Industry needs a social license, Imperial Oil chief says
Progress is being made, but more must be done to win over a skeptical public
Secure, reliable and affordable energy is essential to human progress in Canada and across the world. As the global economy struggles to stabilize, grow and create jobs, affordable and reliable oil and natural gas – essential inputs into both improving and developing economies – is critical. All energy sources must grow to meet global demand and all are challenged to do so in a way that balances social, economic and environmental responsibilities.
Canada – and Alberta – will both have a large role to play in providing the energy the world needs. But providing that energy will require a social license to operate. And to gain a social license to grow, our industry needs to present a compelling case that addresses its associated environmental challenges.
While public support for unconventional oil and gas production is improving, many are reluctant to accept that hydrocarbons will continue to be needed for decades to come.
The industry takes its responsibility to address these challenges seriously. Research and innovation will continue to be the key to advancing technologies that will continue to reduce our footprint.
Imperial Oil Ltd. has a good story to tell about our progress. Since development began, our industry has made major advances in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) reduction, water conservation and land use. For example, Environment Canada has found that the oil and gas industry has reduced per barrel GHGs by nearly 30 per cent since 1990.
Furthermore, in situ oil sands producers now recycle between 80 and 95 per cent of water used. And some of our company’s new research into bitumen recovery using an organic solvent without steam, called the Cyclic Solvent Process, could almost eliminate water use and GHGs where applied.
We are also working to reduce our land use as we develop in situ oil sands. Horizontal drilling has led to the development and improvement of well pad technology. This innovation allows for one drill site to include a number of producing wells, limiting our surface impact. Imperial’s Nabiye expansion at Cold Lake will be developed with 40 percent fewer surface pads than we envisioned a few years ago.
In oil sands mining, tailings management is an industry-wide concern. It is the reason why seven major oil sands mining developers, including Imperial, reached an unprecedented technology-sharing agreement last year, aimed at speeding up the reclamation of tailings ponds and sharing technologies so that the environmental benefits of our work can have the broadest reach.
For example, rather than treating all tailings the same way, Imperial has discovered that separating tailings by their physical properties and then tailoring the treatment of each, before they reach the tailings pond, can reduce the volume of tailings ponds and allow reclamation to occur earlier. A pilot based on our research is being tested at Shell’s Athabasca oil sands project.
And, building on the success of the tailings consortium, earlier this year Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, or COSIA, was formed. It’s a group of 13 industry leaders focused on improving environmental performance in Alberta’s oil sands, by identifying, developing and applying solutions-oriented innovation to the challenges in water, land, greenhouse gases and tailings.
On the horizon are other exciting technologies that will deliver a step-change in our environmental footprint. One is a technology Imperial is developing that will eliminate the need for fresh water during mining and reduce water consumption in the extraction process by more than 90 per cent. While still fairly early in its development, non-aqueous extraction could significantly reduce the impact of mining operations on water and land.
Our Kearl oil sands project will raise the bar for oil sands mining performance. IHS CERA, a top energy research and analysis firm, noted that Kearl − using advanced mining and extraction techniques, energy-saving cogeneration and producing diluted bitumen without an upgrader − results in about the same life-cycle GHGs as is emitted in the average U.S. barrel of crude consumed.
We live in an era in which accessing new sources of energy is essential to everyday living but is also becoming increasingly difficult. As we employ new technologies to develop these hard-to-reach resources, the need to communicate how we plan to earn our license to grow is critical. We must continue to engage with the public sooner and continue to balance the social, economic and environmental issues related to energy expansion so that we can deliver on both our own and our country’s high expectations.