Greening Oil Sands Extraction

GHG emission oil sands

Matt McCulloch, COSIA’s Greenhouse Gases Director, is passionate about Innovation, collaboration, climate change and clean technology adoption in the Canadian resource sector. “I have built my career around helping to find and deliver sustainable solutions to some of the most complex environmental challenges we face in the oil sands,” he explains

One way he’s seen oil sands producers reduce greenhouse gas emissions over his career is through energy efficiency. Simply put, that means using less energy in oil sands operations to perform the same task, eliminating energy waste. With energy efficiency comes a number of benefits including lower greenhouse gas emissions and less costs.

Natural Resources Canada recently reported that new technologies combined with better operational efficiency has allowed the industry to decrease per-barrel GHG emissions by 28 per cent between 2000 and 2017. (NRCan Energy Fact Book 2019-2020). McCulloch says there is more to come. “The goal of net zero or near net zero emissions is getting closer for many companies,” he says.

Through COSIA, producers are exploring a wide range of technologies to reduce energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions in both deep below ground (in situ) operations, which account for the majority of oil sands extraction, and at surface (mining) operations. Some of these advancements promise significant additional gains in energy efficiency.

For example: a novel technology that insulates tubing inside wells to reduce the heat loss has been tested in Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) operations. In the SAGD process, steam is injected into the ground to heat the bitumen so that it will flow to the surface. But the injected steam quickly loses heat and additional steam must be added to make up the heat loss. 

Vacuum Insulating Tubing (VIT) technology removes the air from between two strings of concentric tubing, creating a vacuum barrier that is difficult for heat to cross. By allowing injected steam to maintain its heat longer, VIT conserves heat and saves energy, reduces water consumption and shortens the steam cycle in operations – all of which reduce GHG emissions. Work is continuing to develop a VIT standard that can be adopted across the oil sands industry. 

In mining operations around the world, giant mine haul transport trucks are a significant source of GHG emissions. That’s why COSIA’s mining members have been evaluating various technologies to address this challenge, including  supplementing diesel with alternate fuels, modifying truck design, and even testing hybrid electric vehicles. It’s early days but gains have been made with commercialization on the horizon. McCulloch and his team are now collaborating with the Canada Mining Innovation Council to engage directly with haul truck providers to find ways to progress the most promising technologies.

The global information and analytics organization IHS Markit predicts that innovations and efficiencies like these could result in a further GHG reductions – up to 27 per cent in the GHG intensity (greenhouse gases per barrel) of SAGD operations and up to 20 per cent for mining operations – by 2030.

Interested in stories like these? Check out 
•    GHG 101: Understanding Greenhouse Gases 
•    How I spent my summer vacation
•    Oil Sands 101: What’s Different About Alberta’s Oil Sands? 

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Innovators, check out COSIA’s Greenhouse Gases Innovation Opportunity in Natural Gas Decarbonization

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