Canadian Oil Sands Protect North Amercan Economies From Libya’s Civil War
Domestic Mine By Harold Hough
Unrest in the Middle East is driving oil prices into record territory. The Libyan petroleum infrastructure has been damaged in that country’s civil war. Meantime, civilian protests in other oil countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain mean the problem could get worse, not better
Fortunately, we have a solution right across the border to the north - Canadian oil sands. In fact, Canada's oil sands reserves are second in size only to those found in Saudi Arabia. Currently, one out of every six gallons of gasoline use by Americans comes from Canadian oil sands. By 2025, Canadian oil sands production is expected to rise from about 1.3 million barrels per day to about 3.3 million barrels per day. If oil sands development is maximized, Canadian oil sands could provide more than 40 percent of total U.S. oil imports by 2035.
With so much potential, it was no surprise that Suncor recently announced a strategic alliance with Total to expand oil sands production. “This agreement with Total is an important element of Suncor's plans to accelerate development of its growth portfolio and more than double our oil sands production by 2020,” said Kirk Bailey, executive vice-president, Oil Sands Ventures. “Together, we will be able to pool our manpower and capital resources and bring our collective strengths to bear to manage projects using best-in-class operating practices.”
Suncor and Total have agreed to develop the Fort Hills mine and Voyageur upgrader in parallel, so that both come on stream in 2016. The companies have also confirmed the Joslyn North Mine timetable, with production expected to begin in 2017-2018. These projects alone are expected to boost production by 207,000 barrels a day.
Suncor is currently producing 332,000 barrels a day in 2011. They will also invest over 4 billion dollars in oil sands development this year alone.
Although oil sands mining has been called environmentally unfriendly, Suncor has lead the way in reducing the industry’s environmental footprint. That includes tailing reductions operations which sends the dry tailings back to the mine for faster reclamation. They are also reducing tailings ponds and storage footprints.
TWO TECHNOLOGIES TO MINE OIL SANDS
Suncor has become the recognized leader in oil sands technology. In fact, while other oil companies were avoiding Canada’s oil sands as an energy source, Suncor made a strategic decision to stake its future on this resource.
One reason other oil companies avoided the Canadian oil sands deposits was that they were different from traditional oil deposits and very hard to exploit. The oil sands are a mixture of bitumen, sand, water, and clay, and if you looked at an individual grain of sand under a microscope, you would see a grain of sand coated with a thin layer of water and a thick coat of bitumen. Bitumen is a thick, tar-like hydrocarbon that can be processed into crude oil with a lot of effort.
Although the deposits were discovered in 1719, it took two hundred years for scientists to find a process that could separate the oil from the sand. But the process was difficult and although some companies tried to mine the sand, the region was only producing 450 barrels of oil a day during WW II. It was Suncor, which opened up its first commercially successful oil sands mine over 40 years ago, that has managed to perfect an economical way to mine the oil sands.
There are two ways to mine the oil sands. One is the traditional method of digging up the sand and then transporting it to a processing facility. There, the oil sands are crushed and treated with hot water, while the debris is screened off. After the bitumen and sand mixture is separated from the rest of the mixture, it is diluted with naphtha, which strips the oil from the individual grains of sand.
After the naphtha is removed for recycling, the bitumen is heated and thermally cracked. The result is coke, which is used to generate energy for the operation, and gases, which are liquefied to become synthetic crude oil. Since the sulfur has been removed during the process, the resulting crude oil is cleaner, higher grade oil than most natural products.
However, only 20% of the oil sands are reachable through traditional surface mining. That forced Suncor to look for another technology to tap the bulk of its oil sands.
The second method to recover the bitumen is environmentally friendlier - in situ mining. In situ mining uses horizontal wells to reach the oil sands. One well injects steam to heat the reservoir, allowing the bitumen to flow to the lower well where it is collected and piped to upgrading facilities. This leaves the sand in place, opens up more oil sands reserves, and dramatically reduces reclamation costs.
As oil prices soar and the situation in the Middle East looks more problematic, more energy companies will find mining Canadian oil sands more attractive. Canada’s oil sands represent a massive energy source in our back yard that can protect our economy no matter what happens in Libya, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.