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To Green Oil Sands Mining, Solvent Instead of Steam?

Cutting steam from the mining process could slice emissions, but the new process may not be ready in time to matter

By Elizabeth McGowan

Jan 24, 2011
Syncrude oil sands mining

WASHINGTON—In their Canadian laboratories, engineering professors Murray Gray and Zhenghe Xu can demonstrate the science necessary to minimize the bulky carbon footprint of extracting fuel from Alberta’s abundant oil sands.

It’s putting it into practice in the field that will prove more difficult—but not out of the question within a five- or six-year timeframe.

Right now, the mining industry heats enormous quantities of water and uses the resulting steam to draw up the coveted oil buried deep beneath northeastern Alberta’s boreal forests. Eliminating or dramatically reducing that need for heated water, the researchers say, would drastically curb emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Environmental advocates told Solve Climate News the concept certainly has merit. However, they are concerned that such advanced technology will stay trapped in university labs unless Canadian global warming regulations pack enough punch to force industry to become greener.

Plus, they stress that a still-on-the-drawing-board idea would not staunch the flow of emissions from existing mining operations or those opening anew during the current oil sands boom.

Gray and Xu joined three of their Edmonton-based University of Alberta colleagues to participate in a whirlwind visit to the nation’s capital last Tuesday, and no doubt, public relations was the main reason for their two-hour stop at the National Press Club.

As rising concerns about national security force the United States to seek out transportation fuel from friendlier and more reliable sources, its northern neighbor is only too willing to oblige. But Canadian authorities know they could make a more convincing sales pitch if the mining and harvesting process wasn’t so destructive and energy intensive.

“In Alberta, this is the smell of money,” Gray told the audience as he uncapped a small glass vial of bitumen—the rich, black, tar-like, viscous type of crude oil that is a sought-after substance buried amidst the province’s sand and clay soil.

The tiny sample didn’t have an overpowering odor of petroleum. But that’s not the case at a typical mine handling at least 10,000 tons of bitumen an hour.

Emissions Part of Keystone XL Controversy

Alberta touts itself as the Saudi Arabia of crude oil. Geologists estimate that trillions of barrels of potential fuel are lodged in the province’s oil sands and that somewhere between 175 billion and 300 billion barrels are realistically available with today’s technologies.

Currently, some 1.2 million barrels are being extracted daily, Gray said, and that figure is supposed to more than double during the next five years.

“We’re only really scratching the surface of this resource,” he added.

Harvesting bitumen is now split about evenly between two different methods. One, open pit mining, is used to access the 15 to 20 percent of the deposits that are close to the Earth’s surface. It leaves an unsightly barren mess of scars behind because huge swaths of land are denuded of trees, plants and soil.

The steam-dependent second option, which allows access to mother lodes of bitumen deep underground, is referred to as “in situ” or “in place.” Not only is it much more carbon intensive than open pit mining but it is becoming more prevalent because that’s where nearly 80 percent of the bitumen is. This is where Gray and Xu are focusing their research.

In situ requires massive amounts of water to be warmed with natural gas. Basically, the steam heats and separates the bitumen from the surrounding sand, causing it to pool closer to the surface. Horizontal drain wells capture the bitumen. Gray and Xu say it takes about 2.5 barrels of water to extract one barrel of bitumen.

Cutting steam from the equation has the potential to slice planet-warming gases significantly.

U.S. is Canada’s No. 1 Oil Customer

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