a technology developed by Syncrude, transports the oil sands as a slurry via a pipeline, not via a conveyor belt, which enables the oil sands to be conditioned before extraction of the bitumen begins.
The debottlenecking included installing a vacuum distillation unit that increased bitumen-processing capacity and improved environmental performance. In addition, Syncrude has pioneered an energy-saving extraction system that currently operates at 25*C, well below the standard 80*C, reducing energy consumption.
Third stage and beyond
At present, Syncrude is in the third development stage. The budgeted $5.1-billion expenditure includes the development of a second train at the Aurora mine and an expansion of the Mildred Lake Upgrader. Syncrude states that Train 2 is almost 90% completed and should be producing bitumen in the fourth quarter of 2003. Work on the upgrader is also proceeding on schedule, with engineering essentially completed and efforts being directed towards fabrication and construction for planned start-up in mid-2005.
The upgrader expansion includes a new fluid coker, distillate hydroprocessor, hydrogen plant, sulphur plant, amine plant, a sour water treatment plant, and new froth treatment and diluent recovery units.
During the fourth stage, which is expected to begin in 2005, a third production train is to be developed at the Aurora mine and a second expansion phase is to be completed at the upgrader. This will vault production to 150 million bbl/year.
Almost 25% of the $8-billion Syncrude 21 development plan price tag will be spent on environmental improvements. The company recently filed an application asking regulators to approve a $400-million project to reduce sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by over 50% from the current rate of 245 tonnes per day. The project will involve retrofitting a multi-train flue-gas-scrubbing system into the two coking units at Mildred Lake. The company anticipates engineering expenditures of $12 to $15 million in 2003 and, if the retrofitting project is approved, procurement and construction expenditures would begin in 2006 following completion of the first upgrader expansion.
As a result of these and other environmental programs, Syncrude expects that, by 2008, SO2 emissions will drop 5% on a total basis despite a two-fold increase in oil production and by 70% on a per unit basis from 1990 levels. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are forecast to decline by 35% over the same period.
Recently, other developments have been announced that could have future economic benefits for Syncrude. Toronto-based Titanium Corp. began investigating the total heavy minerals (THM) content of Syncrude’s tailings after processing through the froth treatment unit.
The junior company assayed ten 45-gallon drums of sand solids taken from the tailings pipe. Typically the heavy minerals content at the Syncrude oil sands project averages 0.25 to 1% THM, but the assay values from the tailings show enriched concentrations averaging 30% THM with values ranging between 19.22% and 45.42% THM. Additional mineralogical analysis on one sample that contained 34.74% THM indicated that almost 70% of the 34.74% THM were economic minerals including ilmenite (25.3%), leucoxene (30.7%) rutile (2.3%), anatase (1.6%) and zircon (6.3%).
This program is part of a two-year agreement between Syncrude, Titanium Corp. and a major pigment producer to determine the viability of extracting titanium-bearing minerals and zircon from the oil sands tailings. The junior concludes that starting with a rich concentration of THM enhances the economics of a possible heavy metals operation.