Alberta oil sands producers look to SMRs

11 June 2021

Canada's largest oil sands producers have formed an alliance that aims to work with federal and provincial government to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from their operations by 2050. The Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero initiative will, amongst other things, evaluate and accelerate the application of emerging emissions-reducing technologies including small modular nuclear reactors.

Oil sand is a mixture of bitumen, sand, water and clay (Image: Suncor)

Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus Energy, Imperial, MEG Energy and Suncor Energy between them account for 90% of Canada's oil sands production. It is estimated that the oil sands industry will contribute more than CAD3 trillion to Canada's GDP over the next 30 years, they said, but the sector is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Pathways vision will be based around a major carbon capture, utilisation and storage "trunkline", but the initiative will also incorporate several parallel pathways to address greenhouse gas emissions. One of these pathways will focus on evaluating, piloting and acclerating the application of potential emerging emissions-reducing technologies, including direct air capture, next-generation recovery technologies and SMRs.

Oil sands are a mixture of bitumen - a thick, sticky form of crude oil - sand, water and clay. Canada's oil sands, which are in Alberta, are the third-largest proven oil reserve in the world, according to Natural Resources Canada. The bitumen in oil sands does not flow like conventional crude oil, so must be mined or heated underground using steam - produced using natural gas - and further processed to recover bitumen from sand. According to the Canada Energy Regulator, oil sands gas consumption accounted for some 30% of all the natural gas used in Canada in 2018. SMRs could provide a zero-carbon source of process heat and power for such operations, which are typically in off-grid locations.

Canada is uniquely positioned to be a global leader in responsible oil production, the companies said: "While alternative energy sources will play an increasingly important role in the decades ahead, all internationally recognised forecasts indicate fossil fuels will continue to be an essential requirement through 2050 and beyond as part of a diversified energy mix, including as a feedstock for carbon fibres, asphalt, plastics and other important products."

Alberta Minister of Energy Sonya Savage said the new initiative would "strengthen our position" as global ESG (environment, social and governance) leaders. "This initiative will also pave the way for continued technological advancements, ultimately leading to the production of net zero barrels of oil," she said.

The province of Alberta last year joined New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan in a Memorandum of Understanding to work together to support the development and deployment of SMRs.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News