Andrea Zabloski: Development Engineer with Devon Canada, Manages the GHG Technology Portfolio.
Andrea Zabloski, development engineer at Devon. Photo by Jason Dziver.

Seeking the Sidney Crosby of GHG-reduction technologies

Developing technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil sands takes time, but like developing players for the NHL, perseverance produces results.

I’ve been on skates since I could walk. I started playing hockey at nine and played for the University of Calgary Dinos for four years. I know what it looks like to develop athletes – and it is surprisingly not that different than developing technologies.

I am a Development Engineer with Devon Canada and I am responsible for managing our Greenhouse Gas (GHG) technology portfolio with the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). It’s my job to work with COSIA member companies to help develop new technologies to lower our GHG emissions as part of the GHG Environmental Priority Area (EPA).

Lately, all anyone hears in the media is how much GHGs our industry produces. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there. We recognize that the oil sands sector has a comparatively higher emissions intensity to some other sources of oil. Emissions from the oil sands represent about 10 percent of Canada’s overall GHGs. Keeping things in perspective, that amounts to about 0.15 percent of the global GHG emissions. And even though our emissions are a fraction of the world’s output, Canada’s oil and natural gas producers are innovating ways to reduce the GHG emissions for every barrel of oil it produces.

Why is finding new technologies so difficult?

Canada’s doing things the right way. As an industry, we’re committed to reducing our emissions intensity, and we’ve poured billions of dollars in research and development to solve the problem. We’ve created one-of-a-kind oil and gas innovation networks like COSIA to accelerate our progress through collaboration and sharing. So why is it taking so long?

Andrea Zabloski is a Development Engineer with Devon Canada who works on technologies to lower greenhouse gas emissions. She compares the research and development process to developing an elite athlete: requiring commitment and patience but with major long-term dividends. Photo by Jason Dziver.

I look at it like developing a young hockey player. Just like a 10-year-old kid can show a lot of potential, so can a technology in the beginning stages of development. Does this mean every talented 10-year-old kid is NHL-bound? Probably not.

Still, you need a development system that identifies your key prospects, so you can nurture them along. Likewise, with environmental innovations.

New technologies usually come to COSIA through the online Environmental Technology Assessment Portal (E-TAP) and through direct challenges that are issued, like the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. The EPA group members, like scouts watching a prospects game, review the applications and evaluate whether there is potential for success. We look at whether it is a novel idea, how applicable it is to the oil sands process, and its overall feasibility. E-TAP submissions could be anything from general ideas, to results from a test in a lab experiment, to actual equipment already piloted in another country. Some ideas are fairly advanced, while others are simply concepts.

The people developing these technologies, the young prospects so to speak, are sometimes located in different countries around the world and may not realize the unique operating conditions in northern Canada. They might not know how the SAGD process works or even how our GHG emissions are produced. And they probably don’t understand the extreme conditions that our facilities operate under (i.e. extreme heat, extreme cold). What they know is that their technology has potential.

It is then up to the COSIA team to decide what to do next: 1) investigate further, asking questions; 2) assign a company lead and start an EPA-led study or Joint Industry Project to build out their ideas; or 3) give feedback on why their technology just can’t work. All these options take time and money.

Taking things to the next stage

Andrea Zabloski used to play hockey for the Calgary Dinos. Photo courtesy University of Calgary/Andrea Zabloski, by Pablo Galvez/Dinos Athletics.

The young hockey player needs time to develop their strengths and opportunity to play at a high enough level to test their ability. For the oil sands industry, developing a potential star technology is an expensive endeavor.

A lot of the new technologies we have looked at would require major retrofitting for our facilities. And in this market, the business case is not there. This process can be very frustrating. And yet some technologies are emerging. There is hope.

For example, you may have heard of the Molten Carbonate Fuel Cell (MCFC) Joint Industry Project that has the potential to capture CO₂ while generating lower GHG intensity electricity.

Or maybe you’ve heard of some of the finalists from the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. Teams are working on technologies that could turn CO₂ into bioplastic for use in furniture or into ultra-strong carbon nanotubes which could be used in everything from batteries to jet airplanes.

We’re also looking at how to improve sub-surface technologies (i.e., technologies used to get bitumen out of the ground), and there are a couple of potential NHL stars almost reaching commercialization:

Solvent Assisted SAGD (SA-SAGD) – an approach that focuses on adding a solvent to the steam to reduce water use, energy use, and emissions. The results so far indicate this approach can reduce water use by up to 25 percent and reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 25 percent.

Flow Control Devices (FCD’s) – assists with effective wellbore conformance resulting in a more efficient use of steam and a steam-to-oil ratio (SOR) reduction over the life of a well.

Another thing that gives me a lot of optimism in the GHG space is COSIA’s new focus on sub-surface technologies. This new focus opens the door for additional technologies that can lower our steam-to-oil ratio and as a result, lower our GHGs. Not only would this reduce our GHGs, it would make oil sands projects more efficient and reduce our costs.

GHG reduction projects take time and money to develop, just like a three-year-old starting out on skates. But I am more optimistic than ever that by working together we will move the needle on GHG emission reduction. Canadians should understand that as an industry, we’re deeply invested in making a difference, and we have the kind of commitment it takes to ensure the development of ‘star’ technologies that will be NHL-bound in the coming years.