The greening of the oil sands

Calgary, Alberta - (by David Ebner) Thursday at lunchtime, it’s 4 Celsius outside Robert Mansell’s office at the University of Calgary, right in line with the balmy January temperatures straight across Canada, from Vancouver to Halifax. Sitting on the desk of Mr. Mansell — head of the university’s institute for sustainable energy, environment and economy — is a recent issue of The Economist, the cover reading “The Heat is On,” a report on climate change. More than 3,000 kilometres to the east, Mr. Mansell’s former student, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has just announced a retooled federal cabinet, the shuffle led by installing John Baird as Environment Minister to replace the beleaguered Rona Ambrose.

The three threads intertwine as a sense of urgency about global warming has pushed the environment into a tie with health care as the biggest issue in the minds of Canadians, according to new numbers this week from a quarterly poll by Environics Research. The issue could define the next federal election and has left the Alberta energy industry, particularly the oil sands, worried about the heat.

Greenhouse gases in Canada spew out from disparate sources across the country — vehicles on the roads are as guilty as industry — but massive growth in the oil sands is drawing the most attention with the rising prominence of the environment and the containing of carbon dioxide emissions. The oil sands region is already home to two of the four single biggest emitters in the country and is set for incredible growth, with $100-billion of projects planned over the next decade. The use of fresh water and the destruction of several thousand square kilometres of delicate boreal forest through surface mining are also key concerns.

All this attention has raised fear in the energy industry, which in 2002 fought noisily against the Kyoto Protocol, with oil sands operators threatening to shut down planned projects or process the raw output in the United States. New threats from energy firms have not yet emerged but industry leaders speak with fretful words like “concern” and “nervous.”

To Mr. Mansell, the answer is clear, though it sounds like an oxymoron: A green oil sands — a future that marries what he calls the 3 Es, energy, environment and economy, using technology to increase recovery, reduce emissions and capture carbon dioxide.

But the key, he insists, is the government taking charge, making hard and clear rules, instead of waiting and hoping industry will make the full push.

“If governments aren’t going to lead, it won’t happen,” Mr. Mansell says. “We’re a nation that’s never achieved our potential. We’ve done okay but we’ve never reached the next level.”

It’s the lack of precise policies that discourages improvement and innovation, he said. “You have to have the market working for you. It needs the right signals, the right incentives… . It’s like a mission to the moon. If we point people in the right direction, we’ll come out with wonderful things.”

Mr. Mansell, an economist like Mr. Harper, who remains a good friend, said the Prime Minister has always believed the environment is a major priority even if wasn’t among his top five coming into office a year ago. But that situation is now changed dramatically with Mr. Harper establishing a special cabinet committee devoted to the problem alongside his remade cabinet.

Facing a reinvigorated Liberal Party and Canadians’ focus on the environment, the Conservatives are in a hurry to get green. It is a race companies in the oil sands have been running for years, some of them for decades. While the Conservatives appear ready for a sprint — Mr. Baird declared Thursday that “This year, I’m going to clean up the environment” — this race is clearly a marathon, a difficult and challenging slog, where the costs begin in the hundreds of millions of dollars and many of the solutions are unproven.

“Cleaning up the environment is not a one-year fix,” said Marcel Coutu, chief executive officer of Canadian Oil Sands Trust, the largest owner of Syncrude Canada Ltd., the country’s biggest oil sands producer. “We’ve already been doing it 28 years, I have to tell this guy [Mr. Baird]. The government can’t be so scared of not getting elected that it makes rash decisions.”

Syncrude has spent several hundred million dollars to prevent emissions of sulphur dioxide, which causes acid rain but isn’t a greenhouse gas, as part of a new expansion. The effort reduced SO{-2} output by 16 per cent as oil production increased 40 per cent. Mr. Coutu said Syncrude is building another reduction unit for about $800-million to further slash sulphur dioxide by about half.

“The motivation is really to demonstrate to the Alberta regulators that we have a sustainable business,” Mr. Coutu said. “We try to volunteer efforts before they’re dictated to us.”

In terms of CO{-2} emissions, the chief global warming culprit, Syncrude’s record is uneven. Its emissions per barrel haven’t fallen in recent years and more oil production means emissions will surge.

The emissions are the result of the massive amounts of energy required to power oil sands operations, to dig up and process raw bitumen into synthetic oil. Other oil sands miners, such as Suncor Energy Inc., have cut emissions per barrel, but like Syncrude, Suncor is expanding rapidly. Production in the oil sands in general could reach more than three million barrels a day, up from about one million currently, meaning that per-barrel improvements are swamped by several more million barrels of output.

Mr. Coutu said people and government have to remember the importance of the oil sands and Syncrude, noting that the producer’s output is the equivalent of 20 per cent of Canada’s gasoline supply.

“That’s a big, big number. I don’t think the country wants us to stop being a leading oil producer.”

The first big step to attack emissions in the oil sands is capturing carbon dioxide emissions, according to Clive Mather, CEO of Shell Canada Ltd. He, like others such as Mr. Mansell, envisages “an Alberta showcase to the world,” where oil sands emissions are captured, then moved by pipeline to old oil fields around Edmonton, where the gas would be injected to increase oil recovery while the carbon would be effectively permanently stored.

Progress, however, is slow, and the Alberta and federal governments have not yet shown themselves willing to make real commitments. The challenges of cost and technology are considerable hurdles.

“It’s very big dollars — these are big projects — you can’t click your finger and make it happen,” Mr. Mather said. “We’ll do it as quickly as practically possible but I wouldn’t put a specific time frame on it.”

In between the big leaps are many small steps. Shell, in partnership with federal government scientists, has developed new technology to use less energy to remove sand and other debris from oil sands during processing. Shell plans to use it as part of a major expansion and would cut about 1 per cent a year from its current greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. Mather said he welcomes new government rules as part of a revamped Clear Air Act expected in the next month or so.

“With the right framework, I’m confident that we can make a real difference, and quite quickly.”

Like capturing carbon, the big gains in the oil sands to contain emissions have to come from next-generation technology, according to Mr. Mansell. Mining is currently the predominant extraction method but 90 per cent of the oil sands can only be recovered through so-called in situ methods, generally by drilling wells and injecting steam to force the viscous bitumen to the surface. The method was developed in the 1980s at the University of Calgary, when research dollars to support such efforts were three times higher than today in real dollars, Mr. Mansell said, calling today’s funding “totally inadequate, if you look at it in terms of the size of the challenge — and more importantly the huge opportunity.”

He worries that the boom in investment dollars right now might leave Canada with a framework of equipment in the oil sands that in two decades will be badly out of date. The potential for advances, he said, is staggering.

Mr. Mansell described “underground reactors” as the next step for the oil sands, where the materials injected into in-situ wells would do more than carry bitumen to the surface: they could partly process the oil underground, resulting in a higher-grade product. This could significantly cut both the amount of natural gas needed to power the process and the emissions kicked out into the atmosphere. By 2015, Mr. Mansell pictures technology that cuts energy use by half, emissions by three-quarters, all the while more than doubling the quality of oil brought to the surface.

On the ground south of Fort McMurray, EnCana Corp. is the leading developer of steam injection in wells to recover bitumen. Drew Zieglgansberger, in charge of oil sands drilling at EnCana, said the company constantly employs innovations, recently using subsurface pumps to pull more bitumen out of the ground using with the same amount of power. EnCana, like the University of Calgary and the industry, sees opportunity in combining steam injection with solvents such as butane or propane, cutting the energy use and emissions while increasing output.

“I don’t see change slowing down,” Mr. Zieglgansberger said.

Throughout the oil sands, the potential answers are numerous. This year, Nexen Inc. and partner OPTI Canada Inc. start in-situ operations at Long Lake, which could break new ground on a large scale with OPTI technology that slashes the need for natural gas, and in turn, the output of emissions.

But everyone — CEOs to environmentalists — insists the threads of change must be stitched together by governments’ lead. Eric Lloyd, president of Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada, said that without change, Canada will “screw up” the land, air and water, but he has hope, too: “What we’ve had so far is mostly unplanned growth. The potential is there for it to turn out right, but I haven’t seen any serious policy.”

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