Imperial Oil Ltd. has unveiled plans for a $2-billion oil sands project that it says will harness new technology to cut costs and lower carbon emissions, a sign that the industry's biggest players are making plans to revive growth despite sputtering crude prices.
Imperial, which this week sold about 500 retail gas stations in a $2.8-billion deal, said on Friday that it has filed an application with the Alberta Energy Regulator for a new steam-driven oil sands plant located near its existing operations in Cold Lake, Alta.
The project would pump about 50,000 barrels of bitumen per day from the Grand Rapids area. Construction could start as early as 2019, with first oil in 2022, assuming timely regulatory approvals and "favourable" market conditions, the company said without elaborating.
Imperial, an affiliate of U.S. giant Exxon Mobil Corp., is seeking approvals for a new oil sands project as competitors retrench to cope with the sharp plunge in crude prices that has rendered new bitumen projects uneconomic.
It marks the first major commercial test for a technology touted by executives as a tool for curbing the industry's emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases, while at the same time lowering overall development costs.
The technique involves mixing solvents – butane, condensate and other petroleum liquids – with steam at well sites, lowering the amount of energy it takes to loosen underground seams of bitumen buried too deep to mine.
Imperial says it has piloted the technology at its Cold Lake operations since 2010. Its studies show a 25-per-cent reduction in carbon intensity compared to existing projects with no solvents, although some experts have questioned such claims. A similar reduction in water-use intensity is expected, the company said.
Imperial is also studying whether to use solvents at its proposed Aspen project, a steam-driven development estimated to cost as much as $7-billion. No decisions have been made to build that project, which could ultimately pump 135,000 barrels per day.
The company's application for a new project could throw cold water on speculation that it is building a war chest for a big acquisition following the sale of its retail gas outlets, RBC Dominion Securities Inc. analyst Greg Pardy said in a note.