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Athabasca Oil Sands

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Projects > Mines
Map location of the Athbasca Oil Sands
The Athabasca Oil Sands, located near Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta, Canada, contain large deposits (an estimated 1.3 trillion barrels)[1] of a deposit known as bitumen; the remaining constituents of the Oil Sands are silica (approximately 83 percent), water (approximately four percent) and fluvial clay (approximately three percent).[2] With 335 billion barrels of total recoverable bitumen,[3] the amount of oil present in the Athabasca Oil Sands is second only to the reserves in Saudi Arabia.[4]

Bitumen, from which crude oil is derived, is a dense, highly viscous substance that will not flow unless heated or diluted with hydrocarbons. These sands sit on a bed of limestone, under a layer of clay and sand; this layer is often covered by one to three meters of soggy peat. It is believed that this resource originated from the migration of light crude oil from Southern Alberta, propelled by the same forces that created the Rocky Mountains. The light crude oil is said to have slowly converted over time into viscous bitumen.[5]

While many companies are involved in the extraction and refinement of this resource in order to sell it in the form of various petroleum products, three major companies are at the forefront. Great Canadian Oil Sands, now known as Suncor Energy, established the world’s first oil sands mine[6] in 1967;[7] today, Suncor’s Steepbank and Millennium mines produce 263,000 barrels per day (bpd) and its Firebag project, employing in situ oil extraction technology, produces 35,000bpd. Syncrude Corp., having joined the market in 1978, currently produces 360,000bpd at its Mildred Lake and Aurora Mines. In 2003, Albian Sands followed suit, and currently produces 155,000bpd at its Muskeg River Mine.[8]

Contents

[edit] History

[edit] Early Exploration of the Oil Sands

The Europeans’ discovery of the Athabasca Oil Sands dates back over 200 years; however, initial discovery of the resource was made prior to this by the aboriginal people along the banks of the Athabasca River, who used the bitumen to waterproof their canoes.[9]

In 1778, fur trader Peter Pond was visiting the Athabasca region when he discovered the Oil Sands. Ten years later, Sir Alexander Mackenzie wrote about the resource, describing the bitumen’s characteristics, specifying precisely where it could be located, and explaining how the aboriginals were utilizing it for their canoes. Further exploration began to take place: some explorers were David Thompson, a mapmaker; and Franklin, Richardson, and Simpson, arctic explorers.

1874 marked the commencement of the first government-sponsored geological study of the Oil Sands. This study, undertaken by John Macoun, was followed seven years later by another expedition led by Robert Bell.

Documents indicate that by 1889, it was noted that the resource of the Athabasca region had significant economic value and was predicted to become “one of the wonders of Northern Canada.”[10]

[edit] The First Development Attempts

The understanding in the early 18th century was that deep pools of oil underneath the earth’s surface were the source of the bitumen. As a result of this assumption, early commercial development of the Oil Sands was attempted by Alfred Von Hammerstein by drilling wells in the area north of Fort McMurray. Between 1906 and 1917, approximately 24 wells were sunk in the quest for these pools of oil, but none were located.[11]

[edit] The Hot Water Flotation Method

[edit] Sidney Ells

In 1913, Sidney Ells, an engineer working for the Federal Department of Mines, began to explore in the Oil Sands; his work would be carried out until 1945. Over the course of his work, Ells used the hot water flotation method of separating bitumen from sand—he conducted numerous experiments to test this system. He was the first person to remove samples from the area to be tested in a laboratory. Subsequently, these samples were sent to Edmonton to be tested as a material for paving roads. Though the substance appeared to be a viable road paving material, the cost of transporting it was economically unsound and the project was ended.

[edit] R.C. Fitzsimmons

The hot water flotation technique was adopted in the 1920s by R.C. Fitzsimmons to produce bitumen for roofing and road surfacing.[12] By 1942, Fitzsimmons, experiencing financial difficulties, sold his plant. The plant was purchased in 1948 by the government of Alberta to research large-scale extraction methods. The following year, the plant was closed, as the government had no interest in a commercial venture. The resulting research, however, was the foundation for a study on the feasibility of a commercial endeavor.

[edit] Dr. Karl Clark

The 1920s also saw the beginnings of the work of Dr. Karl Clark, a scientist with the Alberta Research Council. Drawing upon the hot water techniques that were in use, Clark led several experiments. His method involved mixing the oil sand with hot water and a chemical reagent. By steaming the mixture at a high temperature, the slurry was encouraged to separate into two layers—a floating bitumen layer above a clean sand deposit that settled to the bottom of the tank. In 1929, he obtained a patent for his technique of mixing oil sands, hot water, and caustic soda in a rotating drum. His improvement on the hot water flotation practices would prove to be invaluable to others in the oil sands industry.[13]

[edit] Abasand Oils Ltd.

In 1936, a developer by the name of Max Ball established Abasand Oils Ltd., with a plant operating west of Fort McMurray, Alberta. His project gained considerable popularity for a brief period during World War II. Eventually, his plant, having been purchased by Canada’s federal government, burned down, and the project was ended.

[edit] The Government of Alberta

The 1950s brought renewed interest in the Athabasca Oil Sands when the Government of Alberta announced their potential profitability. The following decade, in 1962, the government set forth a policy whereby the Oil Sands would be developed in such a way that conventional crude oil practices would be supplemented, but not displaced. The first such project, known as the Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS) project, went through several ownership changes after it was incorporated; by 1963, it was owned by the Sun Oil Co., now known as Suncor Energy. Suncor began development of the world’s first oil sands project in 1967.[14]

[edit] Syncrude Enters the Picture

The Syncrude group, having been formed in 1964, had a goal of researching the economic and technical viability of mining oil from the Athabasca region. Five years later, the company’s request for a production facility was approved. In 1973, the construction of Syncrude’s site was initiated; on July 30, 1978, the company shipped their first barrel of oil. April 16, 1998 marked the company’s billionth barrel.[15]

[edit] Open-pit Mining

The open-pit mining process begins with the removal of trees, followed by the draining and storing of overburden. The top layer of earth must then be removed in order to expose the mineral body. The open-pit mines at the Athabasca Oil Sands operate ceaselessly, every day of the year. Current mining plans must include a commitment to return the mine area to its original environmental condition once the mine has served its purpose.[16]

Open-pit mining, having been a fundamental practice in the development of the Athabasca Oil Sands since the 1920s, has changed considerably since early development. Great Canadian Oil Sands, for example, used to employ O&K bucket wheel excavators at its Mildred Lake site, borrowed from the mining industry.[17] When Syncrude initiated its project in 1978, the company began using large draglines connected to processing plants with conveyors, proving to be more precise and cost effective than the previous method.[18]

Today, a variety of equipment has displaced bucket wheel excavators and draglines, including hydraulic shovels, excavators, haul trucks, and dozers. Manufacturers supplying these machines include P&H, Terex/O&K, Bucyrus, Caterpillar, and Komatsu.

[edit] The Advent of In Situ Technology

The extraction practices that are beginning to be utilized fall under the category known as “in situ” (in place). As approximately 80 percent of the sands are buried too deeply for open-pit mining, in situ techniques are viable alternatives that may eventually replace current methods.[19]

[edit] Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage

Perhaps the best-known in situ technique is steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD).[20] In this method, holes are drilled, and steam is injected into the deposit. The bitumen, having been heated by the steam, becomes less viscous and travels toward drilled wells, which bring it to the surface; the sand remains in the ground.

[edit] Cyclic Steam Stimulation

Cyclic steam stimulation (CSS), another in situ method, involves the softening of the oil sands by injecting high-pressure steam into the sands for several weeks before pumping. The resulting underground pressure creates cracks that aid in the bitumen’s flow and production of wells. The steam is then turned off, and the bitumen must sit for several weeks, soaking up steam and moisture before the production phase begins.

[edit] Vapor Extraction

Vapor extraction (VAPEX), is a method whereby hydrocarbon vapors such as propane or butane are utilized to dilute and mobilize the bitumen in the sands. A horizontal well, located at the bottom of the reservoir, collects the diluted bitumen, which flows downwards under the force of gravity.

[edit] Toe-to-heel Air Injection

Toe-to-heel air injection (THAI) is a new, experimental method that involves injecting air into the deposit via a vertical well. Part of the reservoir’s oil is then ignited through a vertical well in a practice sometimes referred to as fire flooding. The ignition of the deposit generates heat to decrease the bitumen’s viscosity, enabling it to drain by gravity into a horizontal well. From this well, the bitumen rises to the surface. Using the THAI method enables approximately 70 to 80 percent of the bitumen to be recovered.[21]

[edit] Upgrading Practices

Bitumen is a substance that is carbon rich and hydrogen poor. Upgrading is the process of removing some carbon and adding hydrogen to produce more valuable oil. Upgrading is carried out in four parts: coking removes carbon and breaks large bitumen molecules into smaller parts; distillation is carried out to sort hydrocarbon mixtures into their components; catalytic conversion is applied to convert hydrocarbons into more valuable forms; hydrotreating removes sulfur and nitrogen, while adding hydrogen to the bitumen. Once this process is complete, the result is crude oil that can be shipped through underground pipelines to various refineries to be further refined into petroleum products.

[edit] Athabasca Oil Sands Project

The Athabasca Oil Sands Project (AOSP) was completed in 2003 by Albian Sands Energy, a joint venture between Shell Canada Ltd. (60 percent), Chevron Canada Ltd. (20 percent), and Western Oil Sands L.P.(20 percent).[22]

The development consists of two main parts: the Muskeg River Mine, located 75 km north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, and the Scotford Upgrader, located in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. Additionally, the project makes use of the MRM cogeneration station and the Corridor Pipeline. It is the first fully integrated oil sands development in 25 years, and supplies more than 10 percent of Canada’s oil requirements.[23]

[edit] Muskeg River Mine

The construction of this open-pit mine began in late 1999.[24] The group responsible for its construction was the Muskeg River Contractors (MRC), a joint endeavor between Fluor Daniel, AGRA Monenco Simons, and subcontractors GKO Engineering, Colt Engineering Corp., and AGRA Earth & Environmental Services.[25]

The Muskeg River Mine, employing approximately 500 miners, contains more than five billion barrels of mineable bitumen, which is equal to about twice the amount of Alberta’s remaining conventional oil reserves, and produces 155,000 barrels per day (bpd).[26] Approximately two tons of oil sands must be dug up, moved, and processed to recover one barrel of oil; about 75 percent of the bitumen is typically recovered from the sand. Over the project’s 30-year lifespan, the mine is expected to recover 1.65 billion barrels of bitumen.[27]

The mining of the Oil Sands at the Muskeg River Mine is carried out using trucks, hydraulic and electric shovels, including four Bucyrus 495HF electric models,[28] and semi-mobile crushers. Once the sand is crushed at the mine, it is mixed with warm water and moved by pipeline, to the extraction plant. The pipeline, known as a hydrotransporter, conditions the oil sand while moving it to the extractor. This conditioning initiates the separation of bitumen from sand.

Separation occurs in several steps. Initially, the slurry is moved into a primary separation vessel (PSV), where it separates into three layers. Following that is secondary separation where the slurry is injected with air to create bitumen froth and facilitate additional bitumen recovery. The froth is heated with steam in a de-aerator, where air bubbles are removed so the bitumen can be pumped properly. De-aerated bitumen is then cleaned, producing a diluted product known as dilbit.

[edit] MRM Cogeneration Station

This facility, located at the Muskeg River Mine, is owned by ATCO Group (70 percent) and SaskPower International, Inc. (30 percent).[29] It simultaneously produces electricity and fuel from a single fuel source with the use of gas turbines and heat recovery steam generators. This plant includes two combustion turbines and generators powered by natural gas. The mine uses all of the steam and half the power output by the facility; the remaining power is sold to the Alberta power grid. As compared with a conventional power station with a success level of about 33 percent, the MRM station converts approximately 84 percent of the natural gas’s energy into electricity and steam.[30]

[edit] The Corridor Pipeline

Dilbit produced at the mine is transported to the upgrader and back via the Corridor Pipeline, owned by Terasen, Inc. The Pipeline, stretching 306 miles (493 km), consists of two separate lines: a 24-inch (61-cm) pipe moves 215,000bpd from the mine to the upgrader; a 12-inch (30.5-cm) line transports 65,000bpd of diluents back to the mine to be reused.[31]

[edit] Scotford Upgrader

As the majority owner of the AOSP, Shell Canada Ltd. operates the Scotford Upgrader. The facility uses technology to add hydrogen to the bitumen, upgrading it into a variety of higher quality, low-sulfur, low-viscosity synthetic crude oils. The Scotford Upgrader produces considerably lower levels of sulfur dioxide emissions. Once upgraded, the crude oils are sold to Shell’s Scotford and Sarnia refineries, in addition to Chevron’s Salt Lake and Burnaby refineries. The remainder of the product is sold to other refineries.

The majority of the hydrogen used in the upgrading process is produced in a hydrogen manufacturing unit located at the Scotford Upgrader facility. The heavy pressure vessels used in the process of hydroconversion are 180 feet (55 m) long and 14 feet (4.4 m) in diameter.[32]

[edit] Equipment Used

[edit] Refurbishment/Recent Projects/Renovations

[edit] Shell's Projects

A major player in the Athabasca Oil Sands industry, Shell Canada has proposed and begun some upgrading projects to increase their production capacity.

[edit] AOSP Expansion 1

Shell Canada is currently undertaking the 100,000 barrel-a-day expansion of its bitumen mining and upgrading facilities.[33] The project, known as the AOSP Expansion 1, includes the construction of mining and extraction facilities located at Jackpine Mine; the expansion of froth treatment facilities at the Muskeg River Mine; the expansion of the Scotford Upgrader; and the development of such things as power transmission lines, roads, camps, and pipelines to be utilized in further expansions. While the Albian Sands Expansion is being carried out by contractors AMEC/Colt, the Scotford Upgrader Expansion will be undertaken by Bechtel Canada Co.[34]

[edit] Scotford Upgrader 2

Additionally, Shell has proposed the four-phase construction of a second upgrader adjacent to the current Scotford Upgrader. The new upgrader could potentially process up to 400,000 barrels a day of bitumen.[35]

[edit] Jackpine Expansion and Pierre River Mine

Shell has also proposed the expansion of its Jackpine Mine to 300,000 barrels a day; the development of the Pierre River Mine would expand the production capacity by 200,000 barrels a day.[36]

[edit] Kearl Oil Sands Project

Imperial Oil made a proposal to initiate the Kearl Oil Sands Project, a 77-square mile (200-km2) mine in the boreal forest north of Fort McMurray; the project was anticipated to begin construction in 2008. The mine was initially expected to produce approximately 100,000bpd by 2010, a capacity that would eventually double following expansion projects. The endeavor, however, was returned to an environmental review board in March 2008, as it was challenged by environmental groups.[37] The company now hopes to begin the project by 2010, and expects to produce approximately 300,000bpd.[38]

[edit] Northern Lights Mining and Extraction Project

Synenco Energy, Inc., incorporated in 1999, began a project in May 2005 with Sinopec, China’s largest refiner and marketer of petroleum products.[39] The Northern Lights Partnership (NLP) has plans to carry out the Northern Lights mining and extraction process, about 100 km northeast of Fort McMurray. Over the 28-year lifespan of the project, NLP is expected to produce approximately 114,500bpd of bitumen.[40]

[edit] Long Lake Project

The Long Lake Project, created by OPTI Canada and Nexen, is located 40 km southeast of Fort McMurray. This project combines steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), hydrocracking, and gasification with OPTI’s patented OrCrude upgrading technology. With more than two billion barrels of recoverable reserves at Long Lake, the project will have a lifespan of approximately 40 years.[41]

[edit] References

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  2. Athabasca Sands, Canada. Mining-Technology.com, 2008-09-24.
  3. Athabasca Sands, Canada. Mining-Technology.com, 2008-09-24.
  4. Alberta's Oil Sands. Alberta.ca, 2008-09-24.
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  7. Athabasca Oil Sands, Canada. United Nations Environment Programme, 2008-09-24.
  8. Athabasca Sands, Canada. Mining-Technology.com, 2008-09-24.
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  10. Unlocking the potential of the oil sands: Oil Sands History. Syncrude, 2008-09-24.
  11. Unlocking the potential of the oil sands: Oil Sands History. Syncrude, 2008-09-24.
  12. Unlocking the potential of the oil sands: Oil Sands History. Syncrude, 2008-09-24.
  13. The Oil Sands Story: Extraction. Oil Sands Discovery Centre, 2008-09-24.
  14. Unlocking the potential of the oil sands: Oil Sands History. Syncrude, 2008-09-24.
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  19. Athabasca Sands, Canada. Mining-Technology.com, 2008-09-24.
  20. Athabasca Sands, Canada. Mining-Technology.com, 2008-09-24.
  21. http://www.technologynewsdaily.com/node/8638
  22. Oil Sands Expansion. Shell.com, 2008-09-24.
  23. Athabasca Oil Sands Project, Alberta, Canada. Hydrocarbons-Technology.com, 2008-09-24.
  24. Athabasca Oil Sands Project, Alberta, Canada. Hydrocarbons-Technology.com, 2008-09-24.
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  34. EPCM Contacts for AOSP Expansion 1. Shell.com, 2008-09-24.
  35. Scotford Upgrader 2. Shell.com, 2008-09-24.
  36. Jackpine Expansion and Pierre River Mining Areas. Shell.com, 2008-09-24.
  37. Federal Court sends Alberta oilsands project back to review panel. CBCNews.ca, March, 2008. (accessed: 2008-09-24)
  38. Federal Court sends Alberta oilsands project back to review panel. CBCNews.ca, March, 2008. (accessed: 2008-09-24)
  39. Synenco Energy Inc.: Corporate Profile. Synenco.com, 2008-09-24.
  40. Northern Lights Mining and Extraction: Overview. Synenco.com, 2008-09-24.
  41. The Sands Just Shifted. Long Lake Project, 2008-09-24.