Alberta Wildfire Risk Seen Biggest for Storage Tanks, Equipment
Alex Nussbaum, May 6, 2016 — 2:25 PM PDT
Blaze reaches gates of Cnooc’s Long Lake, official says
Oil sands unlikely to burn but equipment, chemicals at risk
As a wildfire rages across Alberta’s oil-sands region, pipelines, tanks full of chemicals, buildings and equipment are more at risk than the thick, tar-like deposits that are mined from the ground.
The fire neared the gate of Cnooc Ltd.’s Long Lake oil sands plant in northern Alberta Friday. While officials were hopeful that winds would push the flames away to the northeast, many oil companies also have fire crews preparing to defend their complexes, Chad Morrison, the province’s wildfire compliance and investigations manager, said during a conference call. “They’re highly trained and have great emergency response plans in place for that.”
The mines are cleared of vegetation so it’s unlikely the flames could reach any deposits. And burning oil-sands creates a hard, coal-like residue on the rock called coke, which prevents fire from reaching deeper into a seam, said Rick Chalaturnyk, an engineering professor at the University of Alberta.
“It seals itself off,” he said in a telephone interview. “You can find records of natural wildfires in these deposits for centuries and none of them have produced a situation where you have an extended fire.”
Royal Bank of Canada estimated that as much as 1 million barrels a day of production was shut because of the blaze, or about 40 percent of oil sands output, as companies including Suncor Energy Inc., Cnooc’s Nexen, Royal Dutch Shell Plc, and ConocoPhillips reduce production and open work camps to residents escaping blazes in Alberta’s biggest-ever evacuation. Inter Pipeline Ltd. shut part of its system in the province. The disruptions pushed up the price of oil sands crude.
“Eighty percent of the oil sands are located deep underground and can only be extracted through an in-situ drilling process,” Chelsie Klassen, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said in an e-mail on Thursday. “The remaining 20 percent is mineable from the surface and predominantly located north of Fort McMurray. Hydrocarbons can burn under the right conditions, however oil sands would burn at a much slower pace considering its composition with sand.”
Canada oil sands have more emissions than those in US
By Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News Service, 06/25/15, 3:20 PM PDT
Gasoline and diesel fuel extracted and refined from Canadian oil sands will release about 20 percent more carbon into the atmosphere over its lifetime than fuel from conventional domestic crude sources, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, UC Davis and Stanford University.
The research was funded by the Bioenergy Technologies Office and Vehicle Technologies Office within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
The researchers used a life-cycle, or “well-to-wheels,” approach, gathering publicly available data on 27 large Canadian oil sands production facilities. The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found the additional carbon impact of Canadian oil sands was largely related to the energy required for extraction and refining.
“The level of detail provided in this study is unprecedented,” said co-author Sonia Yeh, a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCD, who helped lead research on emissions related to land disturbance. “It provides a strong scientific basis for understanding the total carbon emissions associated with using this resource, which allows us to move forward with informed discussions on technologies or policy options to reduce carbon emissions.”
Canadian oil sands are extracted using two processes, both of which are energy intensive. Oil close to the surface can be mined, but still must be heated to separate the oil from the sand. Deeper sources of oil are extracted on site, also called in situ extraction, requiring even more energy when steam is injected underground, heating the oil to the point it can be pumped to the surface. The extracted oil product, known as bitumen, can be moved to refineries in the United States or refined on site to upgraded synthetic crude.
On-site extraction tends to be more carbon intensive than surface mining, and producing refined synthetic crude generally requires more carbon emissions than producing bitumen. Depending on which methods are used, the carbon intensity of finished gasoline can vary from 8 percent to 24 percent higher than that from conventional U.S. crudes.
“This is important information about the greenhouse gas impact of this oil source,” said lead author and Argonne researcher Hao Cai. “Canadian oil sands accounted for about 9 percent of the total crude processed in U.S. refineries in 2013, but that percentage is projected to rise to 14 percent in 2020.”