(PDF Fact Sheet)

Fact: Oil sands developers and government invest time, talent and billions of dollars in the research and application of new technology.

  • Alberta companies spent more than half a billion dollars on research and development in 2007, and some Alberta-based energy companies ranked among the highest spenders in research and development in the country.
  • Together, industry and government have each invested more than $1 billion in oil sands research.
  • In 2008, 11 Alberta-based companies ranked in the Canadian Top 100 Corporate R&D Spenders list.
  • The Alberta government’s research and development investments are among the highest in the country on a per capita basis.
  • The Innovative Energy Technologies Program provides royalty adjustments of up to $10 million per pilot project that demonstrates the use of new or innovative technologies to increase environmentally sound recovery of reserves and responsible development. Since 2005, $148 million has been invested through this program.
  • More than $150 million will be invested in Alberta technology as part of the Canada EcoTrust for Clean Air and Climate Change.
  • The Hydrocarbon Upgrading Demonstration Program is a $300-million initiative to demonstrate upgrading integrated with gasification and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
  • The Alberta Energy Research Institute, the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta and the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for In-Situ Energy at the University of Calgary all use funding to research energy-related technology.

Fact: Extracting the oil from the oil sands was considered an economic impossibility about 50 years ago, but innovation overcame those barriers. Today oil sands account for about half of the country’s oil production.

  • Dr. Karl A. Clark patented the hot-water extraction process which separated the oil from oil sands in 1929, and this was the foundation for future development.
  • Great Canadian Oil Sands (Suncor) opened its commercial surface mining plant in 1967.
  • The provincial government created the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority (AOSTRA) to help industry access the oil sands that mining could not reach. This led to research breakthroughs that have enabled oil sands developers to create viable in-situ projects.
  • Advances in assistive technologies such as horizontal well drilling, multilateral well technology, 3-D and 4-D seismic, pumping systems and reservoir simulation and prediction techniques have also propelled the industry forward.

Fact: There are some specific environmental challenges that industry is working to address with improved technology.

  • Currently oil sands operations consume about 5 per cent of Canada’s natural gas supply, but new technology and methods may drastically reduce the industry’s reliance on natural gas particularly with some of the new in-situ methods that are being developed using solvents, underground combustion, geothermal and, potentially, nuclear energy sources in production.
  • Although between 80 and 90 per cent of water used in the oil sands is recycled up to 18 times, there is still great motivation to continue to reduce fresh water use.
  • The oil sands account for 4.6 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and one-tenth of one per cent of the world’s emission, and industry and government are investing billions in technologies such as carbon capture and storage to keep decreasing emissions.

Fact: The industry and government are investing billions in researching and implementing technology that will assist industry in further reducing GHG emissions.

  • The Government of Alberta will invest $2 billion in Carbon Capture and Sequestration Projects in Alberta with the objective of storing some 5 million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide (CO2) deep underground.
  • The Integrated CO2 Network (ICO2N) developed by industry is a proposed CCS system for Canada, which will move CO2 from industrial sites via pipeline to storage sites deep underground.
  • Studies show the ICO2N proposal has the potential to reduce Canada’s CO2 emissions by 20 million tonnes - the equivalent of annually removing four million cars from the road.
  • In July 2008, Alberta invested $4 billion to fight climate change.
  • An Alberta energy company started injecting CO2 into one of its oilfields near Weyburn, Saskatchewan, to boost recovery in 2000 and found that it also made an excellent storage site for the gas.
  • It is projected that the Western Canadian Sedimentary basic could hold about 4,000 megatonnes of CO2.

Fact: Advances in technology have aided industry in addressing air quality concerns.

  • The oil sands industry has used technological advances to continually reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) on a per-barrel basis since production first began.
  • Producers in the oil sands have invested billions of dollars to reduce SO2 emissions even further.

Fact: The industry is always searching for and evaluating new technology to continue to improve both the environmental and economic performance of in-situ projects.

  • Vapour recovery extraction (VAPEX) is an extraction method which does not use heat at all, but used solvents instead to make the bitumen less viscous. This conserves a significant amount of energy and dramatically reduces GHG emissions.
  • Toe-to-heel air injection (THAI) is an in-situ process that relies on underground combustion rather than steam to warm the bitumen making it flow more easily. Up to 80 per cent more oil could be recovered with this process, and more reservoirs could be accessed for less cost and with less impact on the environment. The method consumes very little fresh water and only half the greenhouse gases would be emitted.
  • Low pressure steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) uses electric submersible pumps to reduce the amount of pressure that is needed from the steam to move the bitumen to the surface.
  • Gasification projects rely on petroleum coke (a residue from refining) to supply steam instead of relying on natural gas, and the water from the mining and refining processes can be recycled to the gasifiers as well.
  • The use of geothermal energy is being explored for potential use in in-situ projects. The heated layer in the earth’s crust could be used to heat the water to generate the steam used to get the bitumen flowing.
  • Nuclear energy may also be used to generate steam with zero emissions.

Fact: Evolving technology in mining has also consistently improved both the economic and environmental performances of oil sands developers.

  • Trucks and shovels have replaced draglines and bucket wheels resulting in an increase in efficiency.
  • Processes such as hydro transport and low-temperature extraction have reduced energy use in mining and extraction by about 45 per cent per barrel since 1990.
  • Low Energy Extraction technology separates bitumen from oil sands at 40 degrees centigrade (versus the 80 degree processing temperature that was the norm in the 1990s) extracting just as much bitumen as the hot water process. This improves energy efficiency and decreased CO2 emissions by about 60 per cent.
  • The water used for hydro transport is cooler than that used in the tumblers or conditioning drums, so along with eliminating the energy required to operate the conveyor system, less energy is needed to heat water.
  • New technology will reduce the time needed to reclaim tailings ponds and eventually could reduce the volume of tailings or eliminate them altogether.

Fact: Right now much of the oil sands resource is still considered inaccessible with current technology, so investment and research must continue.

  • It has been estimated the currently inaccessible bitumen and heavy oil resources in Western Canada amount to about 900 billion barrels.
  • Without innovation, about nine-tenths of the bitumen will remain in the ground.
  • Inaccessible resources include bitumen in carbonates, in thin or uncontained pay zones, oil remaining in primary production areas, small deposits under tailings and those in more remote areas of Alberta.
  • For a mining operation to be economically viable, the maximum depth of overburden that can be removed is about 70 to 75 metres, but in-situ processes can’t be used at depths shallower than about 150 metres, so there are some deposits that are inaccessible with today’s technology.
  • More than 174 billion barrels of the resource is recoverable with the technology now in use, and about 315 billion barrels could be recovered with advanced technology, according to the Alberta Energy Resource Conservation Board.

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

Sources for all facts available upon request.


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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