Addressing climate change is top of mind for Canada’s oil sands producers who are doubling down on their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and achieve sustainable development of this important global resource. Game changing technologies aside, one of the proven routes to success is through small, incremental improvements that help oil sands facilities run as efficiently as possible.
Denis Westphalen, Engineering Specialist at Suncor Energy, and a member of COSIA’s In Situ Energy Efficiency working group explains what that means. “We use energy in all our industrial processes, for example, to heat or cool a fluid, or to move fluids around through pumping or compression. Energy efficient operations use the least amount of energy in the process to extract and upgrade the same volume of product at the same quality.”
Efficiency improvements lower GHG emissions and lead to a smaller environmental footprint. In fact, they have helped industry achieve continual reductions in GHG emissions across the sector, with per barrel emissions declining by 20 per cent between 2009 and 2018. “Energy efficiency is one of the many tools the industry is using to support Canada’s climate goals,” Westphalen says. Although unique to the oil sands processes, a number of these process improvements can be adapted to other industries in Canada and around the world, he adds, delivering environmental benefits there too.
As part of COSIA’s mandate to improve environmental performance in the oil sands, Suncor and other COSIA members are progressing several efficiency initiatives to optimize energy use in Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) production processes, an enhanced oil recovery technology that’s used to produce heavy crude oil and bitumen. They include efficiencies for existing operations as well as to improve the design of new facilities.
Westphalen and the In Situ Energy Efficiency group constantly scan innovating vendors for new technologies that can be evaluated and tested in the oil sands. All best practices, knowledge and expertise is freely shared among all COSIA members so that the benefits can be quickly deployed across the industry. One primary area of focus is more efficient steam generation and utilization. Vacuum Insulated Tubing (VIT) is one success story.
VIT minimizes the quantity of natural gas that’s burned in operations, while producing the same amount of bitumen product. In SAGD operations, steam is injected underground to heat bitumen so that it becomes fluid and will flow to the surface. The insulated tubing prevents steam from losing heat as it travels down the well, an innovation that saves energy, reduces water consumption and shortens the steam cycle – all of which reduce the industrial impact on the environment.
“Energy efficiency is a continuous journey that starts with better facilities design and moves to better operations that must constantly adapt to external factors,” Westphalen says. “Energy use and associated GHG emissions are continuously tracked in our facilities and success is measured by observing these metrics trending down with time.”
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