Oilsand Extraction Technology Could Be a Game Changer

Canadian oilsands have earned a bad rap, thanks to aggressive oil extraction operations. But a new technology being used in Utah could change how the public — and the industry — perceive the process.
Oilsand Extraction Technology Could Be a Game Changer
A new technology from California-based MCW Energy Group decreases sand oil content from 12 percent to .1 percent.

A new technology developed by the California-based MCW Energy Group could change the way oilsands oil extraction is viewed in the United States — and eventually around the world.

Canadian oilsands have earned a bad rap from environmentalists who argue oil extraction is akin to a mining operation, says MCW Energy Group CEO Gerald Bailey.

“It’s very mechanically oriented,” he says. “It takes a lot of machinery and huge mechanical pieces to dig the stuff out of the ground after it’s been softened up. It’s very hard to get out.”

Crews pump steam and hot water into the ground to loosen up the oil to pull it up.

“When it comes back out of the ground, it’s got all this gunky water and everything with it, and they have to do something with it. So, they pump it into these tailing ponds,” Bailey says. “They’re huge. Some of the ponds are just square miles of dirty, oily water because it has residual oil in it, which they can’t get out.”

MCW’s proprietary oilsands extraction technology cleans up oilsands projects near Vernal, Utah — a first for the state and the world.

Bailey says Canadian and Utah oilsands are different. Water-wet sands in Canada are mixed with existing water or water that is added during the extraction process. In Utah, however, oil-wet sands do not contain water, and water is not added during extraction.

“Utah is high desert in this area. It’s very dry and there’s no water, so our process does not use any water,“ Bailey says. “We don’t have to have any water to even get the stuff. The sands are more on the surface, only going down a couple hundred feet in some instances. So you’re literally just scraping it off the top.”

The technology
MCW Energy Group’s process treats the sands using a combination of solvents the company developed. After the material is scraped off the ground, it’s run through a conveyer belt to the top of a tower where it drops through a solvent counter-flow.

“It works just like putting soap on a greasy dish,” Bailey says. “The soap, in this case, is our solvent, and it just pulls the grease or oil right out of the sand.”

When the clean sand drops to the bottom of the tower, Bailey says it is safe to use on land. The oil and solvent then rise to the top of the tower and into another tower where they separate. The oil moves off into tanks, and the solvent is recycled.

“It is a closed system, so nothing goes into the air,” Bailey says. “There’s no effluent other than finished oil and cleaned sand, so that’s why it’s become a very unique and very ecofriendly process. We don’t do anything harmful to the environment, so that’s what makes it so different from what people are doing in Canada.”

He says at the start of the process the sand’s oil content is about 12 percent, which drops to .1 percent at the end of the process.

Bailey says one of the many hurdles is teaching the industry and the general public about the process and its many benefits.

“It’s totally different than what people think about oilsands. It’s an exciting process, and people have looked at ways to do this even in the Utah area for many years,” Bailey says. “When the Wright Brothers tried to get that first plane off the ground, they had to do it and show people it worked. That’s kind of what we did here. We wanted to demonstrate that this is not just a pie-in-the-sky idea. We had to show commercial viability, which we have done.”

Plans for the future
The 250 barrels per day extraction plant went online in October. It’s the company’s only facility, but that could soon change. Bailey says the plant processes about the same amount as many small oil companies in the U.S.

With the first steps complete, MCW Energy Group now plans to build a 5,000 bpd plant, which will take about a year to 18 months to complete. The 250 bpd plant was constructed in about nine months.

“We control three leases [in Utah] now with thousands of acres of these sands and we would build it right there,” Bailey says. “We have another site a few miles away where we would probably build because it’s closer to a large reserve of the sands that has already been uncovered and opened to the atmosphere.”

Bailey is excited about the opportunities the new technology and plant offer for the company — and for the entire world.

“This will become a worldwide technology play,” he says. “We’ve been contacted by numerous entities around the world that have similar sands, and they’re saying, ‘Boy, we’d like to have this.’ So I think its future lies not in building tons of steel in the Utah desert, but in being able to either joint venture or to license and use the technology worldwide.”

MCW Energy Group believes the technology will also change the industry because an area that was unused with huge reserves of oil can now be added to the energy equation.

“It opens up another source of energy — oil — for America to add to all the other ways that we develop energy, whether it be by hydrocarbons or solar or geothermal or whatever,” Bailey says. “As energy needs in America and overseas grow as populations increase, we need to continue finding ways to optimize and expand our energy resources. It’s going to open up more ways to produce oil, there’s no question about it.”

Although mining activity in the Utah oilsands has increased, there hasn’t been an ideal — and environmentally friendly — way to extract oil until now. Bailey believes the new technology will make the oilsands even more valuable.

“We’re sitting on reserves of potential millions of barrels of oil,” he says. “The numbers are so big, it just defies imagination. There’s enough sand up there with oils that you could keep producing that stuff for the next 50 years. The numbers are huge.”


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