Total E&P Canada has announced that it will drop its Joslyn steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) oil sands project in favour of a mine on its leases. The Joslyn project 65 km northwest of Fort McMurray had problems in 2006 when steam was released through the caprock above the bitumen deposit. Significant surface disturbance was reported.
The decision to cease SAGD recovery follows a ruling from the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) that Total was responsible for the escape of steam because it was operating a steam pressure that exceeded ERCB's approval conditions.
I find it unfortunate that an oil sands producer would close a SAGD project in favour of surface mining, which has been condemned as the least environmentally friendly option. Perhaps Total has reason to fear a future steam escape, but the company is not saying that. What it will do with the SAGD site is unknown.
The switch to mining is not a complete about-face. Total always had a plan for surface mining the Joslyn North area, and the company has already begun the regulatory approval process for a 100,000-bbl/d operation. A second mine, Joslyn South, with a similar capacity is in the project definition phase.
Total notes on its website that the Joslyn North project is only 9 km northwest of Fort McKay. First Nations who live there have complained about pollution from other oil sands mining projects, so it will be up to Total to find the means to mine with less surface impact and with earlier reclamation of the land than is currently possible.
We look forward to the company's new and cleaner oil sands technologies. Perhaps they can be licensed or shared with other producers in an effort to be better stewards of the land.