Technological Prospects for Reducing the Environmental Footprint of Canadian Oil Sands

Canada’s oil sands are an important economic driver and play a growing role in meeting global oil supplies. They contain an estimated 169 billion barrels of bitumen and span an area larger than the three Maritime provinces. As is widely known, they create a significant environmental footprint – one that is forecasted to grow in the decades to come. Addressing the environmental impact is a long-term endeavour and technology will be an important part of the path forward.

In an effort to obtain the latest evidence on the subject, Natural Resources Canada, with support from Environment Canada, asked the Council of Canadian Academies to examine whether new and existing technologies have the ability to significantly reduce the environmental footprint of oil sands development.

Technological Prospects for Reducing the Environmental Footprint of Canadian Oil Sands reviews the environmental footprint of the three main bitumen processing activities (surface mining extraction, in situ extraction, and upgrading), and assessed a range of technologies with the most potential to reduce the environmental impacts on air, water, and land. The Panel then considered the impediments to the adoption of these technologies and estimated their potential to reduce the environmental footprint through to 2030.

Addressing the environmental impact of the oil sands is a long-term endeavour. Technologies implemented over the short- to medium-terms can reduce the footprint on a per barrel basis, however, none can bring absolute reductions. The greatest potential lies with emerging technologies that are longer term research and development prospects.

Key Findings

  • A number of technologies (identified in the report) can help reduce the environmental footprint in all its dimensions in the short term if widely adopted; these are important but insufficient to achieve absolute reductions.
  • An opportunity exists to accelerate the pace of technology development, creating a path to long-term and absolute reductions in the overall environmental footprint of the oil sands. This requires strong leadership, continued investment, and risk-taking by all.
  • Opportunities to reduce GHG emissions lie primarily with in situ operations, a major source for emissions, which could rise by 300% by 2030 under 2014 production forecasts.
  • There is no single “silver bullet” technology that can significantly reduce the volume of tailings and increase their consolidation for reclamation. However, a range of technologies used together may provide options for timely reclamation.
  • Impediments to the accelerated adoption of the most promising technologies relate to the resources used, business decisions, and government policies.

 Question

How could new and existing technologies be used to reduce the environmental footprint of oil sands development on air, water, and land?

Report and Related Products:

Expert Panel

The Expert Panel on the Potential for New and Emerging Technologies to Reduce the Environmental Impacts of Oil Sands Development is co-chaired by Scott Vaughan, President and CEO, International Institute for Sustainable Development, and Eric Newell, O.C., FCAE, A.O.E., Former CEO of Syncrude Canada Ltd., and Chancellor Emeritus and Special Advisor to the Provost at the University of Alberta. For a complete list of panel members visit the Expert Panel on the Potential for New and Emerging Technologies to Reduce the Environmental Impacts of Oil Sands Development page.

For further information, please contact:

Tijs Creutzberg, Director of Assessments at 613-567-5000 ext. 232 or tijs.creutzberg@scienceadvice.ca

For media inquiries, please contact:

Samantha Rae Ayoub, Communications and Publishing Director, at 613-567-5000 ext. 256 or samantha.rae@scienceadvice.ca

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