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Green salvation for AB oil sands to come from electricity?

Several Alberta oil sands producers are experimenting with a new extraction method that could dramatically reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.

“The benefits are strong enough where people will drop the old techniques and will pick up this technology,” Mauro Cimolai, technology advisor for Laricina Energy Ltd, told Alberta Oil magazine. “It will be like moving from the cart and horse to the automobile if we get it right.”

The technology in question uses electromagnetic fields to extract bitumen – a viscous mixture of sand, clay and crude oil – from the frigid Alberta muskeg.

Most operations rely either on strip-mining, which devastates Boreal forest and accumulates toxic waste in vast tailing ponds, or pressurized steam injections, a method with less visible impacts, but a massive carbon footprint.

A handful of companies, including E-T Energy Ltd, Laricina, Suncor Energy, Nexen, Harris Corp and Total, are field-testing new projects which shoot electric currents through oil deposits. The currents heat the bitumen and allow it to rise to the surface.

The technology, if ever adopted on a wide scale, could potentially be cheaper than many conventional operations. It would also allow producers to extract billions of barrels of previously unrecoverable oil, at a potentially much lower environmental cost.

“If you can go to a process that eliminates steam and water to heat the reservoir, you can eliminate greenhouse gas emissions,” Bill MacFarlane, senior research and development advisor with Nexen, told Alberta Oil.

The future of Alberta’s oil sands industry may very well depend on how effectively producers and refiners can reduce their carbon footprint.

A recent Environment Canada report predicted soaring oil sands emissions over the next decade will undo all the climate gains made by phasing coal out of Canada’s electrical supply.

Hundreds of protesters, including Hollywood actress Daryl Hannah and NASA climate scientist James Hansen, have been arrested in Washington, DC, over the past two weeks, demanding the Obama administration curtail America’s reliance on high-carbon Alberta crude. (Read a Tyee analysis of the protest here).

Solidarity protests have reportedly spread as far as New Zealand and South Africa.

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate issues for The Tyee.

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