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A More Sustainable Way to Win Oil from Oil Sands

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Along with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, Canada has one of the world’s major hydrocarbon resource. The Canadian resource, estimated to contain as much as 1.7 trillion barrels of heavy oil or bitumen is largely found in the province of Alberta in the form of oil sands. Oil sands are a mixture of sands and other rock materials and contain crude bitumen. Currently about 1.5 million barrels of oil per day are generated from Canadian oil sands and after primary upgrading, much of that is transported to the United States for additional upgrading to final products. The majority of the oil sands processing is a combination of strip mining and a water-based extraction. Hugh quantities of water (2–4 barrels per barrel of oil) are required to win a single barrel of oil from the oil sands. Oil sands companies are currently held to a zero-discharge policy by the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (1993). Thus, all oil sands produced water (OSPW) must be held on site. This requirement has resulted in over a billion cubic meters of tailings water held in containment systems. Ultimately, the companies are responsible for reclaiming this water and finding a way to release it back into the local environment. Despite extensive programs that have led to significant improvements including up to 90+% use of recycled water, the tailings ponds and build up of contaminants in the recycled water and in tailings ponds represent what is fundamentally a non-sustainable process. Waterless approaches using hydrocarbon solvent extraction technology are being developed. These approaches offer a pathway to winning oil from oil sands that is potentially low energy, water free, and environmentally superior to the current technology.

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Keywords: Oil sands; low impact; solvent extraction; water free

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2014-01-01

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