The five operators that account for some 90% of Canada’s oil sands production have unveiled ambitious plans to hit net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from their operations by 2050, with a focus on an envisaged major carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) scheme.

Suncor Energy, Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus Energy, Imperial and MEG Energy have teamed up for the so-called Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero initiative, although it is not immediately clear how the co-venturers will achieve their ambitious target.

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"Canada has stated its intention to grow its oil sands production even while aiming to lower national greenhouse gas emissions. That won’t be easy, since bitumen production consumes energy in pursuit of more energy," according to nonpartisan organisation Yale Climate Connections.

"Natural gas is burned to produce steam that’s injected underground to free up bitumen, which then requires more energy to be processed. Long transport distances enlarge the carbon footprint of the product, while chipping away at its profit margins."

The stated goal of the initiative, working collectively with the federal and Alberta governments, is to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands operations by 2050 to help Canada meet its climate goals, including its Paris Agreement commitments and 2050 net-zero aspirations.

The Pathways project would be anchored by a major CCUS trunkline connected to a carbon sequestration hub to enable multi-sector tie-in projects for expanded emissions reductions.

'Meaningful step' - BMO

"We view this as a meaningful step forward in defining a credible pathway to the net zero commitments of producers," noted analysts at BMO Capital Markets.

"We believe net zero is attainable given several unique sustainability advantages of oil sands operations, including the concentrated nature of emissions and compatibility with carbon capture, as well as industry-leading R&D and collaboration."

BMO noted that Western Canada holds vast carbon storage resources — greater than 400 gigatonnes — which have been extensively derisked, while Alberta’s storage alone represents more than 30 times the sector’s projected emissions to 2050.

"We reiterate that the oil sands has led global investment in R&D and technology deployment since 2010, and while this has already been reflected in meaningful improvements to greenhouse gas emissions, it could continue to support a faster pace of improvement ahead versus competing oil sources," added the analysts.

The proposed CCUS system, the oil companies said, is similar to the multi-billion-dollar Longship/Northern Lights project in Norway as well as other CCUS projects in the Netherlands, UK and US — all of which involve significant collaboration between industry and government.

Actionable approach

Canada's oil sands industry is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and the initiative is aimed at developing an actionable approach to address these, while also preserving the more-than C$3 trillion (US$2.28 trillion) in estimated oil sands contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product over the next 30 years.

The oil sands industry reportedly produces around a billion barrels of crude each year, making Canada the fourth-largest producer globally, with oil sands accounting for 97% of Canada’s proven oil reserves.

“Every credible energy forecast indicates that oil will be a major contributor to the energy mix in the decades ahead and even beyond 2050," said Sonya Savage, Alberta’s minister of energy, in a joint statement announcing the initiative on Wednesday.

The initiative will incorporate a number of parallel pathways to address greenhouse gas emissions, including a planned core Alberta infrastructure corridor linking oil sands facilities in the Fort McMurray and Cold Lake regions to a carbon sequestration hub that would be situated near Cold Lake via a CO2 trunkline.

It will also involve the deployment of existing and emerging greenhouse gas reduction technologies at oil sands operations along the corridor, including CCUS technology, clean hydrogen, process improvements, energy efficiency, fuel switching and electrification, the partners said.

Also planned is the evaluation, piloting and accelerating of applications of potential emerging emissions-reducing technologies including direct air capture, next-generation recovery technologies and small modular nuclear reactors.

The operators' alliance added that it is "essential for governments to develop enabling policies, fiscal programmes and regulations to provide certainty for this type of long-term, large-scale investment".

"This includes dependable access to carbon sequestration rights, emissions-reduction credits and ongoing investment tax credits," it said.