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Economic Contribution, Industry Success Stories

Alberta will soon have the cleanest oil industry in the world

We’re entering a golden age for oilsands production. The massive industrial-scale nature of oilsands production worked for decades to make producing oil in the Fort McMurray region a higher-cost and higher-emissions proposition.

But this equation is now getting turned on its head.

Oilsands production is now stable, which has transformed it into a long-term, reliable mining and manufacturing operation, not an ongoing and risky oil and gas exploration and extraction play. This dynamic is the main driver in the ability of oilsands companies to deliver on lower costs and emissions.

Even our notoriously oil-ambivalent federal government is giving credit where it’s due, noting on its natural resources website that: “Due to technological and operational efficiency improvements, oilsands emissions per barrel have decreased 28% from 2000 to 2017.”

The new mantra of the oilsands is “continuous improvement,” the notion that hundreds of small changes over the many years of an oilsands plant’s life cycle can add up to huge improvements when it comes to producing cleaner energy at lower cost.

“When we get the stability in the operation it allows our engineers and scientists to focus on making this better,” says Mal Carroll, manager of research and development for Syncrude.

Carroll has been at Syncrude for 25 years, with his entire focus being to improve operating efficiencies while reducing greenhouse-gas and tailings-pond emissions. Syncrude now invests $60 million per year with these goals in mind.

In recent years, Carroll has had to deal with plenty of people throwing the “dirty oil” smear about the oilsands at him.

His response?

He first points out that every day now, even in winter cold, he bicycles 14 kilometres to work. He does so to stay fit, but also to reduce his own personal carbon footprint.

In other words, Carroll actually walks the talk that hypocrite jet setters and yacht enthusiasts like actor Leonardo DiCaprio preach.

“I certainly enjoy it, even when it’s close to -20,” Carroll says of cycling.

Carroll also answers oilsands critics by pointing that Syncrude has a company-wide commitment to reduce energy use. “We want to be part of enabling this low-carbon future. The will is there within our organization to do this.”

Carroll was involved early on in one of Syncrude’s key efficiency technologies, known as hydro transport. This involves mixing bitumen with water and transporting and processing it through pipes, as opposed to trucking it everywhere, or using a conveyor belt to move it. “It’s a much lower energy-intensive process,” Carroll says.

Syncrude also has its own upgrader and uses the heat from the upgrader process to heat water for extraction and also to heat its administrative headquarters.

Perhaps the most eloquent spokesman of the “continuous improvement” movement in the oilsands is Steve Laut, executive vice-chairman of Canadian Natural Resources. Laut recently made his case on the excellent ARC Energy podcast with oil and gas experts Peter Tertzakian and Jackie Forrest.

Laut argued that oilsands are no longer high-cost or high-carbon, and noted that CNRL wants to take another huge step, one day reaching the goal of net zero emissions on CNRL’s upstream production.

Oilsands takes a huge amount of investment, but once an operation is up and running, it has 50 to 60 years of steady supply, and all those decades to refine its processes. Since 2009, Laut said per-barrel costs of production at CNRL have dropped, from $42-$44 US per barrel to $15 US. He’d like to get that number to $10 per barrel.

The average greenhouse gas emissions per barrel are now close to the average emissions of crude oil consumed in the U.S.A., Laut said.

“To me this a really true Canadian success story and people don’t really realize it.”

The future gains will come in technologies like carbon capture and storage, and converting carbon into useable products, Laut said.

So Alberta has a sound and reasonable answer to the “dirty oil” allegation and to the destructive, misguided and out-of-date smear campaign pushed by many green activists and the likes of Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet.

We already have a Rhino Party but perhaps Blanchet, the Green’s Elizabeth May and the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh should start their own goofball Dinosaur Party for folks who babble on about “dirty oil” based on yesterday’s news and yesterday’s technology, processes and economics. They hate Canada’s fossil fuel industry but their contempt is based on their own fossilized thinking.

As for Alberta and Canada, the future of our oilsands is to be a clean, lean oil-producing machine.