Twelve of Canada’s oil sands producers have formed a new alliance, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), focused on accelerating the pace of improving environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands through collaborative action and innovation.
Through COSIA, participating companies will capture, develop and share the most innovative approaches and best thinking to improve environmental performance in the oil sands, initially focusing on four Environmental Priority Areas (EPAs): tailings, water, land and greenhouse gases. Examples of current projects or projects under consideration by member companies include:
Tailings. Tailings are the rock, sand, clay and water byproducts of surface mining, and are currently held in large tailing ponds. Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) has been adding waste CO2 into the tailings streams in order to reduce the size of their tailings ponds. The addition of CO2 causes the fine clays, silts and sands to settle more quickly. This in turn increases the clarity of the tailings water, which is then re-used in the extraction process.The process reduces the amount of fresh water required for extraction, and reduces the overall volume of the tailings pond.
CRNL and several other oil sands producers are also working on Mature Fine Tailings (MFT) dewatering. CRNL ran an MFT dewatering pilot project that produced dry tailings solid enough to support vehicle traffic. The process works by treating the soft middle layer of a tailings pond with waste CO2 and a reagent, which binds the solids together and releases the water. The released water is recovered and recycled.These processes help speed reclamation and decrease the amount of fresh water needed to process bitumen, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions by isolating CO2 in the tailings ponds.
Water. A group of five producers and a leading supplier of technology for water and waste water services have collaborated on a ceramic membrane technology project. Pilot projects have determined that ceramic membrane technology is able to overcome some of the challenges associated with treating water in the SAGD (steam-assisted gravity drainage) in-situ process by remove oil and silica in a single step.
The ceramic membrane is a filter that separates oil and suspended solids from produced water. The physical barrier is designed to remove fine oil droplets and solids from the water in the initial phase of the water treatment process. This could enable improvements in the de-silication process, which is the removal of dissolved minerals from produced water. It produces better quality water by removing oil and solid particles, which could mitigate a number of operating and waste disposal issues. This would improve plant reliability.
Ceramic membrane technology would eliminate the need for a large de-oiling system made up of induced gas flotation (IGF) vessels and oil removal filters, as well as the lime softening system. This would reduce the overall land footprint and simplify the water treatment process. In addition, it would create the ability to operate de-oiling at a higher temperature, which would improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Land. In February 2011, oil sands producers including Nexen, Suncor, Total, Statoil and ConocoPhillips, represented by the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI), conducted a winter wetland planting trial in Alberta’s boreal forest. With temperatures hovering between -17C and -25C, the companies planted 900 black spruce trees in a disturbed wetland site south of Grande Prairie. The site was ecologically similar to the forest south of Fort McMurray where many Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) operations are concentrated.
This trial involved planting a non-commercial native species in a wetland area where substantial site preparation was carried out prior to planting. This preparation was undertaken to improve the site’s hydrology, which increased the chance of successful tree growth. Results recorded during summer 2011 indicate that more than 94% of the black spruce trees have survived. The success of this new technique will increase the industry’s ability to reclaim similar ecosystems in the future.
Greenhouse gas emissions. The CO2 Capture project (a partnership of six of the world’s major energy companies including BP, Chevron, Eni, Petrobras, Shell and Suncor), Cenovus, Devon, Statoil, MEG and Praxair are partnering to demonstrate Oxy-Fuel combustion in once-through steam generators (OTSGs). This technology could greatly reduce GHG emissions from in-situ oil sands operations.
80% of the resources in Canada’s oil sands are too deep to mine and can only be accessed using specialized in-situ techniques such as SAGD. OTSGs burn natural gas to produce the steam used in SAGD operations and are therefore the primary source of GHG emissions from these operations. The Oxy-Fuel combustion project has been designed to prove a technology that will significantly reduce the amount of GHGs released to the atmosphere by OTSGs.
The Oxy-Fuel combustion project is moving into its second phase following a design and cost estimate for a commercial scale OTSG boiler with built-in carbon capture, purification and compression technology. Phase two will be a pilot project at Cenovus’ Christina Lake site that will test the reliability, efficiency and cost effectiveness of an OTSG boiler equipped with Oxy-Fuel technology. This pilot will be supported by funds from Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC).
The use of Oxy-Fuel combustion in OTSG boilers is expected to have several potential advantages over competing technologies. These include lower energy usage and operating costs compared to many other carbon capture technologies, capturing up to 99% of CO2 emissions, significant reductions in air emissions such as nitrogen oxides, and water recovery from flue gas that could reduce an operation’s overall water usage.
The creation of COSIA as an independent alliance builds on work done over the past several years by both oil sands industry members and research and development organizations. COSIA says it will take these efforts to a much larger scale and will help the industry address environmental challenges by breaking down barriers in the areas of funding, intellectual property enforcement and human resources that may otherwise impede progress on environmental performance. COSIA’s collaborative approach is intended to accelerate the discovery and development of environmental technologies and reduce the time from idea to implementation.
COSIA also announced Dr. Dan Wicklum as the Chief Executive of the new alliance. Dr. Wicklum has a background in environmental science and was selected following a national search. His scientific qualifications and leadership experience position him well to lead COSIA, a science-based alliance focused on environmental technology and innovation.
Jean-Michel Gires, president of Total E&P Canada Ltd, says COSIA will require new approaches for intellectual property management of environmental technology and the industry’s working relationship with research agencies, technology providers, regulators and other oil sands stakeholders.
Companies participating in COSIA will contribute at varying levels to the alliance, based on their own areas of expertise. COSIA will rely on the input of scientists and engineers from within the ranks of the 12 member companies, as well as government, academia and the wider public.
Shareholder companies participating in COSIA:
- BP Canada Energy Company
- Canadian Natural Resources Limited
- Cenovus Energy Inc.
- ConocoPhillips Canada Resources Corp.
- Devon Canada Corporation
- Imperial Oil
- Nexen Inc.
- Shell Canada Energy
- Statoil Canada Ltd.
- Suncor Energy Inc.
- Teck Resources Limited
- Total E&P Canada Ltd.