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How CNRL is ahead of the curve on carbon conversion

Don Horne   


Joy Romero, Vice President of Technology & Innovation at Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL), was one of the speakers at the 2019 Operational Excellence in Energy (OPEX), Chemicals & Resources Summit in Calgary, Alta.

While there, she provided insight into CNRL’s use of ‘game changing’ technologies as well as their current carbon conversion initiatives. Here are a few excerpts from the interview she shared with the OPEX organizers:

OPEX:  Can you tell us a little bit about what operational excellence means to CNRL and how your role as Vice President Technology and Innovation fits into that?

Romero:  Like many companies, Canadian Natural has been on a journey towards operational excellence for many years, and that means that each year we are striving to get better. We’ve implemented programs like Lean Six Sigma and 4dx across our company to drive efficiency and accountability.


OPEX:  Given the current business climate, innovation is more important than ever for the oil and gas industry. How are technologies helping the industry reduce operating cost and operational risk? Which technologies do you see as real game changers?

Romero:  Our industry has a long history of innovation; we exist because of innovation, so it is definitely part of our culture. There are some really interesting things going on in the technology world to ensure a viable and sustainable oil and gas industry long into Canada’s future. The technologies that both reduce our costs and improve our environmental performance are obvious winners. They are similar to turning the furnace down in your house – you save money and you reduce your environmental footprint.

The same kind of thing applies to our operations. Technologies that are real game changers for us right now focus on what would have been waste and turning it into a revenue stream. We are working with Titanium Corp to take waste water from our tailing stream and recovering any heavy metals. Those metals become titanium and are now products that can be sold. This turns our footprint into a valuable product, and from an environmental point of view, reduces greenhouse gases as well.

We are also looking at a technology that we call In-Pit Extraction with which we can extract the bitumen right in the pit and eliminate tailings ponds by bringing up a dry product. By doing this we can reduce our water usage by up to 40% and reduce methane usage in our facilities by up to 71 per cent. That’s another example of technology simultaneously reducing our operating costs and our environmental footprint.

In 2018, we completed a pace of power at 500 tons an hour and into 2019 our pace of power is at 1,000 tons an hour. That is through the winter, which is extremely important given the harsh conditions in which we operate. It is important to know how the process will perform in all temperatures. We are in the middle of conducting those trials, and we’ve seen some very encouraging results so far. We’re continuing to look forward to coming up with something that we’ll be able to commercially implement.

For the entire interview, click here.

OPEX:  You often talk about how critical it is for Canada’s oil costs and carbon levels to remain competitive. Can you expand on this and some of the carbon conversion initiatives you are working on?

Romero:  We often hear the language of transition to a low carbon economy. I think what people really mean is a transition to a low carbon emissions economy, because it is carbon emissions Co2 and Co2 equivalents that are the issue. We will have nine billion people on the planet in the not so distant future and we will need all forms of energy. To deny energy to many parts of the world when it can be sustainably developed is denying running water, electricity, education, and access to food.

We’re working on carbon capture and conversion technologies to reduce of Co2 emissions either post-combustion, or by not combusting them in the first place. We generate our Co2 footprint by using our own product, so the carbon capture and conversion technologies that are applicable to our large, industrial facilities are also applicable to anybody else that uses our product. Our innovations are transferable to agriculture, steel plants, factories and even hotels, office buildings, and our own homes.

There is a company called Clean o2 that has been capturing Co2 off of boilers at hotels and converting it to baking soda, which is then used in the laundry. The Co2 emissions are carbon and hydrogen which are huge basic block molecules for everything that surrounds us.

These carbon capturing and conversion technologies allow us to transfer carbon into a form that is valuable to us. Through the Xprize Foundation, the oil sands industry sponsored a Reimagine Co2 competition. There are now five finalists working on commercial level carbon capture and conversion at a gas plant test centre just outside of Calgary.

OPEX:  So how are you applying remote monitoring and sensor technology to improve your operations?

Romero:  We’ve been using these tools for a very long time. We’ve been using neural networks, the old-fashioned word for artificial intelligence, since 2003. What’s cool about where we are today is that computing power is so strong and we have the ability to employ AI in a wireless capacity that we weren’t able to do before.

This also applies to the internet of things and remote sensors. Now that they can be wirelessly connected and can work in -50 degree weather, snowstorms and rain storms. This allows us to move these processes further and further upstream and into more remote areas. The more upstream you go the more process control you have, so there is less waste, less material handled, less water used, and less cost.


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