Steam additives offer path to fewer emissions

oil sands in situ operations

The oil sands industry is exploring a number of clean technology paths that will help it reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Steam additives is a promising candidate. These chemical additives can improve the efficiency and performance of steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) operations, which inject steam underground to unlock oil in the reservoir. Industry is excited about their potential to boost thermal (energy) efficiency and produce more oil with less steam and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

SAGD is one of several thermal oil recovery processes used in the oil sands. Natural gas is burned to produce the steam, which when injected underground reduces the thickness (viscosity) of the oil so that it can flow to a producing well and be pumped to the surface. The process is effective but also energy intensive, resulting in emissions per barrel for the overall SAGD industry that are higher than the average barrel being refined in the U.S. COSIA members are pursuing various ways to reduce the steam to oil ratio – the amount of steam needed to produce a barrel of oil – to address this emissions challenge.

Supporting Canada’s climate goals

Cenovus Energy is one COSIA member that is currently collecting and testing different commercially available steam additives to assess their effectiveness. Their goal is to screen a dozen or so potential candidates through the lab, field test the most promising candidate(s), and if successful, move to commercial deployment. 

Like other energy companies, Cenovus supports Canada’s climate goals. “Technology is the key to success but multiple technology pathways are required. We need a suite of solutions to reach our emissions reduction and sustainability goals,” explains Cenovus reservoir engineer Lukemon Adetunji. “No one company can advance technology by itself,” he adds. “It takes collaboration to advance these innovations quickly and efficiently with less risk and less cost.”

One of many solutions

A member of the Innovation team at Cenovus, Adetunji is helping the company find ways to meet its ambition of net zero emissions by 2050 by developing innovative methods of producing oil and gas. His specialty is optimizing production with a focus on sustainable development. The company has committed to reduce absolute scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions by 35 per cent by the end of 2035, on a net-equity basis, and aims to achieve net zero from its operations by 2050. Steam additives are one of many solutions Cenovus is pursuing to achieve its net zero ambition. 

Steam additives make it easier for the oil to move through the sand, where the oil is trapped, and therefore reduce the amount of energy needed to produce the oil. Additives have performed well in laboratory tests, Adetunji says. “We need to get them to the pilot stage and prove them in the field before we can start to apply them commercially,” he explains. Overall, the industry is hoping to shorten this process, which can take five years or more.

Understanding steam additives better

Testing will quantify the benefits and performance of the various additives and allow the Cenovus Innovation team to understand them better. It will help the team identify what’s required to deploy them in operations and how to optimize them for different operating conditions on other sites. Although the current focus is on SAGD, Adetunji says steam additives could eventually be applied to other thermal recovery processes in the oil sands, lending emissions reduction benefits there too.

“Right now, we believe that with steam additives we may be able to get as much as 20 per cent reduction in our steam to oil ratio and GHG emissions,” Adetunji says. “This would go a long way to helping us meet our GHG emissions targets.”

COSIA members have identified de-risking steam additives for SAGD operations as a research priority. They are looking for steam additives from chemical suppliers, researchers and innovators that have shown potential to improve thermal recovery under high temperature high pressure conditions. The additives will be included in a testing program using defined and confidential laboratory screening methodology that would help SAGD operators understand the possible benefits and suitability for a field trial, and potential commercial application in the future. For more information, click here.