Innovators toil to revive Canada oil sands as majors exit | Reuters

Written by AI Translator

By Nia Williams and Ernest Scheyder

CALGARY, Alberta/HOUSTON Within the boreal forests and on the distant prairies of Alberta, a handful of corporations are operating pilot tasks they hope will finish a two-decade drought in innovation and stem the exodus of prime international power corporations from Canada’s oil sands.

They’re trying to find a breakthrough that may lower the price of pumping the tar-like oil from the nation’s huge underground bitumen reservoirs and higher compete with the booming shale in the USA.

In the event that they fail, a much bigger chunk of the world’s third-largest oil reserves will keep within the floor. Canada’s oil sands sector has grow to be one of many largest victims of the worldwide oil value crash that started in 2014 when prime OPEC producer Saudi Arabia flooded the market with low cost crude to drive out excessive value rivals.

This yr alone, oil majors have bought over $22.5 billion of property in Canada’s power , and been lured south to put money into the upper returns of U.S. shale.

Joseph Kuhach is among the many entrepreneurs in Canada hoping they will flip the tide. He runs a small Calgary-based agency, Nsolv, that’s testing using solvents to liquefy the bitumen buried within the sands and make it circulation as oil.

Kuhach says utilizing solvents can lower 20 to 40 % from the price of producing the oil. The approach at the moment used is to make use of steam to warmth the sands underground to extract the oil.

It is a exhausting promote, he stated, to Canadian producers scuffling with low oil costs. They’re reluctant to put money into a multi-million greenback expertise that’s unproven on a industrial scale, he stated.

“The remark I hear so usually when I’m speaking to firms is, ‘We need to be the very first in line to be second’,” stated Kuhach. “It is simpler to go after incremental enhancements that they will again away from with no nice value and no nice danger.”

Nsolv is winding down a three-year pilot mission with Canada’s second-largest power producer Suncor Power at its Dover oil sands lease in northern Alberta. Suncor is evaluating the outcomes, the agency’s spokeswoman Erin Rees stated.

Fourth-largest producer Imperial Oil, managed by ExxonMobil Corp, can also be growing solvent expertise and has had an ongoing C$100-million pilot mission since 2013, the corporate stated.

The warning of oil sands producers stems partly from the distinctive challenges of working right here, the place tasks take years to construct and require billions of in upfront capital.

The event of the approach utilizing steam 20 years in the past made Canada’s sands the brand new frontier for the oil , and majors have been among the many corporations that flocked to purchase in.

Since then, innovation has stalled. That failure, energy-industry entrepreneurs and enterprise capitalists informed Reuters, is rooted in a risk-averse tradition that has left oil sands years behind U.S. shale.

The exodus of worldwide oil corporations equivalent to Royal Dutch Shell and Statoil ASA from oil sands has made innovation harder as a result of there are fewer potential clients who would possibly undertake new expertise, stated Joe Gasca, chairman of Fractal Programs Inc. His agency processes bitumen into higher-quality crude on the wellhead.

Fractal is operating a 1,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) check plant in jap Alberta for third-largest producer Cenovus Power, which has but to decide on whether or not to proceed commercially.


The shale sector moved quick to innovate and lower prices to outlive the oil value crash. In 2014, producing oil from most shale fields value greater than the typical $60 a barrel wanted for a brand new Canadian oil sands mission to make cash. Now, there are some shale patches that may make a revenue at $15 a barrel.

It takes months of pumping steam into underground reservoirs earlier than bitumen begins to circulation from the oil sands. That makes engineers reluctant to experiment with the fragile steadiness of warmth and strain.

Shale, against this, supplies comparatively fertile floor for innovation. The preliminary funding is a fraction of what the price of an oil sands mission. Comparatively easy accessibility encourages competitors as the numerous corporations concerned search for an edge. Wells might be drilled shortly. The stakes are decrease and the size is smaller if experiments fail.

Drilling longer wells and being higher in a position to pinpoint the place in these wells to fracture the rock, amongst different methods, have supercharged U.S. shale output up to now two years. That has boosted corporations together with Noble Power and Devon Power and drawn billions of in new non-public fairness funding.

Canadian producers have fewer tasks to experiment with and are unwilling to danger their huge upfront investments, stated Steve Fisher, chief government of Calgary-based startup Veerum.

“Shale is like occurring a date, the oil sands is like getting married,” he stated. “The danger for capital is excessive within the oil sands, you will have huge property that want to finish on time and function for 40 years to make cash.”

Veerum’s expertise cuts capital prices by monitoring how precisely a brand new mission sticks to design specs throughout building, lowering the necessity for pricey fixes later.

The corporate is supported by GE’s Zone Startups Calgary, an incubator for brand new corporations within the power capital of Canada.

One other hurdle to innovation is the dearth of gross sales and advertising experience within the metropolis’s oil to hold concepts via to industrial execution, stated Marty Reed, chief government of clean-tech fund Evok Improvements.

“At $100 a barrel it did not take a gross sales and advertising genius to promote the product,” Reed stated. “However in case you are a brand new firm making an attempt to get Suncor to undertake a brand new widget these abilities are essential.”

Evok was launched final yr with a C$100 million funding from Cenovus and Suncor over 10 years to speed up growth of applied sciences to chop oil sands prices and emissions.


Since oil costs started falling in 2014, the long-term forecast for oil sands output in 2030 has fallen to three.7 million bpd, down from 5.2 million bpd, in accordance with the Canadian Affiliation of Petroleum Producers. Present output is round 2.four million bpd.

Growth will largely come from including items at present tasks, given new tasks are unprofitable at present worldwide oil costs of round $45 a barrel.

Canadian oil sands producers acknowledge that innovation is essential for his or her survival, and a few corporations are spending extra.

The nation’s prime power producer Canadian Pure Assets Ltd allotted C$549 million ($406.97 million) or 14 % of its 2016 C$three.eight billion capital finances on analysis and growth (R&D), up four % from C$527 million in 2015, when capital spending was increased.

“It is largely about incremental good points, however we do have some large stuff that might change issues,” Canadian Pure President Steve Laut informed reporters final month, declining to elaborate.

Suncor and Imperial each held R&D spending regular from the earlier yr whereas lowering general capital budgets. Suncor spent C$150 million, or three % of its finances in 2016 on what it calls “step-change applied sciences”, whereas Imperial spent C$195 million, roughly 17 % of its finances, firm filings confirmed.

The corporations all stated they have been engaged on methods to cut back prices and environmental influence. Producers additionally stated new expertise is commonly developed within the subject throughout regular operations and doesn’t essentially present up in R&D budgets.

Numerous producers, together with Cenovus and Suncor are methods so as to add solvents to steam of their industrial operations.

In contrast to the solvent-only approach being pitched by Nsolv, this may enable corporations to adapt present thermal vegetation quite than construct new ones, Kuhach stated.

Even when pilot steam-and-solvent tasks are profitable, it might take one other three to 5 years for the expertise to unfold throughout the , stated Dan Wicklum, chief government of the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance.

Vancouver-based Chrysalix Enterprise Capital has grow to be extra cautious about new oil sands investments for the reason that oil majors pulled out, Chief Government Wal van Lierop stated, however is investing in applied sciences that will show priceless to the sector.

“I’m actually hoping we are able to get breakthrough applied sciences, however I do not see them but,” he stated.

“Mediocracy won’t assist. Will probably be go large or go house.”

($1 = 1.3490 Canadian )

(Enhancing by Simon Webb and Brian Thevenot)

Leave a Comment