September 2014

Reducing water consumption in the oil sands

COSIA announces new water technology centre

By Graham Chandler

Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) announced on June 19 the largest project of its two-year history. The $165-million Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC) will streamline testing techniques aimed at reducing water usage in steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) applications in the oil sands. SAGD involves drilling well pairs – one injecting steam and the other collecting the heated bitumen. The process, currently employed in about half of Canada’s production at the oil sands, requires large volumes of water to be heated, so operators have been continually striving to improve the performance and efficiency of their water recycling technologies and reduce their greenhouse gas footprints.

Expected to be operational in 2017, the WTDC initiative is led by Suncor and includes Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Devon, Husky, Nexen and Shell Canada. Research at WTDC will include looking at how to make boilers more efficient, how to optimize the chemicals used during water treatment, how to better treat the water and how to achieve better evaporator waste solidification, said Suncor spokesperson Kelli Stevens. “The ultimate goal is to be able to reduce water usage,” she said. “That is a big one in the oil sands, particularly in situ. Increasing the amount of water we recycle in the process as well as reducing our energy needs.”

The objective of WTDC, Stevens added, is to fast-track innovation, developing technologies that can be commercialized sooner than if individual companies were working on their own. Taking a technology from concept to commercial use usually takes close to eight years when working in isolation, according to COSIA. Collaborating will allow operators to share risks and costs. To ensure more accurate results, the WTDC will be attached to Suncor’s Firebag SAGD facility. This will allow operators to conduct tests under actual commercial SAGD field production environments for the first time.

COSIA as a whole consists of 13 oil sands producers and counts BP Canada, Syncrude, Teck Resources and Total E&P among its members. The alliance was launched in 2012 to consolidate the efforts of individual companies struggling to solve common problems affecting in situ and mining operations through collaborative research.

Since its creation, COSIA claims its member companies have shared 560 distinct technologies and innovations, having spent more than $900 million on research. The areas of tailings, water, land and greenhouse gases are research targets, identified as environmental priority areas (EPAs) by COSIA.

“COSIA is well positioned to fund and undertake large, complex, ­integrated, multidisciplinary and multi-year projects such as WTDC,” said Chris Powter, executive director of the University of Alberta’s Oil Sands Research and Information Network. The network is an independent organization that compiles and analyzes available information on the land and water impacted by mining projects in the oil sands.

COSIA also recently launched its Environmental Technology Assessment Portal. The portal invites companies, organizations and individuals to submit technologies for assessment that fit within the current scope of an EPA. “It is a significant step forward in providing a transparent mechanism for entrepreneurs to engage with the industry and get their innovations evaluated,” Powter said.

One frustration with the alliance thus far has been its lack of transparency. “It is my understanding that COSIA is undertaking far more projects than their website would suggest,” said Powter. “They could do a better job of letting people know the full scope of the work they are funding.” He said he believes COSIA will enhance its credibility when it provides the public with access to results from their work. “The tailings EPA has made a start at this by posting copies of reports they have commissioned. I hope that the other EPAs will continue this trend.”

No one at COSIA was available for comment before press time. While the organization does not make an annual report available to the public, earlier this year it began publishing a newsletter that leads to information about various research projects.

Suncor’s Stevens figures the transparency issue is being addressed. “Member companies and COSIA are working towards being able to release some really clear-cut aspirations and goals,” she said. “You are working with a lot of different players who think differently and it is just going to take some time.”

Next: Unclogging a vital artery
Ongoing expansion along Alberta’s Highway 63 promises smoother, safer route to the oil sands

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