January 16, 2014 – Debate over the oil sands rages on here north of the 49th parallel with Neil Young, the rock artist, describing the Fort McMurray, Alberta, area in almost satanic terms, while executives of the oil firms and the Canadian government push back.
But hidden in all of this imbroglio and back and forth comes a new technology that may dramatically lessen the environmental impact of oil sands extraction. It is called SHORE which stands for Slurrified Heavy oil Reservoir Extraction. The technology was described in a paper presented to the Society of Petroleum Engineers in Calgary, Alberta in 2013.
SHORE uses cold water injection rather than thermal or steam-assisted gravity drainage. Where these other technologies heat the oil sand deposits underground to pool and collect the oil before pumping it out, SHORE uses the cold water to push the oil-laced sands to a well where it gets sucked to the surface. Then the oil is separated and the cleaned sand gets reinjected underground to maintain the pressure and push more oil sand to the well.
No solvents are used. No steam processes are involved. The greenhouse gas emissions are far less. The total carbon footprint is significantly smaller. There are no tailing ponds and all water used in the process is recycled.
Production using this technique yields between 1,000 and 2,000 barrels per day per well. It can be used in tight underground formations where the oil sands are overcapped by mudstone and where steam and solvent penetration is impossible.
At the moment Imperial Oil Ltd., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil Corp., has yet to test the technology in the field. The plan is to apply the technology in groupings of five to seven injector wells surrounding a recovery well. The key to success will be keeping the process pressurized for continuous recovery and to ensure that the underground formation doesn’t collapse when the sand-laced oil is removed and pumped to the surface.
If we are to continue to rely on oil for the foreseeable future as a primary source of energy then this type of technology may very well make the Athabasca oil sands a much cleaner option and ensure that Canada can reduce its carbon footprint while continuing to exploit the resource.