The oil sands incongruity—low-quality oil in high-quality sand reservoirs—is the main reason bitumen production is so high in GHG emissions. But now, Imperial Oil may have developed a “ game-changing technology that would eliminate the need for water and, therefore, the need to burn natural gas to generate steam. Therein lies the reduction of greenhouse gases,” according to Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser.

For a hundred years, scientists, tinkerers and business people have considered heat from burning oil or gas as an essential ingredient for extracting bitumen from the oil sands. Heat liquefies the bitumen, which in its natural state has the consistency of cold molasses. Deeply buried bitumen treated in this way can be pumped from the ground for processing into consumer products such as gasoline and industrial fuels like diesel.

Canada’s oldest and second-largest petroleum company, Imperial Oil has long been the leader in releasing oil from Alberta’s vast Cold Lake oil sands deposit. The company began experimenting there in the early 1960s—injecting steam into the reservoir to draw the oil to the surface.

In order to generate steam, natural gas must be burned, and that releases CO2. For this demonstration project, the Cyclic Solvent Process (CSP) will use three horizontal wells and cost $100 million at a site near Cold Lake.

From a business perspective, CSP has the advantage that it will increase the bounty of the Cold Lake oil sands deposit. Despite numerous improvements over the years to the Cyclic Steam Stimulation technology used at the Imperial project, the company still recovers only 30% to 40% of the oil in place.

“With the application of solvents and some other follow-up processes,” said Rolheiser, “we think we can take that to the 50-60% range.” After the bitumen has been produced, the solvent could be recovered and reused.

Like most good science, the Imperial project is the product of many years of lab work and experimentation. According to Rolheiser, “Imperial Oil has been working on CSP technology in the lab since 1993. It takes years to advance this kind of technology. The purpose of the pilot is to determine whether it’s feasible to inject just solvent, or whether a small amount of steam is required. We are also looking for the best methods of recovering solvent, and the best solvent to use.”