We use a method called steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) to get the oil out of the ground at our oil sands operations. We’re a leader in the development of SAGD and have achieved great success over the years applying this technology. SAGD is a complex technology that has challenges, such as greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s why we’re working on innovative solutions to make it even better.

We’ve set a target to achieve a 33 percent reduction in upstream greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity by 2026, compared with our January 2016 levels. We will work towards that target by making improvements in our operations, and specifically, in our SAGD process. We’re committed to finding ways to reduce the amount of natural gas combusted per barrel of oil produced with SAGD, finding lower-energy alternatives to extract oil from the reservoir or using carbon capture with storage or utilization. We’re also looking at ways to convert CO2 generated from fossil fuel combustion into valuable products.

We expect the majority of our intensity target to be achieved through the application of technology at our oil sands projects.

We’ve already made several enhancements to our SAGD process using technologies that improve our environmental performance.

Learn about these technologies »

We’re also working on a number of other new technologies and processes to further improve how we operate. Learn about these below.

Improving how we drill

Foster Creek drilling rig

A drilling rig at our Foster Creek operations.

We define innovation as the implementation of a new or significantly improved technology, product, process or method of business practices. As part of our SAGD process, we drill a pair of horizontal wells, one right above the other, into our oil sands reservoirs. In 2016, after assessing our drilling processes, we made improvements that helped us complete four extended-reach horizontal wells. The wells surpassed an industry horizontal length record of just over 1,600 metres. This is twice as long as the average length of our horizontal wells from just a few years ago, which means we can now use fewer wells and surface facilities to access the same amount of oil underground, which helps to reduce our environmental footprint and could significantly cut our costs.

Learn more about how we've improved our approach to drilling »

Improving our oil sands facility design

Our zero-base design technology (patent application pending) is a simplified version of our previous well pad design and initially includes only the equipment required for a basic SAGD well. With the zero-base design, the rest of the equipment that will be used during each phase of the well lifecycle (e.g. spools, instrumentation, control valves, etc.) can be added, removed and reused on other modules as needed. With our previous design, all the equipment was built onto a well from the start. The new design allows us to customize the well and only use the equipment that’s needed at each stage. With the simplified template, we expect that there will be a 15 to 20 percent reduction in the amount of land that’s required for each of our well pads. We will be using just one design for all new well pads we are planning to bring on across Christina Lake, Foster Creek and eventually Narrows Lake.

Expanding our use of natural gas liquid solvents

Cenovus is a leader in the development and application of solvent technology using natural gas liquids (NGLs). We believe that injecting NGLs into the reservoir along with the steam is the next evolution in SAGD. At Cenovus, we refer to this as a solvent-aided process (SAP). We are testing a number of different solvent processes through our pilots as a key technology to improve our environmental performance, especially in the area of greenhouse gas emissions.

The implementation of this SAP technology involves adding NGLs, a byproduct of natural gas, to the steam that's injected into the reservoir during the SAGD process. The NGLs act like a solvent, helping to thin the thick oil, which allows it to flow more freely to the producing well. Using SAP technology has the potential to reduce the GHG emissions intensity of production up to 30 percent. We have regulatory approval to use SAP technology commercially at our Narrows Lake oil sands project. 

We also plan to field test a new process in 2017 to launch a solvent-driven process or SDP. The new process will use a much greater percentage of solvent and a lower percentage of steam than our previous SAP pilots. Less steam means a lower steam to oil ratio (SOR), which gives us the potential to lower CO2 emissions even further. Natural Resources Canada and Alberta Innovates have announced plans to co-fund our planned SDP pilot with approximately $7.5 million and $2 million, respectively.

Leading the way in seismic survey technology

In our oil sands operations in northern Alberta, we use seismic surveying to gather data about the reservoir, which traditionally involves the use of dynamite. In 2016, we began using vibroseis – a truck-mounted vibrator plate that’s placed on the ground to create acoustic waves in a range of frequencies. Using a vibrating energy source has allowed us to eliminate the need for dynamite in certain areas of our operations. The new method is not only safer, since the risks associated with using dynamite are eliminated, it also provides us with better data that has higher trace density. Trace density is similar to the number of pixels in an image – the more pixels, the better the image. Using vibroseis has allowed Cenovus to economically improve data quality by increasing the trace density with signal properties comparable to dynamite.

Learn more about vibroseis technology »

Vibroseis uses a truck-mounted vibrator plate coupled to the ground.

Innovation is important across all our operations, not just in the oil sands. There are various technologies we use at our conventional assets to help us increase the amount of oil we can recover from the reservoir, while being environmentally responsible. For example, at Weyburn, a mature oil field, we inject CO2 into the reservoir where it acts like a solvent and helps push more oil towards a producing well. We’ve safely injected more than 30 million tonnes of CO2 underground at Weyburn since 2000. That reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to taking more than six million cars off the road for an entire year.

Learn more about the technologies we use at our conventional assets:

In 2017, we reorganized the Cenovus Leadership Team to strengthen the company’s focus on innovation, technology and safety. We created two new roles – Executive Vice-President, Safety & Chief Digital Officer, and Executive Vice-President & Chief Technology Officer. The Chief Digital Officer will lead our company’s digital efforts and our strategic business innovation partnerships towards making our operations safer, reducing costs and emissions, and improving the way we work across Cenovus. For example, at our Nisku module yard, we have a robot equipped with sensors that create daily 3D scans as the modules are being built. By using the scans, we’re able to compare the work that’s being done onsite with the original engineering design. Our designers also use virtual reality goggles to visualize the modules without having to travel to the yard. They can pinpoint discrepancies in manufacturing that can be easily rectified in the module yard before being shipped to our oil sands sites. This is just one example of the types of projects we may be working on as we enter the digital space.

The Chief Technology Officer is accountable for focusing our upstream, conventional and downstream technology efforts on the areas that we believe will help us achieve our enterprise goals and create the greatest value for our shareholders. This includes initiatives such as advancing our SAGD process with solvent technology, redesigned well pads and longer reach horizontal well pairs.