Thursday, August 26, 2010

Waste to Wealth

Why waste management in the oilsands could better echo the mutually beneficial relationships in nature. This article appears in the August issue of The Oilsands Review.
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
Academics have developed a discipline known as industrial ecology to help explain the behaviour of the economic world, but you can do more than use this discipline to understand economics. You can use it for strategic planning. According to an influential group of thinkers headquartered in Alberta, the future of the oil sands lies in “industrial symbiosis” – a specialty within the field. It’s a simple idea, but it could have the power to transform the oil sands sector.

A few months ago I got an invitation to participate in a workshop developing this idea, with a key proviso: If I reported on the proceedings, I couldn’t attribute a quote to anyone without first getting permission. The point was to create a working environment in which no one felt constrained by the presence of a reporter. No problem: for this article, the ideas are more important than the industry, government, and university people behind them.

The workshop was jointly sponsored by ConocoPhillips and Alberta Innovates, an umbrella group of provincial agencies meant to be “catalysts of innovation” in the energy and environment, health, technology and bio sectors.

We met at the provincial government’s McDougall Centre in Calgary. While the topic was zero waste from the oil sands, participants produced the usual amount of think-tank rubbish in the form of Styrofoam cups and disposable plastics. Probably nothing was recycled – one of the easy forms of waste management.

The task set before the group was to brainstorm a plan for regional integration in the Fort McMurray area. Under this scheme, industry and government would look for ways to encourage the creation of waste-reducing business ties. Oil sands companies, other industries and municipalities in the region would share or co-locate infrastructure to reduce redundancy, harness waste energy and convert residual materials into value-added by-products.

The Big Word
To understand this, let’s get the big word out of the way. Symbiosis occurs when living things develop cooperative or dependent relationships with others so they can live longer or better and prosper. Familiar examples: people on the one side, cultivated plants and domesticated animals on the other. Each side needs the other to thrive.

Industrial ecology describes industries as ecosystems with behaviours somewhat similar to those in nature. Industrial symbiosis involves creating dependent or cooperative relationships within the sector. Done right, this approach can create more sophisticated, efficient and profitable businesses. It can also reduce the output of such industrial wastes as heat, carbon dioxide emissions, and other pollutants.

There are many instances of companies extracting by-products from a waste stream and then transforming them into money-making products. For example, Williams Energy Canada removes pentanes, butanes, propane and olefins from the off-gas stream at Suncor’s Fort McMurray operations. The company pipes the butanes and olefins to Redwater, where its 14,000-barrel-per-day plant further processes them into petrochemical feedstock. In May Williams announced a series of expansions to this system, including the construction of more processing facilities and a new pipeline.

Another example is the fertiliser plant at Syncrude, which helps the oil sands giant comply with environmental regulations. Marsulex Inc. owns and operates the plant which, using technology the fertiliser company developed, employs waste ammonia from Syncrude to help clean up sulphur emissions from bitumen processing and upgrading. The value-added by-product from the operation is ammonium sulphate fertilizer.

Similarly, Shell strips feedstock from the hydrocarbon stream at its oil sands upgrader at Scotford. The company pipes those by-products to its nearby petrochemicals plant for feedstock.

Looking into the future, Edmonton-based Titanium Corporation has developed an entire business plan based on processing waste oil sands material into valuable products. The company has developed technology that can recover both heavy minerals (zircon and titanium) and bitumen from tailings ponds at Fort McMurray-area plants.

There are economic and environmental benefits to this approach. Companies can generate profits for their shareholders. The environmental footprint is smaller, because symbiosis enables industrial players to manage emissions and other waste streams better. And there are improvements in the economics of transforming low-cost bitumen into higher-value products. It seems like a no-brainer.

The Toilet and the Tailings Pond

Over two days, workshop discussion was thoughtful and varied, and it included colourful one-liners enlivening subtle and colourful ideas. One person summed up a complex discussion with an on-the-spot maxim: “Don’t connect the toilet to the tailings pond.” The idea is that the plumbing should be designed to easily redirect plant by-products (including waste heat) to new facilities as money-making uses for them are found.

Co-author of an executive primer titled Discovering Industrial Ecology, the University of Alberta’s Dr. Stephen Moran suggested that companies should “assign to each major waste a product number, then assign a product manager to it.” An important outcome of that perception-altering idea would be the creation of markets for valuable wastes. Syncrude’s waste ammonia is one good example. Another: the propane and heavier hydrocarbons which Suncor used for plant fuel until Williams began to extract them for feedstock.

At the other end of the feedstock spectrum, consider that ERCB regulations now require the companies drilling Steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) oil sands wells to send all materials from the well, including oil sands from the horizontal legs, to a secure landfill. Why not treat that material as oil sands ore and ship it instead to a mining operation for processing?

According to Bob Taylor – formerly Alberta’s Assistant Deputy Minister for Oil and now a consultant who specializes in energy systems innovation – all manner of coordination is possible. If several facilities coordinate their waste management operations, there will be fewer garbage trucks barrelling down the road. What about gasifying solid waste produced by field camps along with suitable regional waste, including slash from woodland operations? He also suggests a regional water strategy that “seeks to utilize this limited resource to support a much higher level of development and production than if we continue down the current path.” Taylor sees co-generation as another important area of opportunity. For example, waste heat from generating electricity could produce steam for cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) or SAGD operations.

There are also opportunities in assets external to the oil sands – infrastructure like roads and highways, the power grid and an often-discussed railway link to Fort McMurray. According to Taylor, “engaging parties beyond our normal spheres of influence (will help us) realize (symbiotic) opportunities that will enable our industry to better meet social and profit expectations alike.” The ideas got increasingly complex, and it quickly became clear that the potential is huge.

One appeal of waste management through industrial symbiosis is that it contributes positively to three of society’s broadest concerns: economic growth, stewardship of the environment and efficient energy consumption. Take the Williams off-gases project, which strips heavier hydrocarbons from Suncor’s fuel stream. This industrial magic enables the plant to operate more efficiently, reduces Suncor’s carbon dioxide emissions and provides feedstock to the petrochemical industry. Not a bad outcome for a single piece of innovation.

A participant noted with some surprise that the environmental footprint is triangular in shape, with its three sides consisting of land, air and water. “What you do to change results in one of these areas affects results in the others.”

In that context, the goal of zero waste from the oil sands can act as a principle to help the industry overcome the public perception of the industry’s behaviour by directly addressing the issue. It will also provide guidance to the build-out of the industry. Forecasts suggest that three quarters of the plants that will dot the oil sands in 2030 are yet to be built. These facilities are still at the concept or design stage, and they represent the biggest opportunity to embrace industrial symbiosis. Notably, they will be receiving the greatest scrutiny from regulators and a public demanding “greener” energy.

Another triangle is driving oil sands development. Its three sides are social attitudes and demands; regulatory and industrial codes; and technical skills and operating environments. As in the case of the footprint triangle, what you do to change results in one of these areas affects results in the others. In the area of technical skills and operating environments, there’s a triangle of areas where industry players need to look for improvements.

According to Dr. Doug James, who with Bob Taylor facilitated the workshop, one is “inside the plant fence.” Individual operations need to seek out better processes for cleaning up or eliminating waste generation. These could include capturing and using waste heat, for example, and using waste materials for gasification. Joy Romero, Canadian Natural’s vice president of bitumen production, cited a process at Horizon which “purchases waste CO2 to add to our tailings. This undoes the effect of caustic soda, allowing fines and clays to settle, and water is released for reuse almost immediately from the tailings ponds.”

There are also “across the plant fence” opportunities, by which different companies work together to make their combined operations more efficient. For example, they could build joint facilities for water treatment and waste water handling or develop joint hydrogen production facilities – perhaps using gasification of coal and biomass – for use in upgraders.

And there are opportunities from “across-the-region coordination” – the construction of common pipelines and other transportation infrastructure. One possibility would be regional landscape planning with Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, which has forestry rights covering most of the oil sands area. This “might reduce the joint forestry-SAGD footprint by 30%,” said James.

Tragedy of the Commons
In a presentation, Dr. Eddy Isaacs of Alberta Innovates described a 90-year pattern of oil sands development. His essential argument was that oil sands development periodically goes into crisis before being rescued by a visionary. Sunoco Chairman J. Howard Pew saved a floundering Suncor, for example, and Frank Spragins, the first president of Syncrude, brought that project back from a near-death experience.

The oil sands are now in crisis because of public perceptions. According to one academic, “Perception is reality and the perception is that you guys are making a mess up there. You’ve got a problem.” Dr. Soheil Asgarpour, president of the Petroleum Technology Association of Canada, agreed. “We aren’t communicating what we are doing properly,” he said, “and we aren’t doing enough.”

According to facilitator Bob Taylor, industrial symbiosis is a key part of the solution, since it harnesses economic forces to reduce waste and save energy. The best part of this system, though, is that it develops naturally. Symbiotic relationships began forming long before the idea was coined.

In Alberta, the classic example is the Industrial Heartland, north of Edmonton. That industrial region has grown organically since the late 1940s, when Imperial Oil brought a tin-pot World War II refinery down from Whitehorse in response to the discovery of oil near Edmonton. Not until recently was the idea of industrial symbiosis even whispered there. Now reflecting more than $25 billion in investment, this 582-square-kilometre region hosts forty large companies and many small ones. Together they operate numerous refineries and plants, pipelines, fabricating facilities, service companies and other interdependent businesses.

For the oil sands, there is no reasonable alternative to greater and continually evolving industrial symbiosis. In a background document, Bob Taylor and Doug James suggested that the extreme alternative to a sensibly industrial ecology is reflected in a notion known as “the tragedy of the commons.” The phrase was first articulated in an influential 1968 article by the late Dr. Garrett Hardin, an academic whose First Law of Ecology proclaims, “You cannot do only one thing.”

In his famous article, Hardin described a situation in which individuals act independently and rationally in their own self-interest. Collectively, however, they deplete a shared, limited resource even when it is clear that it is in no one’s long-term interest to do so.

To illustrate his point, Hardin proposed a hypothetical and simplified situation based on land tenure in medieval Europe. The picture he drew was one of herders sharing a common pasture for their cows. It is in each herder’s personal interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if this means exceeding its carrying capacity and temporarily or permanently damaging the land. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common pasture will be depleted to the detriment of everyone.

Society is now much more complex than in medieval times, of course, and today’s petroleum sector clearly understands that permission to produce Alberta’s resources requires public approval. Oil sands people at the workshop frequently mentioned the need to “preserve your social license.”

“The implication for the oil sands industry,” wrote the two workshop facilitators, “is that, in the absence of a higher guiding principle, each company will tend to act in its own interests, ultimately resulting in degradation of the environment. Of course, the government through regulations imposes such higher guiding principles. However, it appears at this time that the rapid expansion of the industry operating on an individual basis reaches sub-optimal results regarding environmental stewardship.”

One way for industry to demonstrate better stewardship is to collectively develop good will by sharing new, lower-waste technologies. It is important for companies to secure intellectual property rights for their ideas. If they didn’t, someone else could secure the patent and demand royalties on the technology. However, producers have little reason not to share them within the oil sands community. After all, said Doug James, “in the oil sands once you acquire your land the competition is over. Compared to the revenue stream from oil sands production, any income you might derive from licensing production technology is peanuts.”

Moving toward zero as a goal will reduce waste products, he said, but it will also reduce “wasted opportunities, wasted human capital, wasted funds and wasted reputations.”

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