​Full operations at Sturgeon Refinery pushed to early 2020

Image: North West Redwater Partnership

The expected startup of full commercial operations at the Sturgeon Refinery has been pushed out again, from by the end of 2019 to early 2020.

An update on Monday from North West Redwater Partnership said that additional work and testing is required on the $9.5-billion facility’s gasifier, the unit that has held up the project’s switch from synthetic crude oil (SCO) to bitumen feedstock for more than a year.

The Sturgeon Refinery has been processing SCO into diesel since November 2017. At start up, the project was expected to complete the switch to bitumen by the end of 2018.

Ongoing diesel production is made possible because SCO is a partially upgraded product and does not need all units operational, North West has said.

The gasifier unit will process the heaviest portion of the bitumen barrel into hydrogen for the refining process, and produce pure CO2 to be captured for enhanced oil recovery.

“Multiple issues” occurred during the initial commissioning phase, including shorter than expected lifespan of the unit’s reactor burners and stress cracking in portions of the stainless steel piping and welds, project owners Canadian Natural Resources and North West Refining said in May.

In September, the companies announced that repair work had been successfully completed and redesigned burners were being installed.

The project scheduled a full test run of the gasifier to coincide with a fall shutdown to complete routine maintenance, inspections and repairs on the operating units.

In mid-October, a few weeks into the shutdown, North West reiterated its “best estimate” that the refinery would be running bitumen by the end of 2019.

The maintenance shutdown is about two-thirds complete, and a full test run of the gasifier concluded in October, North West Redwater Partnership spokeswoman Vanessa Goodman said on Monday.

“Four weeks of testing resulted in the production of on-spec hydrogen and CO2, and generated valuable data for our team to analyze,” she said.

“The gasifier has proven to be the most challenging unit in the refinery to start up, and this data will help our team assess any areas requiring improvement moving forward. Additional work on the gasifier is ongoing, and another test of the unit is planned for early 2020.”

The refinery is planned to startup in December using SCO to produce diesel again, with the expectation to begin processing bitumen in early 2020, North West said.

Its bitumen feedstock will come 75 percent the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission and 25 percent from Canadian Natural.

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