The status of nine technologies Suncor is working on to reduce oilsands GHGs

Entrance to Suncor's MacKay River SAGD project northwest of Fort McMurray. Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

In its annual sustainability report issued this week, Suncor Energy outlined some of the new technologies it is developing alone or with partners to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from its oilsands operations.

Last year the company announced its goal to reduce the total emission intensity of its oil production and petroleum products by 30 percent by 2030.

In 2016, Suncor’s emission intensity stayed flat compared to 2015 at both its mining and in situ oilsands operations, according to the report, at 0.46 and 0.45 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per cubic metre of oil production, respectively.

For in situ production, this is a reduction compared to 0.48 in 2014 and 0.54 in both 2013 and 2012. For mining, it is a reduction compared to 0.50 in both 2014 and 2013, and 0.56 in 2012.

Here are nine of the new technologies that Suncor is working on to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands.

  1. The company is evaluating the investment of replacing the coke-fired boilers at its oilsands base plant with natural gas boilers, which it estimates would result in significant emissions reductions of one megatonne a year.
    “Another option we are evaluating is the potential to install highly efficient natural gas cogeneration units in place of natural gas boilers,” the company says.
  2. In the near term, Suncor says it is working on a SAGD design that uses less metal, is more efficient and creates a smaller footprint. “Through that we expect to see reduced emissions, water usage and costs,” Suncor says.
  3. Further out, the company is developing a portfolio of technologies that use less or no steam, and a combination of solvents, surfactants, and radio frequency heating.
    “In our view, a likely solution will be a hybrid of many of the innovative approaches and technologies we’re testing,” the company says.
    Suncor says it successfully executed pilot projects testing surfactant technology at both the Firebag and MacKay River SAGD projects in 2015. One program at MacKay River has been extended to a larger technology demonstration in 2017.
  4. For SAGD wells in later life, Suncor has been testing non-condensable gas co-injection, which is designed to reduce steam/oil ratios while maintaining production and pressure.
    “This technique reduces environmental impact by optimizing steam demand at our facilities while reducing energy intensity and CO2 emissions,” Suncor says.
    “The pilot projects at Firebag and MacKay River have shown encouraging results prompting larger technology demonstrations that are expected to commence operation later in 2017.”
    Suncor is also examining the use of NCG injection to improve reservoir extraction, it says.
    “By increasing gas cap pressure, SAGD may be able to maintain SOR longer, reducing CO2 emissions. Finally, Suncor is reviewing the opportunity to replace methane with CO2, with the goal of saving costs and sequestering emissions.”
  5. The company is leading a project investigating the potential benefits of using direct contact steam generation (DCSG) as an alternative to the existing once-through steam generators used in SAGD.
    In DCSG, instead of steam and CO2 being separated during steam generation, the CO2 remains in the injection stream.
    “This technology, if proven viable, will lower GHG emissions, water and land intensity while improving the economics of in situ projects,” Suncor says.
    A six-12 month pilot project at MacKay River is currently co-injecting CO2 with steam into one well pair to assess the potential impacts to reservoir performance, determine if production is maintained, achieve a lower SOR and confirm CO2 sequestration potential. Start-up of the field pilot began in the fourth quarter of 2016 and is scheduled to last until the middle of 2017. Results will be available in late 2017.
    Suncor is also working in collaboration with CanmetEnergy to construct a lab pilot in Ottawa. Testing is scheduled to being in 2017.
    “The lab will enable a long-term controlled testing environment in support of the field demonstration and commercial implementation,” Suncor says.
    The company says it is also working with CanmetEnergy and other vendors to design a field demonstration of Direct Contact Steam Generation scheduled to begin at Firebag in late 2019 or early 2020.
  6. In 2014 and 2015 Suncor and its partners in Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance tested de-oiling technologies and water treatment membranes at the MacKay River SAGD project.
    Phase 2 development work progressed throughout 2016, and the final phase of pilot testing onsite is anticipated to occur in late 2017.
    “These technologies could enable treating and reusing the water more consistently which means being more operationally efficient and requiring less energy,” Suncor says.
  7. The new Fort Hills mine will be using paraffinic froth treatment (PFT) to convert bitumen froth generated in the extraction circuit into an upgrader feedstock. This system, already in use at the Athabasca Oil Sands Project and Kearl, selectively rejects part of the lowest-quality part of the barrel to create a lighter, higher quality bitumen that requires less diluent to transport by pipeline.
    “PFT also removes the remaining solids and water, leaving us more flexibility for downstream processing,” Suncor says. “As a result of this partial decarbonization process, we expect to see lower life-cycle GHGs and energy intensity to get our refined products to the market.”
  8. Suncor is part of a technology consortium currently in the second phase of testing electromagnetic heating for in situ oilsands production at its Dover site.
    If commercially successful, the technology, called ESEIEH, could reduce energy requirements by up to 75 percent, which reduces costs and GHG emissions, as well as eliminate process water needs and significantly reducing the size and complexity of the surface facility, reducing both capital costs and land footprint.
    Preliminary results are anticipated in 2018.
  9. Suncor is currently evaluating the results of another field test at Dover, which piloted the Nsolv process, a condensing solvent extraction technology that does not use any water and requiring up to 80 percent less energy.
    “This potential energy reduction could have a significant impact on GHG emissions,” the company says.
    “Suncor is working collaboratively with Nsolv to evaluate the results from this pilot and to understand how the technology can be optimized in order to advance to the next stage which would be to deploy at a commercial scale demonstration facility.”