Report from Canadian organizations look at ways to reduce environmental footprint of oilsands in northern Alberta.
It’s a report that could change the thinking of the Government of Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada regarding one of the country’s greatest resources.
With the Athabasca oilsands, located in northern Alberta, being a valuable asset to Canada, there was a pressing desire to look at how new and existing technology can reduce the environmental footprint of oilsands development. A large-scale, in-depth report was conducted by the Council of Canadian Academies. It released its findings last May with a 252-page booklet.
The council assembled an independent, multidisciplinary panel of 12 experts from Canada and abroad. The Expert Panel on the Potential for New and Emerging Technologies to Reduce the Environmental Impacts of Oil Sands Development worked diligently for answers that could affect Canada’s environment for centuries to come.
“The oilsands of northern Alberta contain an estimated 169 billion barrels of recoverable bitumen and span an area larger than Canada’s three Maritime provinces combined (142,000 km2),” the report says. “Their development through surface mining and in situ methods is expected to play a growing role in global oil supplies. Bitumen production, however, is resource-intensive and generates a significant environmental footprint that is forecasted to grow alongside the growth in bitumen production if current methods of extraction and upgrading are used. And though recent oil price volatility will have implications for the rate of production growth, in the longer term production is expected to double with consequent environmental impacts on air, water and land.”
USING EXISTING TECHNOLOGIES
The Government of Canada, through Natural Resources Canada and with support from Environment Canada, asked the Council of Canadian Academies to find out the answer to their main question: How could new and existing technologies be used to reduce the environmental footprint of oilsands development on air, water and land?
Through extensive research, the analyses indicate that reductions in the environmental footprint are achievable in each of the areas considered.
The panel concluded that many of the technologies currently being researched, developed and piloted for deployment over the next 15 years could reduce the environmental footprint of oilsands operations on an intensity (per barrel) basis.
“Technologies have been identified in all five areas of the environmental footprint, including several that currently exist and are deployable in the short term,” the report says. “One of these ‘quick wins’ is the use of existing dust-suppression technology in mining operations. Dust, which is an important vector for the local and regional distribution of pollutants such as mercury and PAHs, can be readily suppressed, thereby keeping naturally occurring and man-made pollutants largely contained to the mine site.
“Also, the industry’s continued effort to improve efficiencies, which add up over time, will be important in the long run in all areas: retrofitting and replacing haul trucks in surface mining; ongoing improvements in steaming, well placement and well control for in situ production; and improving operational efficiencies in bitumen upgrading.”
Even if the planned technologies result in measurable improvements in performance on a per barrel basis, none are likely to bring about absolute reductions in the environmental footprint of oilsands operations, the panel notes. Reductions are needed for processes that result in discharges directly correlated with bitumen production, namely GHGs and tailings.
“Significantly reducing GHG emissions from the oilsands would make them comparable to other sources of crude, and reduce other air pollutants associated with GHG emissions (e.g., NOx, VOCs),” the report details. “Achieving a reduction in the volume and composition of oilsands tailings, which are more a local and regional problem, is necessary to improve future reclamation and minimize groundwater contamination from seepage.”
To reduce GHGs, research and development must focus on in situ technologies, because much of the forecasted bitumen production growth — and GHG emissions — will come from accessing reserves via in situ methods, the report adds. The most promising in situ technologies in the midterm are solvent-assisted, which decreases the need for steam in the extraction process and reduces related air emissions and contaminants from burning natural gas. However, even if fully adopted, these technologies would still result in a GHG footprint in 2025 that is higher than today’s baseline. More transformative technologies are therefore needed.
Based on current knowledge and widespread future adoption, the panel believes solvent-based technologies that eliminate the need for steam and the use of low-carbon energy sources will be important technology pathways for significantly lowering GHG emissions beyond 2025.
HAVING THREE SUPPORTS
For technology in general to have the maximum effect in reducing the environmental footprint, three supports are important.
“First, a well-functioning innovation ecosystem must be in place to foster inter-firm collaboration, knowledge flow between universities and industry practices, and openness to collaborative problem-solving on the environmental footprint,” the report states. “Second, oilsands regulation should support, rather than impede, technology adoption across the industry. Environmental regulations that prevent the release of oilsands process-affected water make the accumulation in tailings ponds on site a necessity and discourage firms from investing in water treatment technologies that can clean water to quality standards suitable for its release. ...
Third, monitoring needs to correspond to any comprehensive environmental objectives established for oilsands development.”
The panel acknowledges that much has and is being done to address environmental issues, but more progress is needed if technology is to catch up to the magnitude of the environmental challenges. At the current pace of oilsands development, the most promising technologies need to be ready for broad adoption in the near term lest existing and less-efficient technologies be locked into the majority of new projects.
“Short of slowing oilsands development, the most promising way forward is an AOSTRA-like (Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority) approach that pools R&D (research and development) resources and embraces collaboration and knowledge sharing across all stakeholders toward innovation focused on environmental performance, closure and remediation,” the report concludes.