Oil sands in Canada’s Alberta Province contain the biggest known reserve of oil in the world with an estimated 1.6 trillion barrels of bitumen locked in a complex mixture of sand, water and clay.
Up to 18 percent of the sand content is oil.
Tulsa-based Williams Cos. Inc. is a player in recovering what is increasingly becoming a crucial energy source.
Williams’ Canadian olefins business extracts natural gas liquids and olefins from oil sands refining near Fort McMurray, Alberta, said Sara Delgado, a Williams’ spokesman. She recently wrote an article highlighting Williams’ Alberta operations.
“Olefins” typically include butane, ethylene and propylene recovered from raw natural gas.
In his remarks at the company’s annual meeting May 17, Williams Chairman, president and CEO Steve Malcolm referred to the Fort McMurray facility.
“The Alberta oil sands project is capturing additional value,” he said. “Our Fort McMurray facility is only one of its kind in the region.”
The environmentally friendly project reduces sulphur emissions and other green house gases, Delgado said.
As the only olefinic fractionator in Western Canada, the facility produces about 2.4 million barrels of propane, 140 million pounds of polymer grade propylene, 1.1 million barrels of butane/butylene mix and 230,000 barrels of olefinic condensate, Delgado said.
Williams owns the olefins fractionator and a portion of the storage and distribution assets at a facility in Redwater, according to the Williams Web site.
At the heart of the project is the propane propylene splitter, the tallest processing vessel in Western Canada, Williams’ reports.
The liquids are fractionated into products such as propane, butane, condensate and the olefin products propylene and butylenes.
What It Is
Oil sands are mined using massive shovels. Trucks pick up the sands and deliver it to a dump station where it is placed on a conveyor belt. The oil is essentially washed out of the sand using high-pressure steam.
The washed sand is then returned to the ground. The result of this process is a petroleum product known as bitumen — a tar-like substance too thick and sticky to flow through pipelines.
The bitumen is then taken through a thermal cracking/coking process to make usable oil.
At the same time, this process produces a sour off-gas that is rich in natural gas liquids and olefins, which is where Williams steps into the process, according to its Web site.
In 2001, Williams constructed an olefins cryogenic liquids extraction plant near the Suncor facilities in Fort McMurray. This project began what is now known as the Hydrocarbon Liquids Conservation Project. The goal of the project is to recover the higher-value natural gas liquids and olefins from the off-gas streams.
After recovering the gas liquids and olefins, Williams then transports them via pipeline to its Redwater facility near Edmonton, more than 240 miles south.
High oil prices, global growth in oil demand and the potential for market expansion are stimulating development.