Work on replacing natural gas as a fuel for Alberta oilsands production will accelerate under a research agreement between the provincial and United States governments, which is billed as a “milestone” for both sides

The Alberta Research Council and Idaho National Laboratory, the U.S. energy department’s main nuclear establishment, signed a co-operation agreement to work on potential northern bitumen belt applications of electricity, heat and chemical byproducts from reactors proposed north of Edmonton.

“This is a marriage made in heaven,” said Idaho laboratory Associate Director Bill Rogers. Although no budget for the collaboration was announced, he said potentially all of his operation’s 3,800 staff can be drafted as needed into the Alberta project. “The U.S. is dependent on Alberta for energy security,” Rogers said, pointing to the province’s “essential’ role as the biggest source of growing American oil and natural gas imports.

In the U.S. view, Alberta stands out as reliable and stable supplier, he emphasized. Elsewhere “we face nationalization of resources in countries that are hostile to the U.S.,” Rogers said.

ARC Vice President Ian Potter said the partnership plans to work out a research agenda by late summer or early fall. Potential topics range from making nuclear reactors provide heat for steam used in thermal oilsands extraction to production of hydrogen and oxygen used by bitumen upgraders, Potter said. Industry will be drawn into the research in an ARC tradition of supporting development since invention of the oilsands production process by council scientist Karl Clark in the 1920s, Potter said.

“Technology transfer to industry is key to our work at both our labs,” Rogers agreed.

The Idaho lab has built 53 reactors on its 2,200-square-km site near the Canadian border and developed the propulsion system used by the U.S. Navy’s atom-powered ships.

The Alberta project breaks new ground by giving an international dimension to American research, Rogers said. “This is a first for a national laboratory in the U.S.”

“Our current and future energy security of the U.S. is inextricably linked to Canada,” the American research establishment manager said.

The U.S. agreement to work with ARC came together after provincial Energy Minister Mel Knight visited the Idaho lab last year, the scientists said. Knight paid the call on the U.S. after proposals surfaced for two or more atomic power plants northwest of Edmonton near Peace River and Whitecourt. The co-operative science will “provide solid analysis and research on options available to address Alberta’s unique needs,” Knight predicted in a statement pledging support for the agreement.

Potter and Rogers set no target dates for adding a nuclear dimension to the oilsands but suggested a concentrated research effort has potential to start making a difference before the industry currently thinks possible.

A recent study by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) predicted that technical barriers and public skepticism will prevent atomic energy from having a significant effect on oilsands projects until 2020.

“Oil companies are notoriously conservative about deploying new technology,” Rogers said. But growing industry needs for more efficient and environmentally cleaner production methods show encouraging signs of speeding up improvements, he added.

Shell, Chevron and Dow Chemical are collaborating with the Idaho lab on devising uses of nuclear technology to reduce carbon emissions and natural gas consumption by U.S. oil and petrochemical plants, Rogers said. Growing pressure for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and natural gas use will encourage oilsands developers to pay attention to technical improvements offered by the nuclear power industry, a candidate to build Alberta atomic plants added.

“I’m confident we would be competitive,” Areva Canada President Armand Laferrere told a Calgary news briefing on Alberta growth plans by his subsidiary of France’s global nuclear giant.

While providing electricity at reasonable cost, atomic power stations make no greenhouse gas emissions and can replace depleting natural gas as oilsands plant fuel, Laferrere said.

Current oilsands operations burn 1,000 cubic feet of gas or more per barrel of synthetic crude oil output. As a result, the northern Alberta plants consume about one-sixth as much energy as they produce. Oilsands projects could burn about 2.8 Bcf of gas per day by 2020 — or nearly as much as all the rest of Canada now uses, say forecasts by CAPP and Strategy West, an Alberta consulting firm that specializes in the field.

Carbon-dioxide emissions in the bitumen belt will also multiply unless the industry adopts alternatives to burning fossil fuels as oilsands production grows, Laferrere added. Barring environmental breakthroughs, annual oilsands greenhouse-gas output will triple to more than 150 million metric tons within 10 years and top 200 million metric tons before 2030, Laferrere calculated.

Any breakthroughs made by the new Alberta project in atomic research for the oilsands could also be used for production of oil shale deposits in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, Rogers said. “We’re generating a powerful brain trust that will provide critical technical information,” Potter said.

While Alberta has no atomic power plants and is traditionally wary of proposals to build them, Laferrere suggested current trends favor nuclear energy. In less than two years, polls show Alberta opinion has swung over to a slight majority in favor of nuclear plants from a clear majority against, he pointed out.

Only part of the change is owed to vigorous promotional efforts by project sponsors, he suggested. The public is becoming increasingly receptive due to environmental concerns over greenhouse gas emissions plus spreading awareness that the oilsands threaten to drain supplies and drive up prices of natural gas.

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