The Alberta oil sands, or tar sands as some people call them, are top on the list of Greenpeace’s agenda. The same people who climb trees to stop loggers from chopping down Old Growth forests, are looking to stop the oil extraction operations in the Canadian province. The oil is located under Boreal forest, and some say that the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from the extraction process, will make China’s coal factories look like child’s play. The processing will also damage water and the air, not to mention birds and waterfowl (which have been killed in the thousands) say Greenpeace activists.
But not everyone thinks like an environmental activist. Giving another angle, a Green Prophet reader, Michael Wittig, a stay-at-home father from Juneau, Alaska, sees the involvement of an Israeli company Opti Canada (TSE:OPC), a daughter company of Ormat, as using technologies that minimize the damage. You can follow our first post on the issue here for background (Ormat’s Opti Takes On Oil Sands in Canada) and read on for Michael’s commentary:
Near Fort McMurray, in the northern part of the province of Alberta, Canada, a piece of equipment designed and supplied by an Israeli company, Ormat Industries, is refining bitumen extracted from oil sands. This equipment, and the process it enables, represents a substantial improvement over existing oil sand extraction and refining techniques.
The tar sands industry has a reputation as a filthy, energy-intensive business. The most common method of producing oil from these sands involves strip mining to collect the sand, then heating the collected material with natural gas to draw off the oil. Since oil sands mining began in 1967, about 420 km2 (160 mi2) of land has been disturbed in these operations.
Can the bitumen locked within these deposits be extracted without resorting to strip mining? Can the oil be processed without relying on ever more limited supplies of natural gas? The answer to both questions is yes, and Nexen Inc., working with its minority partner, Opti-Canada (which is affiliated with Ormat), is attempting to prove the economic and environmental advantages of this method of oil sand development. The site of this attempt is at a project known as Long Lake.
The extraction process used in the Long Lake project is Steam Assist, Gravity Drainage (SAGD). This process relies upon paired series of horizontal wells with one well a few meters above the other. Steam is injected through the upper wells, heating the bitumen deposits and causing them to drop into the lower wells whence they are brought back to the surface for processing. Recent improvements in drilling technology allow a single drill site to send radials out in many directions, allowing large areas of coverage with minimal disturbance of the surface ecology.
Once on the surface, this heated bitumen is run through the Ormat upgrader, using a proprietary process called OrCrude. This process produces a synthetic oil with an extremely low sulphur content, making it an ideal candidate for use as a feedstock in diesel fuel (new American EPA requirements mandate a low sulphur content, and blending is a major method of achieving this). In this same process, a fraction of the bitumen is converted into a synthetic natural gas that enables Long Lake to be energy self-sufficient, so that – unlike most other tar sand projects – there is no external need for natural gas.
This, in the briefest possible terms, sums up my understanding of the Long Lake oil sands project and the various players and methods used to conduct its business.
It is not my purpose here to debate whether tar sands should be used as an energy source. I do note, however, that tar sands currently provide half of all oil produced in Canada, and all projections point to an increase in oil derived from tar sands over the next several decades. Given these realities and projections, I feel that any oil extracted from this source should utilize the best available technology to minimize damage to the environment.
For that reason, I was displeased by the recent article that appeared on Green Prophet characterizing Ormat’s involvement in Long Lake as “driving in part, what could be the most destructive project to date on our planet.”
Oil sands are a filthy business. Should we allow them to continue unabated, or should we applaud the efforts of companies like Ormat, which appear to be doing something to limit the damage inherent in the development of this resource? I would suggest that, perhaps, the wrath of Green Prophet is in this case unjustified, and that Ormat is indeed operating in a good faith consistent with its environmental pedigree.
Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home father in Juneau, Alaska, who spends his spare time on projects to improve the energy efficiency of his own home. He also writes a monthly column for the Juneau Empire titled “At Home with the Kids”. And yes, he does own stock in Opti-Canada, which used to be worth something before the recent financial meltdown.
(Image via someones_life)