Sept/Oct 2008

Looking to the future: the Kearl oil sands project

Imperial Oil and ExxonMobil implement the first of three phases at Kearl

By M. Eisner

Kearl is a potential oil sands mining and extraction project located in Alberta, proposed by Imperial Oil Resources Ventures Limited (Imperial Oil) and ExxonMobil Canada Properties (ExxonMobil Canada). Its overall design will be similar to existing oil sands mines in the Fort McMurray region.

At the CIM Conference and Exhibition held in Edmonton last May, the Kearl project was showcased during the technical program. Co-author of the presentation, Gord Winkel, oil sands technology manager on the project, provided some highlights of the project. Winkel said the company is currently at the front-end of engineering and design for the first phase of this three-phase development that is projecting about 100,000 barrels per day for each of the three phases. The target over the life of the project is approximately four billion barrels.

Winkel described Kearl as a high-quality mine. “The oil sands have an average oil sand grade of greater than 12 per cent bitumen, with ore thickness of 40 metres and overburdened thickness of 21 metres on average,” he explained. “This makes it a high-quality ore body for mining.”

According to the company’s regulatory application, filed in 2005, the open-pit mine will likely involve an initial mine development of about 100,000 barrels a day, with two additional phases in later years. Work is currently underway at Imperial to gather information that will help with a final decision on whether or not to proceed with the project. That decision is expected later this year or early in 2009. The company has committed to providing a revised cost and schedule estimate once that decision has been made.

“The base mine will be developed in a staged approach,” said Winkel. “The initial mine development — the first train — will involve clearing and draining the surface area, removing muskeg and overburden to expose the oil sands for mining, and stockpiling the muskeg for use in future reclamation.”

On the mining side, the technology will be truck-and-shovel-based, including electric cable and diesel-powered hydraulic shovels. There will be a delivery of up to 100 tonnes per pass every dig cycle using the ultra class trucks with 400-tonne capacity. It will employ a double truck dump receiving hopper, double-roll crusher and surge bin, for steady delivery of oil sands to a slurry preparation plant.

The slurry prep plant employs a mix-box technology, vibrating screens and secondary reject crushing and processing. It will also employ hydrotransport technology that delivers oils sands slurry to extraction and prepares the slurry for the separation process. The project uses current oil sands mining experience, as well as a number of design modifications for improved performance. It also uses a low-energy extraction process for improved environmental performance and a high-temperature paraffinic froth treatment process that will produce a clean, dry bitumen product that will meet pipeline specification and marketability requirements without the need for additional upgrading.

The process tailings will be stored in interim containment facilities and transferred back into the mining pit in the form of consolidated tailings when space becomes available, which facilitates progressive reclamation of disturbed areas.

While the potential of the mine is exciting, Winkel said one of the most important aspects of this oil sands project is ensuring the health and safety of its employees, the local community and the general public in an environmentally responsible manner.

“We’re also trying to reward superior performance and promote a culture of learning and innovation,” said Winkel. “We encourage teamwork and collaboration. We work to remove barriers to productivity by providing clear expectations, respect for individuals and an adherence to the highest standards of ethics and integrity.”

Winkel cited a specific platform and planning base that supports a philosophy for a successful project, one that respects the environment and culture, through the execution of priorities, safety and environmental protection. The goal is to deliver the project on budget, remain on schedule for the construction and commissioning of facilities, and ramping up to targeted production levels as per plan.

“So now you have a bit of a flavour of what the resource is, what it looks like, the project goals and underpinnings,” concluded Winkel. “There it is, from pipe to endpoint.”

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