As a Canadian oil company with a focus on oil sands production, we at Cenovus believe the status quo isn’t good enough when it comes to environmental performance. And we understand that our industry needs to keep working to get even better. For us, that includes an unrelenting focus on technology development.

Most people’s image of the oil sands is of large open-pit mining operations, where oil-soaked ore is scooped up by giant excavators, loaded onto trucks and transported to a processing plant. That’s the original method of oil sands production. It works very well for shallow oil sands deposits, but only accounts for about half of all oil sands production today.

Almost 80 per cent of the available oil sands resource  – including all of Cenovus’s deposits – is too deep to be mined. At our Foster Creek and Christina Lake projects, our oil sands reservoirs are on average about 400 metres deep, so we need to get at the oil in a different way. Instead of digging in the oil sands, we drill horizontal wells, much like conventional oil and gas producers do today. Unlike conventional producers, we drill our wells in pairs – one to inject steam into the ground to melt the thick oil so it separates from the sand and one to pump the oil to the surface. This method is called steam-assisted gravity drainage, or SAGD, and it’s a made-in-Canada technology.

Some drawbacks of SAGD are that it requires a lot of water and produces greenhouse gas emissions due to the burning of natural gas to make steam. We’re working hard to find solutions to these challenges. Through innovation and technology, we’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions per barrel by a third since 2004. And today, the water we use to make steam is almost entirely brackish. That means it’s too salty to drink or use for agriculture.

When the oil we produce comes to the surface, it’s mixed with a fair amount of water from the condensed steam. That oil-water mixture is sent to our treaters for separation, so that the water can be recovered and recycled over and over again to make new steam. The oil is then almost ready for market, but not quite. Because of its thickness, it has to be mixed with a lighter hydrocarbon called diluent, so that it will flow easily through a pipeline. This blended oil is then shipped by pipeline or rail to refineries primarily in Canada and the U.S. where it’s made into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel or turned into petrochemicals that go into many consumer products that we use and rely on every day.

SAGD is a relatively new technology, and we’re constantly working to improve it. For example, we’re testing ways to use natural solvents, like butane, to reduce the amount of steam we need to recover oil, which we expect will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We believe there is tremendous potential to advance technologies so that Canada can realize the full potential of its vast oil sands resource and do it in the most responsible way possible.

We also believe that pipelines are a critical part of Canada’s energy future. That’s why we support projects – including the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion – that would open  access to new markets for Canadian oil. Oil is one of our country’s key exports and, even in this current low oil price environment, the oil industry is a large contributor to the national economy and is expected to remain so over the long term.

In the decades ahead, the world will need all forms of energy to meet the demands of a growing population. And we believe oil will continue to play a major role in the energy mix for a long time to come. That’s why we’re working to produce oil responsibly. And it’s why we support pipelines – because they are among the safest, most economic and environmentally sound ways to transport oil to the people who need it.

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