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Environmental Roadblock Ahead For Canadian Oilsands Gas Burn

About half the potential production growth in the Alberta oilsands will be lost unless thermal extraction plants curb their voracious appetite for natural gas, according to projections by the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI).

Without a cleanup, the northern bitumen belt will in 2026 hit a carbon emissions cap set by the province’s left-leaning New Democratic Party, said the independent agency, which is supported by industry, government and academic sponsors.

CERI’s latest annual supply cost review estimates that improving project economics in the increasingly efficient industry would enable oilsands output to reach 5.5 million b/d in 2036 -- up by three million b/d from the current 2.5 million b/d.

But the provincial carbon emissions cap -- 100 million tons per year -- is in sight, with gas-fired thermal plants already venting 70 million tons annually. The lid stops output with current methods at about four million b/d, up only 1.5 million b/d.

Without interference by the emissions cap, oilsands gas use would grow steeply, CERI said. “Total gas demand for the oilsands industry is expected to increase from almost 3 Bcf/d in 2015 to almost 6.5 Bcf/d by 2036.”

But repealing the ceiling is likely to be difficult, even if a revived provincial Conservative party returns to power in the next election due in 2019. “Greenhouse gas emissions are a major area of environmental concern in the oilsands sector,” CERI said.

The Alberta commitment to enforce the emissions cap played a role provincial political and business success in obtaining federal approval last fall for nearly one million b/d in export pipeline capacity additions by Kinder Morgan Canada and Enbridge.

“Not exceeding the absolute cap is of importance to government and industry,” CERI said.

As of 2014, the year of the last full national count, CERI said, “Total Canadian emissions of carbon dioxide-equivalent were 732 million tons, or 1.6% of global emissions. Of these emissions, 9.3% came from the oilsands sector. The effects of the sector on Canada’s total emissions and ability to meet international commitments to GHG abatement are substantial.

“Current on-site emissions will grow from 70 million tons in 2015 to 95 million tons in 2025, and the total share of the oilsands sector in Canadian emissions is projected to increase from 4.6% in 2005 to 12.8%. Given the production projection, the oil sands industry will reach the 100 million ton emissions cap by 2026.”

A forthcoming further review of the bitumen belt industrial scene will present a “techno-economic path on how to grow oilsands production but reduce overall emissions,” CERI said.

Numerous alternatives are under study, such as using microwave energy or soap-like solvents to replace thermal extraction with gas-fired steam injections into oilsands deposits. The new approaches remain in laboratory or early field trial stages.

In the absence of large-scale technical breakthroughs to date, CERI said tapping the oilsands remains a high-energy exercise. In addition to steam injections, gas is used for plant power generation and making hydrogen for hydrocracker upgrading of low-grade bitumen into light synthetic crude oil.

Gas burned per barrel of oilsands output ranges from 0.33 gigajoule (0.31 MMBtu) for a mine digging out non-upgraded bitumen to 2.58 gigajoule (GJ) (2.45 MMBtu) for a fully integrated plant using in-situ steam extraction and a synthetic crude upgrader, CERI said. The fastest-growing method -- SAGD, short for steam-assisted gravity drainage -- with horizontal well pairs for simultaneous heat injection and production flows averages gas use of 1.18 GJ (1.12 MMBtu) per barrel of non-upgraded bitumen.

Opportunities for economy-scale introduction of new methods may be emerging. “The nature of new project development in the oil sands has changed,” CERI said. “Ten years ago the industry was dominated by megaproject mines and upgraders, each built by several thousand people. Since then the sector has transformed into smaller, more manageable in-situ projects.”

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