Alberta’s oil sands operations accounted for 28.8% of Canadian natural gas demand in 2016, up from 11.8% in 2005, according to a new report by Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB). From 2005 to 2016, natural gas purchased by oil sands projects more than tripled, from 0.73 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) to nearly 2.38 Bcf/d in 2016. In contrast, total Canadian gas demand increased over the same period from 6.17 Bcf/d to an estimated 8.27 Bcf/d.
Natural gas is largely used in the oil sands to generate steam for in situ oil production, and in situ growth has been the main driver behind increased oil sands demand for natural gas. During that same period (2005-2016) in situ production also more than tripled—from 439,000 barrels per day (Mb/d) to an estimated 1.461 Mb/d.
The most widely used in situ methods are steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) and cyclic steam stimulation (CSS). Both use steam to heat the reservoir, which decreases the viscosity of the bitumen and allows it to flow to production wells.
Additionally, natural gas is used in oil sands mining to heat water to separate bitumen from sand. It is also used to create steam in upgrading to produce the hydrogen that converts bitumen into synthetic crude oil. An increasing number of cogeneration facilities in the oil sands use natural gas to produce heat and electricity for both project operations and for sale to the power grid.