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Improving efficiency in upstream oil sands production

Canada’s oil sands are ranked third only to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela in terms of recoverable oil reserves. We recognise there is concern among a range of stakeholders regarding the increased energy intensity and water use associated with developing oil sands.

According to Environment Canada, Canada’s oil sands industry has reduced production-related emissions by almost 30 per cent per barrel, since 1990. We recognise there is still work to be done. ExxonMobil and our Canadian affiliate, Imperial Oil, are committed to reducing GHG emissions at our oil sands facilities by investing in the development of incremental improvement and game-changing technologies. These technologies, coupled with cogeneration, can result in even greater emissions reductions.

Our Kearl oil sands project represents a next generation approach to oil sands development. At Kearl, we will deploy a new proprietary technology— paraffinic froth treatment—to remove fine clay particles and water from the bitumen and produce a product suitable for pipeline transport to market, eliminating the need for an on-site upgrader. Processing bitumen once, rather than twice (in an upgrader and at a refinery), reduces life cycle GHG emissions. We have also developed a new technology called LASER (liquid addition to steam to enhance recovery) to improve in situ oil sands recovery. The LASER technology allows for more energy-efficient and higher recovery of bitumen and will reduce the GHG intensity of this process by about 25 per cent. Our cyclic solvent process, currently under development, is a nonthermal method for recovering heavy oil that could potentially reduce the GHG intensity of heavy oil production by about 90 per cent.

Using cogeneration in oil sands production reduces our energy requirements and provides an efficient means for producing electricity and steam at the same time. Cogeneration planned for Kearl will reduce CO2 emissions by 500,000 metric tonnes a year, compared to purchasing electricity for the first phase of the project. Cogeneration facilities at our Cold Lake in situ operation reduced CO2 emissions by 40 per cent compared with generating electricity from coal-fired plants and processing steam from conventional boilers.

Another important concern surrounding oil sands development in Canada is the impact of water withdrawal on the Athabasca River in Alberta. About 3 per cent of the average natural flow of the Athabasca is allocated to the oil industry, half of which is used. At our Kearl oil sands project, we are constructing a water storage system to reduce water withdrawal from the Athabasca River during low-flow periods. Kearl will also use advanced technologies to recycle water and reduce water demand. Water extracted from the Athabasca River will be re-used about 18 times. Our Cold Lake facility uses half a barrel of fresh water for each recovered barrel of bitumen. To significantly reduce water consumption, approximately 95 per cent of the water recovered from oil production is treated, recycled, and re-injected as steam.

ExxonMobil and Imperial Oil are also progressing promising research on nonaqueous extraction. This emerging technology has the potential to virtually eliminate the need for water and thus revolutionise bitumen extraction recovery for oil sands mining operations.