The Oil Sands industry in Canada is booming. Recent deals with companies looking to capture more of the market share from some of the largest oil deposits in the world include Teck Resources Ltd. (TSX:TCK/B) agreeing to buy SilverBirch Energy Corp. for $435 million for the remaining portion of the Frontier oil sands project that it doesn’t already own; Cretaceous Oilsands Holdings Ltd. (a division of PetroChina Co.) saying it will pay Athabasca Oil Sands Corp. (TSX:ATH) $673 million for the 40 percent of the MacKay River oil sands project that it doesn’t already control; and China’s Cnooc Ltd. November 2011 acquisition of Opti Canada for its oil sands projects.
What the popularity of oil sands projects also highlights is the pollution issues that are associated with removing the dense bituminous sands from the surrounding material and the importance of technologies of companies such as BioLargo Inc. (OTCBB: BLGO) that offer solutions.
The energy industry takes its fair share of lumps for pollution that relates to the industry and many would argue, rightfully so. Of particular concern and hot button in certain communities are the oil sands, or tar sands, projects in Alberta, Canada. Although many countries have oil sands deposits, including the United States, Canada is generally in focus because it contains some of the largest oil sands reserves in the world. The Athabasca Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta have enormous deposits; reported to contain over 175 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, which is second only to Saudi Arabia’s reserves.
A lot of press goes into the prowess of revenue-generating major producers in the area, such as Athabasca Oil Sands, Imperial Oil Ltd. (AMEX:IMO) and Suncor Energy (NYSE:SU) who have been stripping-out oil from the tar sands in Alberta for decades, but comparatively little news time is devoted to the serious issue of water pollution resulting from the processing of the bituminous sands or the companies that can offer solutions. Until recently, that is.
Green initiatives, Iran’s threats to shut-down the Strait of Hormuz, ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and the heavily publicized Keystone XL Pipeline have all helped bring to light the magnitude of the Oil Sands of Canada. Whether the debates have been financial, political or environmental, the Keystone XL Pipeline has particularly highlighted the importance of North America developing a self-sufficient energy system and all that it entails, including new technologies to control water contamination.
Oil sands are a type of petroleum deposits comprised of mixtures of sand, clay, water and a thick form of petroleum bitumen. Converting the oil sands into liquid fuels requires energy for steam injection and refining. In general, the production requires a high volume of water, equating to roughly three to four barrels of water being required for each barrel of tar sands. The well documented history of Athabasca Oil Sands even teaches us that exposure of the naturally occurring bitumen to the environment and the surrounding natural waterways was already a naturally occurring contamination problem well before the resource was ever mined by industry. Nonetheless, as one would expect, industry is still is saddled with the duty to help protect the environment.
During the separation process, the water used comes in contact with all of the naturally occurring components of the bitumen. Some of these components are toxic chemicals that are inherently contained in the oil sands and need careful management. They include napthenic acids, tiny sized particles that get trapped in solution and sometimes even heavy metals. Even though the water is often recycled, the majority eventually ends up in tailings ponds, essentially holding the material and keeping it from release into the environment. These settling ponds sometimes take up to seven years before they can be evaporated out or treated. With the industry expected to triple its production of oil over the next 20 years, it needs a practical solution to treat the existing settling ponds, but also ideally avoid the use of settling ponds in the first place by treating water in a continuous flow process.
Moving Passed the Problem to a Solution
The oil sands projects represent a significant revenue stream for Canada and could easily be called a national treasure as well as a key to energy self-sufficiency for North America. Regardless of how big and important the business is, the environmental concerns cannot be overlooked and industry and government are giving the problems the attention that is required. In December 2010, the Oil Sands Advisory Panel found that the system in place for monitoring water quality in the region was greatly lacking and in need of restructuring for quality assurance. Initiatives are presently being implemented and include companies such as BioLargo Inc., a creator of patented iodine technologies, being selected as a founding member of a Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) “Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Tailings Water Treatment” formed to solve the contaminated water and tailing ponds problems associated with the oil sands industry. BioLargo joins a list of impressive industry partners that include founding member Canadian National Resources Ltd. (NYSE: CNQ), as well as, Suncor Energy Inc. (NYSE: SU), Syncrude Energy, Inc., Shell Canada, Ltd., Total E&P Canada Ltd., Epcor Water Services, Alberta Innovates, and Alberta Environmental.
BioLargo looks like the company to watch. It owns its patented iodine technology that it calls Nature’s Best Solution® which has application across multiple industries for contaminated water treatment, odor and moisture control and disinfection related uses. The variety of product applications seems endless. While the stakeholders in the Oil Sands industry are set on the course to raise the bar to lessen the environmental impact of Oil Sands production, which may take some time, the recognition afforded to BioLargo because of its participation in this Canadian Government backed Research Chair to help protect and preserve a ‘National Treasure of Canada’ sure seems to bode well for its future commercial opportunities across any industry that must contend with contaminated water.