The oil contained in Canada’s oil sands is one of the largest energy resources in the world.
To produce it in a way that’s not only economic but also has less impact on the environment has been one of the great engineering and technology challenges of our industry. ExxonMobil and our Canadian affiliate Imperial Oil have been investing in this challenge for more than 40 years.
Just last week, for example, our Upstream Research Company announced that it is licensing ExxonMobil’s patented steam injection system and production method, which allows producers to recover more oil from Canada’s oil sands with carbon dioxide emissions reduced by up to 10 percent per barrel. The technology was licensed to Baker Hughes, an oilfield services company.
You can read more about the technology in our press release, but this is an important advancement because nearly 80 percent of Canada’s oil sands can be produced through “in situ” or “in place” development, using technologies such as steam injection instead of mining. The more efficient we can make the steam injection, the more everyone benefits – from less energy use, fewer emissions, lower costs, and more supplies of oil from a reliable source.
The many research and technology advancements that have consistently improved oil sands production have been chronicled in the IHS CERA study Oil Sands Technology: Past, Present, and Future. The study documents the industry’s progress and investments that have contributed to “lowering the average amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted per barrel of output.”
Take our Kearl project in northern Alberta, which is scheduled to start up at the end of this year. Advances in technology, like those to be implemented at Kearl, will help produce oil from Canada’s oil sands with about the same GHG footprint of many other oils consumed in the U.S. For example:
- Cogeneration: “Cogen” technologies allow us to produce electricity and steam at the same time to power our operations – which helps reduce our energy requirements and overall GHGs. Cogeneration planned for Kearl will reduce CO2 emissions by 500,000 metric tons a year, compared to purchasing electricity for the first phase of the project.
- Paraffinic froth treatment: This technology removes some asphaltenes (an asphalt-like molecule) from oil sands bitumen in order to produce a product suitable for pipeline transport. The technology eliminates the need for the traditional on-site, high-temperature “upgrading” process after production. The expected results are energy savings and reduced GHG emissions.
These are just a few of the technologies producers are deploying, and there are many more on the horizon. At Imperial Oil’s Calgary research center – considered to be one of the leading oil sands research facilities in the world – scientists are also working to reduce the amount of water it takes to separate bitumen from the oil sands. “Non-aqueous extraction,” which some call “dry cleaning” the oil sands, is an emerging technology that could dramatically reduce the use of water and virtually eliminate the need for wet tailings ponds – a monumental step in modern oil sands production.
The development of these technologies is the result of our industry’s significant investment and research over decades – and it shows what the oil industry can achieve when allowed to invest and innovate.
Even the U.S. State Department recognized oil sands innovation in its evaluation of the Keystone XL pipeline project: “Oil sands mining projects have reduced greenhouse gas emissions intensity by an average of 39 percent between 1990 and 2008 and are working toward further reductions,” the final Environmental Impact Statement concluded.
In fact, State Department officials recognized that progress in oil sands development has led to Canadian crude oil from oil sands that is “similar in composition and quality to the crude oils currently transported in pipelines in the U.S. and being refined in Gulf Coast refineries.”
Our scientists and engineers will continue to advance the research and technologies that will help energy consumers benefit from this important resource.