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Case study: employing new technology to unlock Canadian oil sands

ExxonMobil and Imperial Oil Limited understand there is concern among a range of stakeholders regarding the development of oil sands. Innovation in oil sands technology underpins our ability to continue to develop this resource safely and responsibly.

Canada’s oil sands are an immense resource, ranking third behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela in proven reserves. Future development of Canadian oil sands reserves will likely provide a measure of energy security in the United States and economic benefits throughout North America.

Nevertheless, stakeholders have raised concerns about the development of oil sands, particularly regarding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, land use, water use and tailings ponds. Our challenge as an industry is to ensure that we continue to move forward in developing this globally important resource in a thoughtful and responsible fashion. ExxonMobil and our Canadian affiliate, Imperial, are developing and deploying incremental and game-changing technologies to improve efficiency and reduce environmental impacts at our oil sands facilities. Taken together, new technologies will enable ExxonMobil to produce Canada’s oil sands with about the same life-cycle GHG emissions levels as many other crude oils refined in the United States.

Oil sands production

Oil sands are a naturally occurring mixture of heavy oil — called bitumen — water and sand. Producers use mining or in-situ extraction methods to recover bitumen, depending on the depth of the reserves. For in-situ recovery, producers inject steam into underground reservoirs that contain bitumen. The steam heats the bitumen and reduces its intensity, enabling it to flow and be produced. About 80 percent of Canada’s oil sands reserves are recoverable using in-situ techniques. The remaining 20 percent are shallow enough to be recovered through mining operations. The footprint of these operations is considerable, requiring careful environmental planning and management.

New recovery techniques

Advances in technology are the key to economic and responsible development of oil sands resources. Over the past 40 years, ExxonMobil has invested more than 2,000 work years in heavy oil research. These efforts include developing proprietary in-situ recovery processes, enhancing surface-related technologies and creating technologies to increase the value of heavy oil and aid in its transport. In an effort to reduce our environmental impact further and improve efficiency, Imperial researchers continue to deploy new inventions, including:

LASER: After more than a decade of research and pilot testing, Imperial is deploying a new technology called LASER (liquid addition to steam to enhance recovery) that involves the co-injection of low concentrations of pipeline diluent (natural gas condensate) with steam into underground reservoirs. The diluent helps reduce the viscosity of the bitumen, improves the bitumen’s ability to flow and increases the amount of produced bitumen per unit of steam. This leads to decreasing the bitumen’s GHG emissions intensity by more than 25 percent.

Continuous Infill Steam-Flooding: Imperial also piloted a steam-flooding technology to improve resource recovery in mature fields. Results from the pilot showed that the technology can improve resource recovery and reduce GHG emissions intensity for bitumen by up to 30 percent.

Cyclic Solvent Process: This technology is under development for in-situ oil sands sites. The cyclic solvent process uses solvent instead of steam to produce bitumen. By eliminating the use of steam, the process significantly improves energy efficiency, reducing produced-bitumen GHG emissions intensity by about 90 percent, and virtually eliminates water use. Imperial initiated a $100 million field pilot in 2014 to test this promising technology.

Paraffinic Froth Treatment: The Kearl oil sands mining operation in Alberta uses proprietary paraffinic froth treatment technology to process bitumen on-site. The process blends the bitumen with natural gas condensates to create a diluted bitumen product suitable for transportation directly to markets. This technology eliminates the need for a traditional on-site “upgrading” process, reducing life-cycle GHG emissions.

Non-Aqueous Extraction (NAE): Scientists at Imperial and ExxonMobil are working to reduce the amount of water required during oil sands mining operations. NAE could potentially reduce the use of water during extraction by more than 90 percent. NAE also produces dry tailings, facilitating early, progressive remediation.

Supporting oil sands research

In addition to the research carried out at Imperial’s Calgary Research Center, Imperial sponsors a wide range of energy research programs at Canadian universities and other institutions. Imperial is the founding sponsor of the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta, which aims to conduct breakthrough research to reduce the use of water and energy, thereby reducing the environmental footprint of oil sands development. During 2012, in another research endeavor, Imperial, along with 13 other major oil sands companies, created the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, designed to mobilize the best thinking, experience and technology available to deliver environmental improvements to the oil sands sector.

ExxonMobil and the industry as a whole have made and continue to make major technological strides in advancing processes, increasing efficiency and reducing the environmental impact of oil sands development. We recognize that stakeholders have concerns, and we understand the importance of ensuring that we do business safely and responsibly. We will continue to leverage technologies in order to find more efficient ways to develop Canada’s oil sands.