Often cast as an ecological pariah, the future appears to be brightening for Canada’s oil sands as domestic and foreign firms develop pioneering solutions that reduce the environmental footprint of extraction, while also powering commercial growth.
Leading experts agree that Canada is at the vanguard of research and production that will vault the sector into new global opportunities – and acclaim.
Ranked third in the world, behind only Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, in terms of proven oil reserves, Canada is blessed with the natural resources and expertise to meet the growing international demand for energy – a fact not lost on those who are on the cutting edge of the evolution of the oil sands.
“The main focus in the past was to develop the technology to make the oil sands competitive against other crudes in the global marketplace,” says Dr. Eddy Isaacs, CEO of Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions. “The current focus is to make it also environmentally competitive.”
Dr. Isaacs says this is being accomplished at the oil sands by increasing energy efficiency, reducing emissions of existing processes by adding lower-emission, next-generation technologies for production, upgrading and refining oil sands-derived products, tapping into carbon capture utilization and decreasing fresh water use.
Others point to the fact that Canadian research and development for the oil sands has created a technology and innovation juggernaut that will have a positive, lasting impact – not only in Canada, but elsewhere in the world where oil and gas are produced.
“Beyond the hundreds of thousands of jobs created across Canada and North America, the oil sands represent a unique opportunity for Canada to play a role as a global supplier of oil, especially as demand continues to aggressively grow in places such as China and India,” says Travis Davies, issues manager with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
“The oil sands represent a long-term economic engine for the entire country, and not only for the wealth they provide through direct sales of the commodity, but through the development of technologies required to exploit the resource in an environmentally sustainable manner,”
He says the oil sands also generate billions of dollars in tax and royalty revenue for governments, which are applied to areas such as health care, education and vital infrastructure, helping to sustain the high quality of life in Canada.
Canada is taking the lead when it comes to environmental research and development, says Chris Powter, executive director of the Oil Sands Research and Information Network at the University of Alberta.
“The oil sands represent a long-term economic engine for the entire country, and not only for the wealth they provide through direct sales of the commodity, but through the development of technologies required to exploit the resource in an environmentally sustainable manner,” Mr. Powter says. “These technologies will be marketable to other countries, as they focus on extracting more unconventional hydrocarbon sources.”
He notes that there are several examples of how research has resulted in significant improvements to key industrial processes, which in turn have lessened environmental impact.
“There have been reductions in processing temperatures that result in reduced greenhouse emissions,” says Mr. Powter. “There have been reductions in water use per barrel of production, and more rapid dewatering of fine tailings.”
He stresses that ongoing research will further reduce the long-term effects of oil sands production, such as trials to evaluate the efficacy of new bird deterrent systems and field-scale demonstrations of wetlands reclamation.
Mr. Davies says that the best new technologies in many cases are those that improve both economic and environmental performance.
With in situ operations, which involve injecting steam into wells to soften, then recover, heavy oil, there is now a reduced use of natural gas, he says.
“By using additives – usually light hydrocarbons such as butane or other gases, which are then recovered and recycled – to make steam in the oil sands reservoir, production efficiency improves, meaning less energy is used to produce more oil. That is better for the environment and better for the bottom line.”
The largest challenge with the oil sands, Mr. Davies says, is adapting the innovative technologies and processes to the vast commercial scale of the projects there.
“But if we step away from technology and research for a moment, one of the other major challenges is availability of skilled labour,” he says. “Companies and governments need to focus on training and skills development across Canada, as well as accessing foreign labour and economic immigrants.”
As for public perception about the future of the oil sands, Dr. Isaacs believes Canadians are factoring the economy as well as the environment into their views.
“My sense is that people see the oil sands as an economic engine for Canada, but with a caveat,” he says. “And that is that they have to be developed in a sustainable manner.”