Sept/Oct 2008

Full steam ahead

Suncor pushes the envelope at the Firebag in situ project

By D. Zlotnikov

Firebag in situ operation at sunset

Suncor is utilizing innovative technology and recruitment efforts at its Firebag in situ project — part of the company’s $20.6 billion Voyageur expansion.

Having first entered the game over 40 years ago, Suncor is certainly no newcomer to the oil sands. Over the years, the company has grown through the surges and dips of the oil market. Today, it is well positioned to reap the benefits of the high demand for crude. At an average of 300,000 barrels of bitumen extracted every day, Suncor is the second-largest producer in the oil sands and, thanks to the 35,000 barrels per day (bpd) currently produced at the company’s Firebag project, is also among the largest in situ operators. But Firebag is poised to become an even bigger development, with planning and construction underway on four additional stages.

Centre stage

According to Suncor’s vice president of in situ operations Mike MacSween, Firebag, which is part of Suncor’s $20.6 billion Voyageur expansion, is to be brought online in stages. Firebag stages one and two and a further expansion are currently operational, and the newest, Stage 3, is under construction, with 30 per cent of the work completed so far. In total, $9 billion is earmarked for the Firebag stages 3 to 6, but the returns seem well worth it, with each stage expected to produce 65,500 barrels of bitumen per day. After debottlenecking is complete, it is anticipated that the full six-stage Firebag complex will produce 370,000 barrels of bitumen per day.

The Voyageur upgrader, Suncor’s third such facility, was approved as part of the expansion and will be constructed just west of Suncor’s base plant. Together, Firebag and Voyageur are expected to produce over 200,000 barrels of crude oil per day, 85 per cent of which will be the much-sought sweet crude and diesel.

“The main site for Stage 3 has been cleared and is 1.75 by 0.75 kilometres,” said MacSween. “I was driving to the site today and passed some large modules that were on their way here. The undergrounds are complete and we’re busy erecting vessels on the surface.”

Stage 3 is slated to begin producing its first steam towards the end of 2009. Following the steam-in treatment of the wells — a process that takes approximately three months — it will produce its first oil early in 2010. The remaining three stages will begin producing bitumen at staggered intervals, leading up to the full production target of 260,000 barrels per day in the final quarter of 2011. The new upgrader is to follow a matching schedule, slated to come online near the end of 2011.

Waste not, want not

An expansion of this size is an exercise in management, not only of the engineering work and supply chain logistics, but also of the complex process of permitting. Suncor is very well aware of the issue; an in situ operation is inherently more energy-intensive than an open pit one. In 2007, when Firebag’s sulphur emissions exceeded the permitted levels, the project’s output was restricted by Alberta regulators to 42,000 barrrels per day — less than half of the potential output of 90,000. But recently introduced waste treatment improvements have lowered the emissions to such a degree that the province removed the cap in July this year. MacSween does not expect the cap to be an issue even as the new stages come online.

The facility will rely on a set of five gas-powered co-generation units, each producing approximately 85 megawatts of electricity and one of which is currently operating. These are used to power the facilities and generate steam for the in situ process, and to export power to Suncor’s base plant. But the natural gas used to power the generators must be purchased, and it does not come cheaply.

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