A Smarter Solution to Exploiting the Tar Sands

Following on from an article we wrote a week or so back regarding the oil majors cooling interest in Canadian Tar Sands we started a fascinating exchange with Jim Baird inventor of the Nuclear Assisted Hydrocarbon Production Method. For anyone remotely following the tar or oil sands resource extraction debate the issue of environmental damage is well known. The problem with these hydrocarbons is the low viscosity makes separating the bitumen-based oil from the sands in which they reside almost impossible unless the oil can be heated and its viscosity reduced. For deposits at the surface this is bad enough, resulting in widespread environmental damage, but as some 80% of deposits are at depths too great to surface mine bore holes have to be sunk and superheated steam forced down to essentially melt the tar so it can be forced up adjacent holes. This is known as the Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) technique and is the technology used for all sub surface oil or tar sands extraction. Without a source of heat, the hydrocarbons in their natural state are too viscose to flow and hence be pumped out. To heat the steam, pump it down under pressure and then separate the resulting slurry involves vast amounts of energy and requires a huge investment in water treatment facilities if extensive environmental damage is to be contained let alone avoided. Even after billions of dollars being spent by the oil majors, environmental groups are still vehemently against exploitation of these vast reserves solely on the grounds of the carbon footprint of every gallon of oil produced being five times that of conventional oil and the environmental damage caused around the mine sites.

So much for the problem, what is the solution? The US is holding in storage approximately a quarter of the global spent nuclear fuel (SNF) inventory with no long-term solution for storage or re-use. The generally held wisdom is storage in secure underground salt mines or a geologically static cavern is the only solution. The slowly cooling SNF rods give off huge amounts of heat – between 30 and 50 times the heat produced by the Geysers Geothermal reservoir according to estimates by the California Energy Commission. Assuming only a 30 times multiplier that puts the heat potential of the US SNF reserve at 390 GW hours of energy. If this SNF was encased in standard drill pipe it could be lowered deep underground into the tar sands deposits where the heat would melt the viscous bitumen oil into a higher viscosity liquid, which could be conventionally pumped out of adjacent boreholes.   A degree of ionization from the radioactive emissions would have the beneficial effect of breaking the long chain molecules in the oil improving the yield of higher value hydrocarbons. Standard drill pipe would keep the SNF rods safely encased for hundreds of years by which time the oil would have been extracted and the deposit resealed. Even if drill cases began to corrode, hundreds of years into the future the impermeable covering rock layers, which for millions of years have kept gas at high pressure trapped underneath them, would contain the SNF for eternity.

For anyone worried about nuclear proliferation depositing SNF rods hundreds or thousands of feet underground would be the most effective way of ensuring they never fell into the hands of terrorists, much better than storing them in an open, if geologically stable, cavern.

So when I asked Jim Baird where is the imperative for us to be considering this technology he pointed me to the following article in the Calgary Herald as to why at least Canada should be taking the option seriously. Suncor Energy, one of the country’s largest oil sands operators, announced quarterly results, which were a disappointment to its investors. Taking into account the Energy Return on Investment for SAGD extraction techniques at current prices roughly $15 worth of energy is used to produce a barrel of bitumen. If Suncor/Petro-Canada had produced the 318,200 bpd it reported in its last quarter using the Nuclear Assisted Hydrocarbon Production Method they could have increased their profits by some US$430m -almost double what they did make – and would have produced zero CO2 and polluted not one gallon of surface water. Some imperative!

–Stuart Burns

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  • The solution to cleaning up the oil sands business in Canada is not using heat-based technologies to boil the oil out of the ground — but to use chemical-based technologies, like EncapSol, that can cleanly and cost-effectively separate bitumen from the oil sands.


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