The 24th World Petroleum Congress (WPC) held in Calgary, Alberta brought over 15,000 visitors and 5,000 delegates worldwide to discuss the industry’s energy transition and path to net zero. The United Nations projects that the world population will reach 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050, leaving billions of people who must be brought out of energy poverty. There is clearly a challenge at a play – how should the industry that is currently supplying approximately 30% of the world’s energy demand lead its energy transformation, while balancing social governance, reliability, economic viability, and a sustainable future?

Key Takeaways

At this year’s WPC, it was encouraging to see innovative technologies and solutions that are in the pipeline to help achieve net zero. One of the presentations that caught my attention was around the application of dimethyl ether (DME) and its recovery technology – while the steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) helped pioneer the rise of Canadian oil sands and its direct land footprint is relatively small, the process is costly, energy intensive, and extensively consumes water and natural gas. Most of the water from SAGD operations can be recycled, but approximately 10% must still be disposed and carbon dioxide emissions are at par with combined operations from mining and upgrading. DME displays affinity to bitumen and DME based recovery technology promises to reduce breakeven cost from $40/bbl to $8/bbl, mitigate energy consumption by 90%, eliminate water and steam generation facilities, and increase recovery rate by up to 300%. The provincial government also announced at the WPC that it will invest $7 million into a study conducted by Cenovus Energy on how small modular reactors (SMRs) can be used on oilsands operations. Having also worked in the nuclear industry, this announcement was also particularly interesting as SMRs have been thought to have applications in both public and private institutions. SMRs have a smaller footprint, allowing them to be prefabricated, shipped, and installed on locations not suitable for traditional nuclear power plants.

The examples provided above are two of many initiatives that are being taken by the oil and gas industry. However, the biggest challenge and a common theme that emerges is commercialization. Taking the DME recovery technology as an example, there are no practical applications to date and there is no concrete timeline on when it may be adopted. DME can be produced indirectly from methanol via dehydration reaction and a combination of auto-thermal reformer and direct DME synthesis, but the supply of DME is currently limited. With SMRs, there are still many unknowns surrounding cost and efficiency. Between Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission approval process, public hearings, site preparation, licensing, and construction, it can easily take 10 years start to finish. Even on the most aggressive timeline in Ontario where Ontario Power Generation is building SMRs as part of the Darlington New Nuclear Project, SMRs will not produce power until 2029. Finally, access to infrastructure, limited grid coverage in rural areas, and cost of grid connection for rural electrification can extend the timeline.


So what does this all mean? For realistic energy transition, where energy security, affordability, and economic prosperity can continue to occur, investment in oil and gas must continue. We must stabilize our climate and protect the environment, but in my view, turning off 30% of our energy supply is not the solution. There must be a balance where we hold the government and companies accountable, while working with the industry to implement sustainable solutions.

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This article is written by Kevin Kim, Associate Principal at Trindent Consulting.