There’s a popular misconception that oil sands equals mining. Not true. There are two types of development:Mining, which has been around for about four decades and is what people tend to think of first when oil sands projects are mentioned. Then there’s a newer method of drilling for the oil-in situ (Latin term meaning “in place”).
In situ projects use technologies to inject steam, combustion or other sources of heat into the reservoir to warm the bitumen – oil that is too thick to flow - so it can make its way to the surface through recovery wells. For a full explanation see CAPP'S Guiding Principles.
So what’s the difference between mining and in situ?
Oil sands mining tends to capture the bulk of negative media and public attention because the visuals are compelling. By comparison, in situ drilling has a much smaller footprint because it can cluster many wells on one pad so it takes up much less space. Drillers can hit an underground target the size of a dime from a thousand meters away without any additional surface disturbance.
In situ recovery also impacts water less than mining. Recycling of water can be very high through the use of closed systems for steam generation. (Mining needs between two and four barrels of fresh water for every barrel of oil generated.)
A downside is that in situ projects require a lot of energy to heat the water to soften the thick oil before it can be drawn to the surface. The energy comes from burning natural gas, which, of course, generates unwanted greenhouse gases (GHGs).
With minimal land disturbance and no tailings ponds, why not just shelve mining altogether and go with in situ? Doing so is unrealistic, as mining targets areas where the resource is so close to the surface it can be more efficiently recovered using large shovels and trucks.
While in situ development has its positives, not everyone agrees with this development method. Critics point out projects often fragment land areas which can be bad for wildlife such as caribou, which don’t deal well with habitat intrusions, like new roads. Protecting the caribou and all wildlife is important so specialists and government agencies work with industry to manage impacts.
Others say that burning natural gas to bring up heavy oil is a waste. The reality is the world values oil much more than gas judging by current prices. That’s because oil is by far the most flexible fuel, providing more energy per barrel than any other source. Also, there’s a leverage effect in using natural gas to generate oil – the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil is approximately five to six times greater than that of the gas used to produce it.
The Pembina Institute produces an in situ score card where it ranks facilities. While it doesn’t like everything that we do by any means, this year it ranked Suncor’s Firebag project tops, crediting us for recycling water in a closed system for steam generation.
Of course, there is still a lot work to be done to further reduce in situ development’s impact on the environment. Though a relatively young industry, dramatic strides have been made. Newer in situ facilities, such as Suncor’s MacKay River, recycle more than 95% of the water they use. And new technologies, like using solvents, electricity, and sub surface pumps are making the in situ process even more efficient, further reducing GHG emissions.