I had the fortunate opportunity to tour the Cenovus Christina Lake In Situ Facility. For those unfamiliar with oil sands terminology, In Situ is a fancy word for “in its place”. This technology drills into the ground and inserts two sets of parallel pipes that travel through the bitumen layer up to a kilometer. The top pipe pumps in steam that melts the bitumen, which can be as hard as a hockey puck. The second pipe, which is placed below the steam pipe, then sucks up the oil as it is melted. The benefit is that this process has a much lower environmental footprint when compared to they mining process commonly associated with the oil sands.
The tour began in Edmonton as Cenovus flew 50 University of Alberta students and faculty up to Conklin airport, approximately 370km northeast of Edmonton. We were able to see the luxurious accommodations the Cenovus camp boasts including a recreational room, movie room, and music room. Their overriding message to us was that Cenovus did its best to make this a “home away from home”. The accommodations were so impressive that I overheard a number of tour participants say “maybe I should drop out [from UofAlberta] and come work here”. Perhaps this kind of camp demonstrates why Alberta has the lowest High School completion rate…
After a brief overview of what Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage or SAGD was, we got on the bus to tour the rest of the facility. Our first stop was a well pad. This is where the pipelines go into the ground to melt and suck up the bitumen/oil over a square kilometre.
Our next major stop was to see the steam generators and the ‘water treatment plant’. Our tour guide highlighted the fact that the main component of the SAGD process is basically a water treatment facility with oil as the by-product. When the oil returns from the well pad it is an emulsion of oil and water (think a vinaigrette salad dressing shaken up). They need to find a way to efficiently separate the oil from the water in order to reuse the water to generate steam, and pipe off the oil as a marketable product.
Throughout the tour our various guides answer a multitude of questions from engineering to economics to the environment. They were generous with their time and patient with such a very large group of people. You could tell that they were dedicated to their work and committed to doing so in as safe as humanly possible with as little impact on the environment as possible.
Jon Mitchell (Cenovus’ Environmental and Sustainability lead) was telling us all of the things they do to lessen the impact they have on the environment. For example, they developed wooden pads that they can put down for heavy machinery to operate on in the swampy muskeg rather than needing to put down a gravel base for whatever bit of construction that needs to happen. They’ve made great advances to reduce the amount of water that they use per barrel. They’ve implemented mechanisms that cut NOX emissions in half. Throughout the tour, Cenovus staff was highlighting all the innovation that has gone on. The company, like many that hope to remain competitive, is constantly evolving. Yet here is where the rub is: Cenovus highlighted a number of micro issues they have worked on to make their work more efficient and less impactful on the environment, but the concern in the general public isn’t necessarily the “Steam to Oil Ratio” but the fact that the industry as a whole wants to double production capacity in 10 years. The question is how do you reconcile that macro level impact, especially in a context of climate change?
As we were flying home Andrew Leach asked me what my biggest take away was from the tour. I’m an environmentalist, I am worried about the impact that climate change is going to have on future generations, and I believe we need to transition away from fossil fuels. The facility is impressive with the amount of technology, resources, dedication, and innovation that goes on there. But all of that operates within a particular governance structure. That structure is what guides the evolution of these companies as they move forward. If pushes them to innovate in some areas and not others. The problem is, as Andrew put it, we [in Canada] have not had an open and honest discussion about our fossil fuel resources in a context of climate change. There has been fear-mongering on both sides. Whether it is about jobs (as though the oil industry were so fragile that some alteration to the regulatory framework would bankrupt them all) or unfairly targeting the oil sands in a world awash with fossil fuels.
We need a strong and robust climate policy in this country. We need to do our part as a member of the global community. A strong climate policy isn’t going to destroy the oil industry, it isn’t going to stop production and throw Alberta and the rest of the country into poverty. What it is going to do is provide some indication to the industry of what our priorities are, whether they are economic priority, social priorities, or environmental priorities. That regulatory structure will shape how these companies evolve over the next 10, 20, or 50 years. A strong climate policy isn’t going to destroy jobs; it’s going to change the jobs we have in this country over a long period of time.
My biggest take away from this tour? Let’s be serious about tackling climate change in this country. These guys are big kids and are definitely up to the challenge!