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.