Next generation in situ extraction
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 (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 the energy requirement. Using steam, the reservoir is typically heated to 200°C or more to get the bitumen to flow. The generation of the required steam necessitates large amounts of water handling and treatment while consuming a significant amount of natural gas that generates greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2016, we announced a greenhouse gas goal that aims to harness technology 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 using what we have learned implementing SAGD over the past 20 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,” says 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 our own technical experts to identify, evaluate and advance early stage technologies. Our current areas of focus 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
Suncor is focused on solvents as an alternative to steam in recovering bitumen from in situ reservoirs. Our current focus in solvent recovery processes builds on our experience and background knowledge, gained from participation in experiments going back more than 20 years.
In the solvent-based processes that Suncor is pursuing, a light hydrocarbon solvent such as propane or butane is used as the primary means to mobilize bitumen. The effectiveness of solvent-based recovery processes is significantly enhanced as the temperature of the reservoir is raised.
The increased temperature promotes in situ solvent reflux which maximizes recovery efficiency by limiting the volume of solvent recycled back to surface facilities.
Currently, Suncor is advancing, to the pilot phase, a suite of solvent technologies referred to as Solvent+, where the “+” refers to a range of heating technologies that can be coupled with solvent injection. These include:
- wellbore heating
- superheated solvent injection
- electromagnetic heating
If successful, Solvent+ offers the potential for significant environmental improvements over SAGD including:
- reduction in GHG emissions intensity by 50 to 70%
- elimination of process water
- reduction in the surface footprint
- reduction in transport diluent requirements
- reduction in carbon content of produced oil
- potential to unlock additional resources
Solvent+ wellbore heating
This is a variant of Solvent+ where in the primary mode of heat addition to the process is in the horizontal section of the solvent injection well. The leading wellbore heating technology under consideration uses electric resistive heating (ERH) which relies on highly resistive metals to generate heat when current is passed through them, similar to a toaster wire.
Suncor is currently planning an ERH pilot with operations expected to begin in 2020.
This is a variant of Solvent+ wherein the primary mode of heat addition to the process is at the surface through the heating of solvent well beyond its vapourization temperature. Once superheated, the solvent is added to the reservoir through the solvent injection well.
Solvent+ electromagnetic (EASE)
Also known as electromagnetically assisted solvent extraction (EASE), this is a variant of Solvent+ wherein the primary mode of heat addition to the process is in the reservoir through the use of electromagnetic (EM) energy.
Much like a microwave oven, this process directly heats the water in the reservoir which in turn heats and refluxes the solvent in situ.
To advance the EASE (Solvent+ EM) technology, we have done extensive work over the past six years through the Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating (ESEIEH™) field pilot at our Dover site.
This field pilot is a project that has been supported by a consortium of partners. In addition, Alberta Innovates has agreed to support the pilot with a $1.5 million dollar contribution.
ESEIEH™ uses wells configured in horizontal pairs much like a SAGD operation. With the ESEIEH™ process, steam is replaced by electromagnetic heating and solvent.
We anticipate having results from the ESEIEH™ pilot in 2020 that will allow us to more fully evaluate the commercial potential of the Solvent+ EM technology.
In Situ Demonstration Facility
The In Situ Demonstration Facility (ISDF) will be a place where we can optimize and test our Solvent+ technologies. This facility will be flexible in its design enabling Suncor to pilot and test multiple heating options.
Suncor expects to test electric resistive heating (ERH) and superheat in the first phase of the ISDF. We anticipate a second phase that would test the EASE technology once the current ESEIEH pilot is completed.
The current project schedule has site preparation near MacKay River beginning in 2019 with first production in early 2022.
While Suncor is pursuing solvent-dominated recovery technologies for future growth, steam is the driving recovery mechanism for our existing operations and near-term growth opportunities.
The steam enhancements technology portfolio encompasses all improvements to the SAGD recovery process including the addition of solvent, non-condensable gases and chemical additives as well as improvements to start-up processes. These technologies offer the potential for achieving meaningful reductions in GHG intensity and water usage rates.
Suncor continues to advance this program through simulation, piloting and demonstration. The current program focus includes:
- NCG Co-injection
Expanding solvent SAGD (ES-SAGD) is an enhancement of SAGD technology wherein a small volume of hydrocarbon solvent is co-injected with steam. We expect the addition of the hydrocarbon solvent to accelerate bitumen production and reduce steam requirements of the recovery process resulting in a net reduction in process water requirements and greenhouse gas emissions of 15% or greater.
A key component of our evaluation of this technology is enhancing our understanding of solvent retention and recovery. In addition to extensive laboratory studies and reservoir simulation, Suncor is conducting a commercial scale demonstration.
This pad scale demo commenced in February 2019 at Firebag and will be key in determining the viability of this technology.
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 demonstrations at MacKay River and Firebag are currently in operation.
Suncor is also examining the use of NCG co-injection early in the SAGD life to improve recovery in certain types of reservoir.
Improving the reliability of SAGD assets creates opportunities to be more efficient with oil recovery while using less energy and water.
Suncor is advancing a portfolio of wellbore enhancement technologies that aim to reduce costs, improve safety and reduce the GHG footprint of our SAGD operations through improved wellbore reliability and efficiency.
These technologies are typically field tested at existing SAGD operations but are readily adaptable to our growth projects irrespective of whether steam or solvent recovery process are employed.
Suncor expects that most of the current wellbore enhancement technologies will be ready for commercial deployment in a one-to four-year time span. The current focus includes:
- electric submersible pump (ESP) reliability
- flow control devices (FCDs)
- wellbore heating
- well integrity
Electric submersible pump (ESP) reliability
ESPs are used extensively in Suncor SAGD operations. Improving the lifespan of the pumps greatly improves maintenance and reliability costs, avoids lost production and reduces GHG emissions. We are focused on improving the ESP reliability through joint industry collaboration and are on schedule to pilot two wells in late 2019.
Flow control devices
Controlling where steam is allocated to the reservoir allows us to improve steam distribution along the well. This improves steam efficiency and well reliability by preventing catastrophic steam breakthroughs.
Flow control devices (FCDs) are designed to provide the ability to control the steam allocation and drive improved conformance. Suncor is focused on enhanced designs that improve on FCD reliability and functionality and we have been successful in developing the Suncor M-Tool to further improve the efficiency and reliability of the devices, as well as reduce costs through design simplification.
The M-Tool is currently being piloted at Firebag, with encouraging preliminary results. We are also working with industry partners to allow this improved design to be tested and deployed across the in situ space.