In-Situ Extraction Method

Fact: In-situ techniques are generally used to recover bitumen that is more than 200 feet deep and where surface mining is not viable.

  • Currenly, 20 per cent of Alberta’s total oil sands reserves are deemed to be mineable, the remaining 80 per cent can be accessed through in-situ techniques.
  • In 2007, Alberta produced 243 million barrels of oil from the mineable oil sands and 196 million barrels from the in-situ areas. That means about 45 per cent of the oil from the oil sands came from in-situ operations.

Fact:  In-situ technology is relatively new and has opened access to the majority of Alberta’s oil sands reserves. 

  • The potential value of in-situ oil sands development was recognized in 1974 when the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority (AOSTRA) was created to research in-situ technologies.
  • In 1985 commercial in-situ production began at Imperial Oil’s project in Cold Lake, Alberta.
  • The per-barrel costs of in-situ production compares favourably with mining techniques.

Fact: The two in-situ techniques most commonly used in commercial projects today are cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) and steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD).

  • CSS injects steam into the oil reservoir to heat up the bitumen to make it flow more easily, allowing it to be brought to the surface. The steam condenses into water in the reservoir and the water is often recycled and then reused as steam.
  • SAGD uses two horizontal pipes that are drilled into the oil sands formation.  The top pipe injects steam into the formation to liquefy the bitumen allowing it to flow to a lower pipe that brings it to the surface.

Fact: There are several evolving in-situ methods of extraction that are aimed at improving environmental performance and increasing production.

  • Vapour recovery extraction (VAPEX) is a method that uses solvents instead of heat and steam to make bitumen flow.
  • Toe-to-heel air injection (THAI) is an in-situ process that relies on underground combustion rather than steam to warm the bitumen and make it flow.  This method uses comparatively little water and emits fewer green house gases.
  • Low pressure SAGD uses electric submersible pumps to reduce the amount of pressure that is needed from the steam to get the bitumen moving.

Fact: In-situ processes come with a specific set of challenges, which are being addressed.

  • The main challenges facing in-situ producers are improving production rates and energy efficiency and reducing reliance on water.
  • There have been dramatic improvements in water consumption over the last 20 years.  In-situ facilities have progressed from using approximately 3.5 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen produced to using half a barrel of fresh water, a 600 per cent improvement. For the most part, water used to generate steam is drawn from underground aquifers, and operators use brackish/saline water which is unsuitable for human consumption. In-situ operators recycle up to 90 per cent of the water they use.
  • It takes about 28 cubic metres (1,000 cubic feet) of natural gas to produce one barrel of bitumen from in-situ projects.  Emerging technologies are aimed at reducing this level. 
  • Many in-situ producers install cogeneration units to produce steam and generate electricity.  Many projects produce enough electricity to be self-sufficient and the potential exists to send excess energy to the power pool.

Facts sourced by Oil Sands Developers Group (October 2009).

Sources for all facts available upon request.


Extraction Methods

Did you know...

Canada’s oil reserves are second in the world behind Saudi Arabia

Of 179 billion barrels of Canada’s oil reserves, the oil sands represent 97 per cent

For each permanent oil sands-related job, nine additional direct, indirect and induced jobs are created in Canada.

Currently 240,000 jobs in Canada are directly or indirectly linked to the oil sands.

Between 2000 and 2020, oil sands development has the potential to generate at least $123 billion in royalty and tax revenues for Canada’s federal and provincial governments.

The oil sands currently account for only 4.6 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is less than 0.1 per cent of total global emissions.

Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to legislate industrial greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Producers have made great strides in reducing the amount of emissions per barrel of bitumen extracted from the oil sands. The equivalent of 2.6 million tonnes of reductions have been made – the same as taking more than 550,000 cars off the road.

The province of Alberta has committed $4 billion toward climate change initiatives, including $2 billion for public transit and $2 billion for carbon capture and storage (CCS). This is the largest CCS investment in the world.

Air quality around oil sands operations is better than all North American cities reviewed by the Alberta Clean Air Strategic Alliance.

Alberta air quality standards are the most stringent in Canada.

Air quality in Fort McMurray is monitored around the clock. Results are available at the WBEA site.

Air quality has been extensively modeled and demonstrated to remain within Alberta’s strict air quality guidelines even with all projected oil sands development in place.

Oil sands are located below the surface of 140,200 square kilometres of land, 4.5 per cent of Canada’s total boreal forest.

Mineable oil sands only exist under 0.1 per cent of Canada’s total boreal forest.

While disturbance is occurring daily, in more than 40 years oil sands mining has disturbed about one hundredth of one per cent of the Canadian boreal forest – some 500 square kilometres.

Since 2001, coordinated efforts between government and industry through Integrated Landscape Management (ILM) activities have reduced land surface disturbance in the region by 20 per cent.

As required by law, and included in all project approvals, reclamation work is ongoing and continuous in the oil sands. All lands disturbed by oil sands will be reclaimed.

Mining is only an option for oil sands that sit less than 75 metres under the surface.

More than 80 per cent of the oil sands will be developed using in-situ technologies.

In-situ projects resemble conventional oil development and do not require tailings ponds, or mine pits.

In-situ operations create linear disturbance of the surface for wellheads. But new technology and processes, including low-impact seismic and directional drilling, are reducing that footprint.

In Alberta, Alberta Environment regulates oil and gas industry water use under the Water Act. Oil and gas companies are subject to the same conditions for use as any other licensed water user in Alberta.

Currently, the oil sands industry draws less than half the water allocation allowed by Alberta Environment from the Athabasca River.

Water allocations are strictly controlled during low flow periods.

More than 80 per cent of water drawn by industry from the Athabasca is recycled.

Non-potable water which is unsuitable for drinking, livestock or irrigation use is used wherever possible for in-situ production.

Alberta Environment prohibits the release of any water to the Athabasca River that does not meet water quality requirements.

RAMP, a multi-stakeholder body, conducts annual monitoring of the river’s fish species, fish habitat and water quality. The monitoring has not detected significant changes to the Athabasca River.

Bitumen from exposed oil sands along the river banks has seeped naturally into the Athabasca River as it cut its way through the landscape.

Tailings contain the water, residual bitumen, sand and clay that is left over when the bitumen is separated from the sand.

In the ponds, the solids separate from the water so the water may be recycled into the process again. Of the total water used by oil sands mines, 80 per cent is recycled.

During and after mining, the tailings ponds are reclaimed. No tailings water is released to the Athabasca River or any other watercourse.

The first tailings ponds will be reclaimed in 2010.

80 per cent of the oil sands resource will be developed using in-situ technology which does not require tailings ponds.

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