Energy Excellence Awards: Companies earn high marks for efforts to shrink the land footprint in the oilsands
JWN · Apr 24, 2020
The second annual Energy Excellence Awards (EEAs) program, presented by the Daily Oil Bulletin, uniquely recognizes energy excellence and focuses on the advancement of collaboration within Canada’s energy industry.
The country’s oil and gas industry is entering what could be the most challenging period it has ever experienced. While the current COVID-19 crisis will undoubtedly touch each one of this year’s nominees, there may be no better time to celebrate the achievements of those developing the energy solutions for the future.
For 2020, the DOB received close to 90 nominations in four broad awards categories — Project Execution Excellence; Innovation & Technology Excellence; Exporting Excellence; and Environmental Excellence — recognizing work completed last year. The nominees were further broken down into 12 subcategories across the four groupings, before being judged by a committee of industry leaders.
From April 21 to May 6, we will be sharing the finalists in each of these subcategories. Today, we feature the best in Environmental Excellence in the subcategory of Cleantech: Land.
Special Note: Starting May 7, we’ll be hosting a series of special online webinar presentations to honour these companies and announce the champions in each category. Register here for these events.
Oilsands producers have gained an unwelcome reputation for land disturbance in northeast Alberta, where sprawling open pit mines dot the region. Nowadays, however, growth is primarily in the smaller-footprint in situ production sector, and companies in both mining and in situ are individually making strides to reduce their land disturbance in imaginative new ways.
Energy Excellence Award finalists for Environmental Excellence, cleantech in land, have focused on divergent ways of reducing their impacts on the landscape.
ConocoPhillips Canadachose to focus on a problem that extends well beyond the oilsands — food waste. In finding creative new ways of dealing with waste at its work camps and remote facilities, it is promoting solutions that similarly could extend to other sectors to solve the bigger food waste problem.
Should its technology pan out as anticipated, Acceleware Ltd.could shrink the already small footprint of in situ production by using electricity to replace the need for steam to heat the reservoir, thereby eliminating the need for all the infrastructure that goes along with steam production.
Cenovus Energy Inc., meanwhile, has found that amphibious technology could be a major contributor to its forest restoration program aimed at repairing the habitat of woodland caribou.
ConocoPhillips Canada: Discovering new uses for food waste
When one thinks of oilsands environmental impacts, food waste does not typically come to mind. But wasted food is a major environmental problem — the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates some 3.1 billion tonnes of food, about 30 per cent of worldwide production, is lost or wasted annually. Bad enough in itself, trashing such vast amounts of produced foodstuffs leads to further problems downstream, where its decomposition creates methane and other emissions that add to the environmental cost.
Though it may not amount to the oilsands’ biggest environmental challenge, it was one ConocoPhillips sought to mitigate at its Surmont oilsands joint venture with Total E&P Canada.
ConocoPhillips started by tracking the volume of food waste at the facility and camp and the associated costs through the number of trips to the landfill. To further its tracking, it used the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency definition of, and a standardized calculation for, greenhouse gases created per pound of food: a combination of the emissions produced through transportation of said waste to the landfill and emissions at the landfill.
The company then turned to Calgary-based Eco-Growth Environmental Inc. and its technology, which is based on the premise that 80 per cent of organic waste is comprised of water. Based on this knowledge, ConocoPhillips learned that it had been burning fuel unnecessarily to haul a lot of water to the landfill, as only 20 per cent of its waste is solid.
“To fix this, we partnered with Eco-Growth to make impactful changes to our waste disposal practices,” the company said. “We are now using a machine to help us properly segregate and reduce the amount of waste we produce; and where possible, we are switching to products that can be organically broken down by the machine,” such as compostable containers instead of plastics.
Overall, Surmont has seen a reduction of 235,197 kilograms of food waste that would have ordinarily gone to the landfill, a savings of $4,957 per month.
“The Eco-Growth machines have reduced our solid food waste at Surmont by 70-80 per cent per year…,” ConocoPhillips said. “This means fewer trips to the landfill and an associated reduction in GHG emissions.”
Additionally, ConocoPhillips is working with Alberta Environment and Parks and the Alberta Energy Regulator on ways to re-use its biomass. This includes hauling compost material to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo after it was thoroughly tested and approved as compost material.
It also includes re-using biomass to supplement the addition of sawdust in the company’s lime sludge process — the compost material has better binding mixing characteristics than sawdust. Difficult-to-revegetate areas could also benefit from its use as a soil amendment, and there is possible future use in site greenhouses to grow food for the Surmont Regional Residence.
ConocoPhillips continues to develop solutions with Eco-Growth to further reduce its carbon footprint. It is working to find a fit-for-purpose solution to additional waste streams such as paper and grease.
Last fall, Eco-Growth successfully completed a pilot project with the Town of Canmore and EPCOR to test the use of machines to remove moisture from their sewage sludge, 85 per cent of which was water. “The dried biomass was then combusted in Eco-Growth’s Calgary boilers. We may be able to do the same at Surmont,” ConocoPhillips said.
The company plans to share its learnings through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance to facilitate the broader adoption of the technology in the oilsands.
Acceleware Ltd.: Electrifying oilsands production
One of the biggest knocks against oilsands production is the high greenhouse gas intensity of its product. In situ oilsands producers typically combust large quantities of natural gas to create the steam required to produce bitumen. Until steam can be generated in a low emissions way or eliminated altogether, GHG intensity will remain a problem.
Acceleware has been working for a decade on the latter — to dispense with the need for steam by replacing the heating mechanism with electrically produced heat. If it works, and if the electricity can be produced by renewables like solar, wind or geothermal power, it is conceivable it could cut emissions as much as 100 per cent, the company maintains.
Additionally, Acceleware’s radio frequency (RF) technology would eliminate water use, and all the expenses that go along with sourcing, heating, recycling and disposing of it. Its simplicity could dramatically reduce the barriers to entry into the sector, allowing smaller companies that lack the wherewithal to invest the high upfront capital expense of steam-assist projects to enter the market.
Acceleware’s RF XL represents a “transformative innovation” to heat and mobilize heavy oil and bitumen, the company said, “resulting in dramatically cleaner and lower-cost production relative to traditional steam-based processes such as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD).”
Since 2010, Acceleware has executed an extensive research and development program and has proven the patented and patent-pending RF XL process in field-testing. Findings indicate that RF XL technology, coupled with new software advancements, can supply reliable heat to oilsands and heavy oil reservoirs safely and efficiently at the lowest cost and with the lowest carbon emissions, the company said.
By using electromagnetic energy to generate heat, the RF XL process converts the water already existing within the reservoir to steam, mobilizing the bitumen and allowing it to flow to the producing well.
“The transformative nature of the RF XL innovation can be partly explained through its massive environmental improvement potential. RF XL does not require any external water and reduces land use by up to 67 per cent,” Acceleware said. “It needs no solvent injection or solvent recovery, and is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent immediately [based on the GHG intensity of Alberta’s electrical grid power in 2020], and up to 100 per cent if a renewable electricity source is used.”
By eliminating fresh water use, it has a very small physical footprint and is scalable in “bite-sized” pieces that can significantly reduce the initial investment typically required for new thermal projects, the company said. An RF XL system can be deployed at a single well or a single pad, allowing operators to profitably scale one well (or pad) at a time and relocate the system multiple times to optimize productivity and returns.
“Operating cost efficiencies are driven by a combination of decreased energy, labour and service costs, along with enhanced efficiencies realized by using RF XL to deliver useful heat to pay zones [with] no ticketed steam engineers, no pressure vessels, nor pressure vessel compliance work required,” Acceleware said.
And the technology could allow for extraction from reservoirs that were previously considered not viable to produce. “In aggregate, it is estimated that RF XL could unlock up to six times more barrels of untapped Alberta oil, while saving billions of dollars on production costs.”
As the technology could open up vast amounts of untouched resources, it could allow operators to access better quality barrels by identifying, developing and producing those reservoirs or parts of the reservoir that will yield the best economic and environmental performance, Acceleware believes.
Given the minimal surface infrastructure and capital investment anticipated for RF XL, greenfield oilsands projects could be developed on a much smaller scale, perhaps 750-3,000 bbls per day, rather than the typical 10,000 bbls per day minimum size for new SAGD projects.
“With bite-sized greenfield oilsands projects now economically viable, oilsands development can be successfully pursued by smaller producers with meaningful benefit, including preventing valuable barrels from being stranded, creating local jobs, generating incremental royalty revenue and adding considerable value for the province of Alberta.”
Acceleware worked with a number of operating company partners as well as industry associations, drilling and service companies, software companies, and materials and electronics experts over the past 10 years to advance the technology. It established a partnership with GE Global Research to design the high-efficiency RF generator to be used with RF XL.
In 2018, the Calgary-based company announced a partnership with a major oilsands operator to contribute $2 million in financial support along with ongoing technical expertise and advice for the commercial scale pilot test. Acceleware has continued to test and refine the engineering of surface and sub-surface components for its commercial RF XL test, slated for 2020.
Cenovus Energy Inc.: Amphibious technology shifting reclamation paradigm
Oil and gas operations all share a common legacy of exploration footprint that has been linked to significant ecological risks, such as caribou decline. Cenovus recently announced it is responding to this risk through accelerated reclamation of abandoned wellsites as well as restoration of linear features within caribou ranges.
The goal is a corporate priority, the company said — in fact, its Caribou Habitat Restoration Program is the largest of its kind in the world.
Part of that program will be addressing linear features such as roads and seismic lines previously used for exploration. Linear features have become an issue because in many cases they have not returned to forest cover even several decades following initial disturbance. Cleared of vegetation, these narrow corridors increase predation rates on caribou by increasing wolf movement rates and allowing access into caribou habitat.
Historically the energy industry has relied on winter frozen conditions to complete operations on otherwise soft ground conditions and muskeg, including mechanical reclamation and restoration treatments. Frozen conditions present several challenges however, for both the quality and effectiveness of treatments but also, more importantly, for safety.
And with the expectation of warmer winters and more climate variability in the future, the winter construction season is shorter and less predictable.
“In previous years we have dealt with repeated incidents with equipment breaking through the ice and we are actively developing alternatives to winter-only access. In addition, we are limited to a few simple types of site preparation that can be completed through frost,” explained Cenovus.
The company has found that amphibious excavators were able to transit over muskeg without impediment and without leaving a significant footprint. In fact, even an amphibious all terrain vehicle left a greater impact. In addition, it found that the amphibious excavators were able to cross water bodies without damage to bed or banks of the water body as stipulated by regulation.
Cenovus also found that restoration treatment conducted in non-frozen conditions were of better quality and effectiveness that those completed in wintertime. Restoration treatments include site preparation (mounding and scalping) and recruitment of woody material through stem bending.
“Amphibious technology has the potential to shift the operational paradigm for resource industry working in the boreal forest where as much as half of the landscape can be forested peatlands or muskeg,” said Cenovus.
Application of this technology in forest habitat restoration has the potential to influence other activities and sectors as well, including forestry operations, oil and gas exploration, production, and site closure and reclamation, added Cenovus.
“More specifically, by applying treatments in non-frozen conditions, a host of new techniques are possible, [including] tree transplants, use of implements that may speed up treatments by three-fold, and overall much better quality control.”