Suncor reveals plans for geothermal in the oil sands

I have a story today that gives us a better sense of how geothermal may evolve as a clean-energy alternative to natural gas in oil sands operations. I spoke with Peter MacConnachie, manager of environmental strategy at Suncor Energy, who is heading up the recently formed consortium called Geopowering The Oil Sands. Members include Suncor, Shell Canada, Nexen, the Alberta Energy Research Institute and a few others that haven’t made their participation public. MacConnachie said they’re very serious about using geothermal heat to create the steam necessary for removing bitumen from the oil sands, and for their first project they’re going to use the approach for an in situ operation at Suncor’s Firebag site in Fort McMurray. So far they’ve just been taking temperatures of relatively shallow wells to do heat profiles and determine where and how to drill deeper, and to calculate the business case for doing so. If it works there, chances are it will work in other sites throughout the oil sands region of Alberta.

MacConnachie said it’s possible that the first commercial geothermal installation will become operational within five years, with a pilot project possible within three years — though he cautioned that this schedule is optimistic. That said, he seemed to dismiss the idea that nuclear power is going to save the day in the oil sands, suggesting that the push to go with nukes is coming mainly from the nuclear industry itself rather than the oil companies.

I encourage you to read the piece and keep up the pressure on politicians to support these activities. While geothermal can’t completely solve the emissions problem in the oil sands, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it can play a major role. Fortunately, the oil companies themselves see the opportunity.

6 thoughts on “Suncor reveals plans for geothermal in the oil sands”

  1. This would be a big advance, both significantly reducing CO2 released, but also the fact that it is in situ rather than open strip mine.
    I just wish this sort of development were mandatory right now.

  2. in situ requires “a dense network of roads, pipelines, wellpads and

    processing facilities across the boreal forest.”

    see “Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Impacts of In Situ Oil Sands Development on Alberta’s Boreal Forest” by Pembina Institute

  3. Thanks for the link. I didn’t realize that the total area potentially suitable for in situ was so much larger. Made my stomach turn a bit to realize that. Without that tidbit of information, it didn’t make any sense to me why ripping out part of the forest would be much worse than ripping out all of it. To me it is a shame that this is happening at all.

    For a given amount of oil, it seems in situ would do less damage than open mining. Though maybe yields are such that even this would not be true. The six recommendations in Pembina report certainly seem like good ones.

    To me it seems very odd that the US is pressuring Canada to exploit this environmentally sensitive area using techniques that are more damaging than the ones which would be required to extend extraction in Alaska… all in the name of energy security.

    Does Canada not have as strong of an environmental lobby as the US?

  4. Oil Sands Mines – devastating impact on 3000 km2 of Alberta

    In situ oil sands – massive fragmentation on 50,000 km2 of leases sold so far.

    So, from a total impact perspective, in situ will destroy more forest than the mines will, even if barrel for barrel, its marginally better.

    Oil Sands are a real disaster any way you slice them. Check out for lots of backgrounders

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