North West Updgrading: One Stop Shopping for CO2

A 1,400 tonne process reactor vessel being moved to its foundation location at the NWR project site.
“We think it’s sort of a vector for the future. All of this stuff has been done before, but not all together in one place.” - Ian MacGregor, North West Upgrading

North West Upgrading is a partner in one of the biggest efforts in the history of Alberta’s energy industry to rein in the province’s oil sands CO2 emissions. Its strategy will be the equivalent of removing 300,000 cars from the roads every year for the first phase alone.

North West Upgrading is a 50 per cent stakeholder in the North West Redwater Partnership (NWR), which is building Canada’s first refinery since the 1980s. This bitumen refinery is also a world first – the only one of its kind being built from the ground up to include carbon capture technologies.

Phase 1 of the facility is being constructed at a cost of $8.5 billion northeast of Edmonton and will capture 1.2 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually in phase 1 alone. Regulatory approval is in place for two additional phases. NWR’s gasification technology will allow it to upgrade and refine the bitumen in a single facility.

“The diesel we will then create in that refinery will have one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world,” says Ian MacGregor, the Chairman of North West Upgrading.

The gasification process essentially burns the heavy bottom of the bitumen barrel with pure oxygen – producing the hydrogen needed to turn bitumen into fuel. The CO2 that is created through this process is in a highly pure form, which makes it a valuable commodity. While the greenhouse gas is undesirable when released into the atmosphere, pure CO2 is in demand by the enhanced oil recovery (EOR) industry and in short supply in the province. CO2 enhanced oil recovery is proven south of the border on a very large scale but in Alberta we don’t have large supplies available except from man-made sources like refining. CO2 allows additional oil recovery from mature reservoirs where the CO2 then remains permanently sequestered.

“Think of an old paint tin in your garage, with about 40 per cent of the paint in there but it’s all dried up,” explains MacGregor. “If you take a depleted reservoir and put CO2 in it, it’s like putting solvent in the paint tin. The CO2 acts as that solvent and makes the oil less viscous and more mobile in the formation, so you can get an additional 15 to 20 per cent of the original oil in place out with the CO2 remaining behind permanently.”

MacGregor says Alberta doesn’t have a sufficient supply of the pure CO2 needed to make enhanced oil recovery economical. You can produce CO2 as a byproduct of making hydrogen from natural gas, but it’s typically contaminated with nitrogen and it’s very expensive to purify it so it can be used for EOR.

NWR’s refinery will capture its pure CO2 and supply it to an independent company, Enhance Energy Inc. It is building a distribution network that will be able to capture CO2 from a variety of emitters and transport it for EOR use and eventual storage in various oil fields throughout Alberta.The pipeline will have the capacity to sequester about 25 per cent of total carbon emissions from the oil sands.

“We’re showing the world that we can responsibly control our emissions and in a really economical way,” says MacGregor, a veteran of the oil and gas industry. “We’ve got the reservoirs, we’ve got the pure CO2 sources. This is an unprecedented opportunity to do some incredible work.”

With construction already well underway, the NWR bitumen refinery is expected to be up and running in 2017.