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Non-conventionals: a brief guide

Mining: The bitumen is dug up, transported in 400-tonne trucks, rinsed in hot water to wash out the sand, diluted with light oils to flow down a pipeline to an upgrader, and lightened with hydrogen stripped from natural gas to turn it into synthetic crude oil. Only then is it ready to go to a refinery to be processed into petroleum products as normal. It takes the equivalent of one barrel to produce 8, compared to 1:18 for conventional crude. Production emissions are a third higher than conventional, but emissions from the end products are the same.
Production: 630,000 b/d: Energy return: 8x (upgraded): CO2: 132kgCO2/bbl; Water: 4bbls/bbl (net of recycling); Recovery factor: 80-90%; Economics: $80/barrel (new projects)

Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage
(SAGD): Two horizontal wells are drilled in the reservoir, one above the other. Steam is pumped into the upper well to melt the bitumen, which flows down into the lower well and is then pumped to the surface. Uses less water than mining, but far more energy.

Production: 580,000 b/d; Energy return: 4x (upgraded); CO2: 163kgCO2e/bbl; Water: 0.9bbls/bbl; Recovery factor: 25-60%; Economics: $65-$75

SAGD with Gasification: The heaviest fraction of the produced bitumen is gasified to raise steam for the SAGD production process, and provide hydrogen to upgrade the bitumen into high quality synthetic crude. The process is energy self-sufficient, and even exports electricity to the grid.

Production: 60,000 b/d 2010; Energy return: 12.4; CO2: 200kg/bbl (upgraded); Water: 0.6bbls/bbl
Recovery factor: 43%; Economics: Profitable at $50/bbl

(THAI): First steam is injected underground until the bitumen is hot enough to ignite spontaneously when exposed to air. Then air is pumped down to create a 500°C ‘fire front’ that moves through the deposit, melting the bitumen to drain into a horizontal production well. The intense heat partially upgrades the bitumen so it needs less refining than usual.

Production: 10,000 b/d 2012; Energy return: 48 (before upgrading); CO2: 60kg/bbl; Water: 0
Recovery factor: 70-75%; Economics: Profitable at $45

Electro-Thermal Dynamic Stripping Process (ET-DSP) : Electrodes are placed in a grid of vertical wells, and current passed through groundwater in the reservoir to heat the bitumen, which flows into a production well in the middle. Changing the voltage gradient between the electrodes allows the operators to direct the electric field to heat the richest parts of the reservoir.

Production: 110,000 b/d, 2014; Energy return: 21x (before upgrading); CO2: 70kg/bbl (Alberta grid electricity); Water: 1bbl/bbl; Recovery factor: 65%; Economics: Profitable at $26

Oil shale In-situ Conversion Process
(Shell ICP): Electric heaters are lowered into 2000-foot vertical wells and left to heat the shale to 300-400C for several years, converting its kerogen into oil, which is then pumped out. At the same time the perimeter of the production area is frozen to the same depth using wells refrigerated with ammonia to prevent groundwater contamination. Shell to decide on commercialisation around 2015 or later.

Coal-to-liquids (CTL): Established technology for converting coal into diesel and jet fuel, used by Germany in WWII and introduced in South Africa under Apartheid sanctions. Planes refueling in Johannesburg today get a half-and-half blend of kerosene and CTL jetfuel, and China has just built a small plant in Inner Mongolia but suspended work on another. Greenhouse gas emissions are double those of conventional crude, and producing a barrel of CTL takes up to 14 barrels of water.

(GTL): Like coal, natural gas can be converted into liquid transport fuels using Fischer Tropsch technology. But it takes up to 10,000 cubic feet of gas to produce one barrel of diesel, so the process consumes almost as much energy as is contained in the product, and emissions are higher than conventional crude. Production expected to reach just 200,000 b/d in 2012, from plants in South Africa, Malaysia and Qatar.

SOURCES: International Energy Agency, Alberta Chamber of Resources, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, IHS CERA, Lenef Consulting, Nexen, Petrobank Energy & Resources, E-T Energy