Water is one of the most important materials on earth. Plants and animals must have water to survive. People use water for many reasons. Aside from using it for hydration, we cook with it, wash with it and use it to keep our homes clean.
Photo credit: COSIA
Water is also a critical ingredient in the steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) drilling method of in situ extraction, which targets bitumen too deep in the earth to be mined.
Steam-assisted gravity drainage
Water is so important to the SAGD process that a problem with water means a problem for the entire operation.
With SAGD, volumes of water are superheated into high-pressure steam and injected underground to heat oil reservoirs until bitumen flows. Up to 80 per cent of SAGD plant operations involve water use. This can be river water, groundwater or recycled ‘process’ water which is left after bitumen gets extracted. At Suncor, more than 90 per cent of water used in SAGD is recycled.
Water treatment operator
Industry has traditionally been short on experts who fully understand how to treat process water to keep it suitable for reuse. In fact, there’s never been an oil sands-specific water treatment operator training program.
This is no longer the case, as collaboration between oil sands developers and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) has led to the establishment of a new water treatment operator training program focused on SAGD operations.
Launched in September 2012, the Water Treatment Operator Certificate of Achievement Program prepares students for work in the complex water treatment facilities found on all SAGD sites.
These newly-trained experts will know their water and can keep it suitable for reuse. This will help avoid costly and time-consuming facility shutdowns, and reduce demands on other nearby water supplies.
The inaugural program attracted 34 students, filling every available spot. ‘Industrial environmentalist’ is a term coined by participating students to describe what they do in the program.
Consisting of nine courses taught over three 15-week semesters, the program was developed with guidance from experts with practical experience in the field. Many of these experts are now course instructors.
The program is the first of many anticipated collaborative initiatives aimed at accelerating environmental performance in the oil sands. Through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), this training approach is being shared with additional oil sands operators, allowing the industry to continue improving its ability to recycle and reuse the water that’s essential to SAGD operations and, of course, everything else.