The injection or co-injection of solvents for in situ oilsands production is seen as the industry’s greatest opportunity to significantly decrease emissions and enable growth under the new CO2 cap.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) is even exploring putting together a proposal for a joint industry-government investment in the technology akin to work by the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority (AOSTRA) in the 1980s and early 1990s that resulted in the game-changing commercialization of SAGD.
“AOSTRA unlocked resource potential far in excess of what anyone has expected in terms of production for oilsands. We’re facing a very similar type of technological advancement, and it’s going to take that type of commitment from both sides to unlock the next phase of oilsands development," Ben Brunnen told the Daily Oil Bulletin.
While the Pembina Institute concedes that application of solvent technology could result in meaningful benefits including greenhouse gas and cost reduction, it also poses risks, according to this blog posted last week by analyst Benjamin Israel titled “Using solvents in the oilsands: The good, the bad and the ugly.”
“While solvent-based technologies appear to have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of oilsands facilities that use them, there are uncertainties with the technology and gaps in rules guiding the practice,” Israel writes.
“If the oilsands industry is to survive in a low-carbon world it must significantly reduce its carbon intensity and operating costs. Solvent-based technologies may have merit in this context. But in adopting it, let’s make sure we don’t compromise other facets of the environment in the interest of greenhouse gas emission reductions.”
So what’s “the bad,” in Israel’s view? Mainly, it appears to be the potential for surface or subsurface contamination from the injected solvent.
“Solvent-assisted techniques leave residual solvent underground after bitumen is extracted (between 30 per cent and 50 per cent in the case of Imperial Oil’s technology tested at Cold Lake),” he writes.
“While an operation is productive, the subsurface is monitored and the operation is designed to detect any foreseeable solvent loss. How solvent loss is mitigated after detection is not well understood. Furthermore, after production ceases, there is still a risk of solvent leakage, which could contaminate subsurface zones or, in the extreme, release the solvent to surface.”
Israel’s “ugly” about solvents is that the industry and the government are not adequately prepared to manage wide scale development.
“The oilsands industry has a long history of broken promises when it comes to mitigating its impact on the landscape,” he writes.
“If solvent injection is truly the next generation of oilsands production, then rules guiding site selection, resource characterization, operating parameters, and closure and abandonment requirements need to be established early. This will provide greater public assurance that the potential for unanticipated environmental impacts from solvent-based extraction technologies has been minimized or eliminated.”