The game-changing technologies that are reducing environmental impacts – Suncor’s 2013 Report on Sustainability

Investing in game-changing technologies – Suncor’s 2013 Report on Sustainability

How Suncor’s technology and innovation strategy achieves tangible performance improvements – 2013 Report on Sustainability

Read about how Suncor’s latest technology innovations and investments are having an impact in the 2013 Report on Sustainability

View the latest Report on Sustainability

Technology development

Suncor pioneered oil sands development. Our early investments in technology helped unlock the potential of the oil sands by improving reliability and environmental performance, expanding productivity and driving down costs while reducing our environmental footprint.

Today, technology remains fundamental to how we do business. Our investments in incremental and game-changing technologies target:

  • higher production
  • enhanced profitability
  • reduced environmental impacts

"When it comes to technology, there is no shortage of people with good ideas," says Gary Bunio, who was appointed Suncor's general manager, technology development, in September 2012. "But there can be a gaping divide between conception and implementation. Our number one job is to find the technologies that can be applied to our real-world challenges and then to do the technology development work required to use them to reduce the resource intensity necessary to deliver our products to market."

Suncor's technology and innovation strategy is focused in three key areas:

  • continuous improvement — applying known techniques to existing issues
  • operations technology — applying new technologies to existing assets and issues
  • growth technology — applying new technologies in new assets, processes and businesses

In some cases, Suncor aggressively leads the research and development of new technologies. In others, we collaborate through consortiums or third parties. We also monitor technologies being developed by external parties to determine if, and when, it makes sense to adapt them for our business.

"The common thread to all this," says Bunio, "is an emphasis on achieving tangible performance improvements. We need to focus our technology and innovation efforts where we know they will make a difference."

Some examples of Suncor's technology journey so far:

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TROTM: game-changing technology

It's a textbook example of how advancements in technology have the potential to transform traditional industry practices. As of 2012, Suncor completed more than $1.3 billion of work to implement our pioneering TROTM process in Suncor's Oil Sands operation. This new approach to managing mine tailings — based on years of research and development (R&D) and the significant investment by Suncor — is focused on a de-watering process that will more rapidly turn fluid tailings ponds into solid landscapes suitable for reclamation.

Suncor expects the TROTM method to result in reclaimable surfaces within 10 years after initial land disturbance — a third of the average time it used to take. The TROTM approach will also help reduce our existing inventory of tailings and the need for future storage ponds. We expect the net result will be a smaller environmental footprint and restoration of natural habitats years ahead of what industry can now achieve.

Read more about TROTM

Starting in December 2010, Suncor and six other oil sands companies launched a unified effort to advance tailings management. Each company committed to sharing its existing tailings research and technology and removing barriers to collaboration on future tailings R&D. Suncor waived its proprietary rights to the TROTM technology in order to share details of the process with the other oil sands operators and with university and government scientists. In 2012, this collaboration expanded to encompass all 14 member companies of Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).

Small technology, big potential benefits

A good example of an incremental technology with the potential to make a big difference are the pilot tests Suncor is conducting in 2013 at its in situ facilities as part of our surfactants program. Starting at our MacKay River site, we are adding slight volumes of soap-like additives to the steam in three steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) well pairs to reduce the viscosity of the bitumen/water emulsions in the steam chamber. By pursuing this form of 'SAGD Lite' (less intensive technology enhanced), we expect to significantly lower our steam/oil ratio, allowing us to produce more oil with the same amount of steam.

The advantage of our surfactants program is that it holds the promise of immediate benefits (more efficient oil recovery while using less energy and water) with minimal associated costs or environmental footprint. Similar tests are planned for our Firebag site (all tests have been approved by the Energy Resources Conservation Board).

Lubricants technology: the CIVITAS example

Suncor's technology story isn't all about the oil sands or our offshore oil and natural gas businesses. Our Ontario-based Petro-Canada Lubricants division produces more than 350 lubricating oil-based stocks and other products that are sold in more than 70 countries. Among those products is CIVITAS™, our first commercially available fungus control product that stimulates the plant's genes to fight off fungus and other diseases.

As we continue to market CIVITAS™ (and other products) beyond our initial push to golf courses, we are learning about new potential benefits and applications in the U.S. and Canada where CIVITAS™ is now used as an alternative to traditional fungicides. Those long-term applications could potentially include acting as an alternative to traditional fungicides, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides used in sports fields, residential homes, parks, agriculture or even industrial reclamation projects like those undertaken by our oil sands operations near Fort McMurray. We will continue to research and develop this environmentally responsible product to ensure we maximize its potential value.

Read more about CIVITAS™

Carbon capture & oxyfuel technology

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology has been identified as a key long-term tool for achieving large reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and bringing GHG emission intensities from oil sands production in line with conventional oil production. But current technology is too expensive for the industry to implement on a broad scale.

To address this issue, Suncor is collaborating with other oil and gas producers through the CO2 Capture Project (CCP). CCP is a partnership of six major energy companies working together to advance technologies to make CCS a more commercially viable option. The member companies of the CCP are:

  • Suncor
  • BP
  • Chevron
  • Eni
  • Petrobras
  • Shell

Oxyfuel technology demonstration project

Suncor is also involved in a collaborative research and development project that could improve the prospects for implementing CCS at in situ extraction sites.

Approximately 80% of the proven oil sands reserves are currently recoverable only through the use of steam-assisted in situ production methods. As a result, the once-through steam generator (OTSG) boilers used for a large portion of in situ bitumen production are expected to be one of the industry’s largest sources of growth in GHG emissions.

Currently available technologies for carbon dioxide (CO2) capture from OSTG boilers are expensive (more than $150 per tonne of CO2) and very energy intensive. Suncor and the CCP, along with Praxair, Devon Canada, Cenovus, MEG Energy and Statoil, are collaborating on a demonstration project that employs oxyfuel technology as a means to capture the CO2 produced from OTSG boilers. The pilot plant, located at Cenovus’ Christina Lake in situ operations, is expected to proceed in 2013, with results anticipated by year's end or early 2014.

Suncor has received commitment for $2.5 million in financial support from the Climate Change Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC) for the construction and operation of the Oxyfuel demonstration project. The CCEMC is a government-funded organization whose mandate is to establish or participate in funding for initiatives that reduce GHG emissions and support adaptation. The CCEMC invests in discovery, development, and operational deployment of clean technologies.

Why oxyfuel technology?

Oxyfuel technology uses high purity oxygen produced by an oxygen plant, instead of air, for combustion, and results in an exhaust stream of water and CO2. The CO2 can then be easily separated and compressed, ready for transportation by pipeline to a suitable underground injection site for long-term geological storage.

Oxyfuel technology offers several potential advances over existing post-combustion CO2 capture technologies, including reduced costs and energy needs, and simpler operations. The technology is expected to avoid and eliminate much of the CO2 emissions from in situ bitumen production and would make oil sands-derived crudes very competitive on a life cycle basis to conventional crudes. It could even capture sufficient water as a by-product of the combustion process to reduce or even eliminate the need for process water makeup.

In addition to research into oxyfuel technology, Suncor is investigating a range of other options for optimizing carbon capture and reducing carbon emissions. This includes capture technologies for refining, power generation and upgrading operations, with a focus on the demonstration of emerging and pre-commercial technologies.

Toward waterless extraction

Suncor's current technology for in situ production (steam-assisted gravity drainage, or SAGD) employs parallel pairs of horizontal wells to recover the bitumen. The top well distributes steam to heat the reservoir and heat the bitumen, allowing it to flow to the lower well where it can be pumped to surface facilities. One of the challenges of SAGD is that the reservoir is heated to over 200 degrees Celsius to get the bitumen to flow, consuming a significant amount of energy and water.

SAGD

Starting in May 2013, a pilot plant at Suncor's Dover lease is field testing a new condensing solvent extraction technology, with the objective of proving the technology for commercial deployment. The patented N-Solv™ process uses the proven horizontal well technology developed for the SAGD in situ process, but does not use any water. Instead, N-Solv™ uses propane or butane to provide heat the way steam does. But because this solvent also dilutes bitumen, reservoir temperatures may not need to be raised above 80 degrees Celsius, requiring up to 85% less energy. This potential energy reduction could have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

The N-Solv™ technology holds potential economic and environmental benefits. The process is expected to produce a lighter, partially upgraded and, hence, higher value bitumen for sale. Capital costs are reduced by foregoing the need to build a water plant and boilers; instead, a gas separation plant and lower temperature heaters are required. Also, if successful, the N-Solv™ wells are expected to produce at a higher rate than existing SAGD processes.

The N-Solv™ process has been validated at the laboratory scale, but requires field piloting to demonstrate commercial readiness. The two-year demonstration pilot is the result of collaboration between N-Solv™ Corporation and Suncor, with support from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) and Alberta's Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC). In return for hosting the pilot plant, Suncor will gain preferential rights to the N-Solv™ technology.

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Electromagnetic heating technology

Suncor is part of a technology and energy production consortium that, in 2012, successfully completed the initial proof of concept testing of a unique extraction method that has the potential to improve environmental performance and reduce development costs related to both oil sands mining and in situ operations.

The consortium of Laricina Energy, Nexen Inc., Suncor, Harris Corporation and Alberta Innovates completed its initial phase testing of the Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating (ESEIEH — pronounced 'easy') project at Suncor's Steepbank mine facility north of Fort McMurray. The $33 million program is supported by the CCEMC, and the 2012 test was approved by Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB).

The ESEIEH process replaces the need for water by combining Harris' patent-pending antenna technology with Suncor's in situ drilling competence to initially heat the oil sands electrically with radio waves through the upper well of a horizontal well pair. A propane or butane solvent is then injected to dilute and mobilize the bitumen with minimal energy requirements, so it can be extracted and transported for further processing. By reducing the energy required and eliminating the need for water or steam, the ESEIEH process holds the potential to:

  • improve energy efficiency
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • reduce extraction costs

While preliminary results from the 2012 test were encouraging, additional work must be done to determine the commercial viability of the ESEIEH process. Pending regulatory approval, a field pilot project of the technology is planned at Suncor's Dover site — the home of the original SAGD site — in 2014.

Other extraction technologies

In addition to the technologies detailed above, Suncor continues to investigate or monitor research in a number of other extraction technologies. These include:

  • other in situ recovery techniques, including cyclic solvent processes and in situ combustion systems
  • direct-contact steam generation, which sends steam and flue gas downhole for in situ recovery

Industry-wide technology collaboration

Improved collaboration is critical to the oil sands industry's efforts to develop and deploy new technologies. A key vehicle going forward is Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), an alliance of 14 companies representing 90% of oil sands production. Established in 2012, COSIA allows participating companies to share technologies and innovations focused on performance improvements in four environmental priority areas (EPA):

  • water
  • tailings
  • land
  • greenhouse gas emissions

What follows is a brief description of ongoing technology-related COSIA initiatives in each of those EPAs:

Water

A Water technology development centre (WTDC) is being advanced to speed the development and commercialization of new water treatment and recycling technologies. The WTDC, attached to Suncor's Firebag in situ operations, will have access to live process fluids. This dedicated facility will allow companies to test more technologies than could be evaluated by each company individually, while collaboratively managing the risks and costs.

Tailings

In 2012, COSIA member companies participated in The Tailings Technology Roadmap and Action Plan Project, a major industry/government collaboration. Suncor was among seven companies that shared tailings technologies to understand what works in different circumstances and determine which should be tested further. Nine tailings technology roadmaps were identified. Each would allow an oil sands operator to convert their fluid fine tailings inventory into a reclamation-ready deposit. The ultimate goal: improve tailings management and reclamation across the entire industry.

Land

COSIA is overseeing the refinement of a database and modelling tool known as Landscape Ecological Assessment and Planning (LEAP) to better understand how reforestation and reclamation work undertaken today will impact the health of tomorrow's boreal forest.

LEAP uses geospatial data on the location of oil and gas leases, forest types, lakes, watercourses and other pertinent geographic information to target where and how conservation and reclamation efforts can have the greatest desired net impact. It also allows planners to visually project what current areas of reclamation and reforestation will look like 10, 20 and even 50 years down the road.

Greenhouse gas emissions

COSIA member companies are investigating alternative well configurations as a means of improving the effectiveness of steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) in in situ operations. Changing the position of one or both of the typical SAGD wells, or replacing them with a different type of well, has the potential to reduce the amount of steam required to produce a barrel of oil. This should, in turn, reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more about industry innovation and technology in our Oil Sands Question and Response (OSQAR) blog

Visit the COSIA website to read more about its environmental priority areas

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