In situ technologies

Next generation in situ extraction
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    Technology and innovative thinking have enabled profitable, sustainable oil sands development over the past five decades. Our industry is now addressing different challenges – to decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water consumption and land impacts. Within this context, we believe the development and deployment of new technologies have key roles to play in the continued development and growth of our oil sands production.

    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, allowing the bitumen to flow to the lower well where it can be pumped to the surface.

    One of the challenges of SAGD is that the reservoir is typically heated to 200°C or more to get the bitumen to flow, consuming a significant amount of natural gas that generates greenhouse gas emissions and necessitating large amounts of water handling and treatment for steam production.

    In 2016, we announced a greenhouse gas goal that aims to reduce the total emissions intensity of the production of our oil and petroleum products by 30% by 2030. To help meet that goal we need to develop and deploy technologies that go beyond today’s SAGD.

    “We are advancing a portfolio of in situ technologies to lower the carbon intensity of producing bitumen and improve the cost competitiveness,” says Gary Bunio, general manager, Oil Sands, strategic technology, Upstream.

    We are using what we have learned implementing SAGD over the past 15 years to progress a range of technologies that offer the potential to deliver significant improvements in the following areas:

    • energy usage and GHG emissions
    • water use and treatment
    • production rates and resource recovery
    • land impacts
    • capital and operating costs
    • product quality and value

    Our initial piloting and simulation results of these technologies indicate there is significant potential for GHG emissions reductions for existing facilities (brownfield) and up to 50% or more for new growth facilities (greenfield). In addition, we anticipate the downstream emissions associated with refining the product will be reduced. These technologies may deliver a lighter, lower carbon intensity crude oil, resulting in less diluent required for transportation and further reducing the lifecycle GHG emissions for these technologies.

    “We believe these technologies, if successful, would allow oil sands-derived oil to have GHG intensities at or below the average North American barrel,” adds Gary. “In our view, a likely solution will be a hybrid of the many innovative approaches and technologies we are currently evaluating.”

    Technology and innovation will help shape the future of energy production and consumption. We take a portfolio approach – advancing multiple technologies at any given time, with the understanding that not all of them will be a success. The technologies profiled in this Report on Sustainability reflect only a portion of the many initiatives our teams are currently working to understand and advance.

    Suncor works extensively with research organizations, technology providers and universities, as well as with Suncor’s own technical experts to identify, evaluate and advance early stage technologies. Some examples of these technologies include:

    • wellbore technologies, including flow control devices
    • novel subsurface heating technologies including electric circulating fluid and steam
    • alternative gas co-injection for SAGD
    • applying advanced data analytics to optimize our processes and operations

    Thermal-solvent based processes

    Currently, Suncor is advancing a number of technologies into the piloting phase that offer the potential for significant reductions in environmental impacts, while simultaneously improving the economics of in situ bitumen production. Our primary focus is on the use of solvents to reduce extraction temperatures and energy usage, increase productivity and the improvement of product quality.

    Solvents can be used in conjunction with steam and wellbore heating technologies such as Electromagnetic Assisted Solvent Extraction or EASE; determining the optimal configuration and application is a primary focus of Suncor’s technology development.

    EASE

    Instead of using steam to heat the bitumen, EASE uses electromagnetic energy in conjunction with a light solvent (like butane or propane) to gently heat and mobilize the bitumen for production. The electromagnetic heating works much like your microwave does; the use of a light solvent significantly reduces the required operating temperatures, offering the potential to eliminate the need for process water and treatment, as well as reduce energy usage and GHG emissions.

    ESEIEH™

    While EASE is a general technology platform, we have done specific work for over five years to advance this technology as part of the Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating (ESEIEH™) field pilot at our Dover site.

    The ESEIEH™ field pilot is a project supported by a consortium of Suncor, Devon Canada, Nexen Energy ULC, Harris Corporation and Emissions Reduction Alberta, and testing is currently underway. ESEIEH™ uses wells configured in horizontal pairs much like a SAGD operation. With the ESEIEH™ process, steam is replaced by electromagnetic heating and solvent.

    If commercially successful, this technology offers the potential for the following improvements:

    • 50-75% reduction in GHG emissions
    • eliminates process water needs
    • reduces the size of surface facility
    • ability to transport with less diluent
    • reduction in bitumen carbon content

    We anticipate having results from the ESEIEH™ pilot in 2018 and 2019 that will allow us to more fully evaluate the commercial potential of the technology.

    Concurrently with the pilot, Suncor is advancing the commercial design of the EASE technology with Harris Corporation, and this work will be completed in 2018. Once the ESEIEH™ pilot is complete Suncor intends to implement the technology at a pad-scale In Situ Demonstration Facility.

    NSolv™

    From 2013-2017, Suncor supported a pilot at our Dover lease to field test the solvent extraction technology called Nsolv™. Nsolv™ uses vapourized propane or butane to provide heat the same way steam does. Solvent also dilutes and mobilizes the bitumen, significantly reducing temperatures, and the amount of heat required for the process, resulting in much lower GHG emissions.

    If commercially successful, Nsolv™ offers the potential for the following improvements:

    • 50-75% reduction in GHG emissions
    • eliminates process water needs
    • reduces the size of surface facility
    • ability to transport with less diluent
    • reduction in bitumen carbon content

    The field test with Nsolv™ was completed in 2017, and Suncor and NSolv™ continue to evaluate the results.

    Optimized solvent-steam hybrid

    Suncor is building on its experience and background knowledge of solvent-dominated processes, which dates back to participation in experiments going back more than 20 years, to develop an optimized solvent-steam hybrid technology to be considered for a demonstration. Unlike ES-SAGD, this process is predominantly solvent-based, with a relatively small fraction of steam co-injection (<15%) used to deliver additional heat to the reservoir.

    Suncor is currently engaged in simulation and optimization activities, and expects to be able to make a decision on whether or not to advance this technology to a piloting/demonstration phase in 2018.

    Steam-solvent technologies

    The combination of steam and solvent offers potential for achieving significant GHG reductions, and Suncor continues to advance these technologies through simulation, piloting and demonstration. There is a wide variety of solvents, concentrations and other variables to consider, and the optimal technology will depend on a combination of factors.

    One of the technologies we are currently advancing is ES-SAGD.

    ES-SAGD

    Expanding Solvent SAGD (ES-SAGD) co-injects up to 15% solvent with steam to reduce the steam requirements of SAGD production. The process is anticipated to reduce process water requirements and lower greenhouse gas emissions by 15% or greater. A key component of our evaluation of this technology is enhancing our understanding of solvent containment and recovery. Suncor will be demonstrating the technology at Firebag starting in 2018, and is currently evaluating the potential for commercial implementation.

    We aim to commence the commercialization strategy in 2018 with implementation scheduled for 2022.

    Direct Contact Steam Generation (DCSG)

    In the Direct Contact Steam Generation (DCSG) process, wastewater comes in direct contact with the products of oxy-fuel combustion. This creates a mixture of steam and carbon dioxide which replaces the need for steam generated using the conventional boiler technology called once-through steam generators. Suncor has been progressing this technology with CanmetENERGY on the design of the pilot.

    In 2017, Suncor undertook a pilot project at MacKay River to co-inject CO2 with steam and continues to evaluate the results. This process has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water requirements as well as reduce the required equipment and land requirement by removing the need for an OTSG. Suncor continues to evaluate this technology in collaboration with CanmetENERGY and Alberta Innovates.

    Suncor continues to evaluate the results of the CO2 co-injection pilot, as well as advancing the commercial design of the DCSG. It is expected that a decision on a field pilot will be made in 2018.

    High temperature reverse osmosis produced water treatment

    Suncor has partnered with Devon Energy and Suez (formerly GE Water) to demonstrate High Temperature Reverse Osmosis (HTRO) membranes for SAGD water treatment. The project will validate the technology for application in high-temperature SAGD conditions. If successful, the membranes could eliminate the need to reduce the temperature and pressure of produced water prior to water treatment.

    A high temperature membrane plant could reduce the energy required and infrastructure for the SAGD water treatment process. The technology could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5-10%, compared to a typical SAGD baseline facility. In addition, for new builds, the technology could reduce capital costs compared to conventional SAGD water treatment facilities.

    Suncor and the project partners aim to complete prototype testing in 2019, with the potential to advance to a field pilot demonstration in 2020 with completion anticipated in 2021.

    In Situ Demonstration Facility

    The In Situ Demonstration Facility (ISDF) will be a place where we can optimize, test and commercialize a suite of enhanced in situ technologies. This facility will be flexible in its design enabling Suncor to pilot and test multiple technologies that use a combination of injected light hydrocarbons (butane or propane), wellbore heating and/or small quantities of injected steam with the aim to improve conventional in situ extraction methods and environmental and economic performance.

    The first recovery technology that is expected to be deployed at the ISDF is a process that uses a solvent (such as propane or butane) in combination with wellbore heating and/or steam.

    The project schedule has site preparation beginning in 2019 and we anticipate construction to be completed in late 2020.

    SAGD LITE

    During the producing life of an oil sands reservoir, different techniques can be applied to optimize oil production and recovery. A good example of an incremental technology with the potential to make a big difference is the addition of slight amounts of soap-like additives – surfactants – in the steam for SAGD production. Potentially, a reduction of SOR will enable more oil production with less steam generation and fluid handling requirements, resulting in lowering costs and GHG intensity. Unlike other ideas that are more suited to installation at new facilities, SAGD LITE can be deployed at existing operations to reduce our current environmental footprint more quickly.

    Our surfactants program at MacKay River has been extended to a larger technology demonstration in 2018. Contingent to positive results at MacKay River, we would extend this project to a larger project at Firebag in 2018.

    Wellbore enhancements

    Improving the reliability of SAGD assets creates opportunities to be more efficient with oil recovery while using less energy and water.

    Suncor has a number of wellbore enhancement projects at Firebag and MacKay River that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower costs. These technologies are readily adaptable to our greenfield assets Meadow Creek and Lewis, where we are integrating these into our field development plans to increase the value of the projects.

    Suncor also has a large number of wellbore enhancement technologies that are able to be commercially viable in a one-to-four-year year time span. Projects include:

    • Drilling a multilateral well at Firebag in 2018. This technology reduces the number of required wellheads and overall footprint and in doing so, reduces sustaining drilling and completion capital. The pilot will test the performance of two producing wells through one multilateral.
    • Improving the reliability to Electric Submersible Pumps (ESPs) in connection with joint industry collaboration. Improving the lifespan of the pumps will greatly improve maintenance and reliability costs, avoid lost production and reduce GHG emissions. Through our partnership we are on schedule to pilot two wells in early 2019.
    • Successful deployment of Flow Control Devices (FCDs) in more than 300 of Suncor’s and industry partners wells. Controlling where steam is allocated to the reservoir allows us to improve steam conformance along the well, and greatly improve steam efficiency. In doing so we are able to avoid barriers and baffles to steam and coning of steam between wells.
    • Enhancements to FCDs, known as the M-Tool, further improve the efficiency and reliability of the devices, and reduce costs through design simplification. The M-Tool is currently being piloted at Firebag, with encouraging preliminary results.

    Non-condensable gas co-injection

    Later in life, mature SAGD reservoirs exhibit declining production and increasing Steam-to-Oil Ratio (SOR). Suncor piloted Non-Condensable Gas co-injection (NCG) to divert steam from aging wells to newer wells with lower SOR. Methane is co-injected with steam to reduce the SOR while maintaining production and pressure. This technique reduces environmental impact by optimizing steam demand at our facilities while reducing energy intensity and CO2 emissions.

    The pilot projects at Firebag and MacKay River have shown encouraging results, prompting larger technology demonstrations at both fields. The expanded demonstration at MacKay River is currently in progress with Firebag expected to start later in 2018.

    Suncor is also examining the use of NCG co-injection to improve reservoir extraction. By increasing the reservoir pressure, heat losses may be reduced which may decrease SOR and CO2 emissions.