With the prospects of additional carbon capture on coal-fired power now diminished, the Boundary Dam Unit 3 capture plant might end up being the only one of its kind in this province. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Stop moving to shut down Saskatchewan coal – it could be the salvation of our oil industry

What if there was a way to keep coal mining jobs in Saskatchewan, continue to produce low-cost electrical power, and extend the production of a substantial portion of Saskatchewan’s oilfields not by decades, but by generations? And in doing so, we could still dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and maybe save some money by reducing our nuclear rollout?

All of this is now possible, and it has everything to do with keeping our coal miners digging and our coal-fired power plants going, maybe even renewing them.

There was a potentially major development for Saskatchewan’s energy sector buried in Whitecap Resources Inc.’s year-end financial report released on Feb. 21. Whitecap said about using CO2 for enhanced oil recovery, “We have also recently started CO2 injection at a pilot CO2 flood into the Frobisher formation underlying the Weyburn Midale unit. We drilled two (2.0 net) producer wells and three (3.0 net) injection wells in 2023 and initiated CO2 injection in late 2023. Early results are encouraging with a notable production response coming through approximately one month after injection, increasing oil rates on the two producer wells from approximately 40 bpd to over 200 bpd, per well. Further technical analysis to determine commerciality and large-scale development is ongoing, and we will provide updates as next steps are determined.”

While the Bakken formation got all the headlines starting around 2007, the reality is in southeast Saskatchewan, very few Bakken wells are drilled these days. Most of the activity, especially in the hotbed Lampman area, has been Frobisher wells. And that area has had Frobisher development for decades, especially around Steelman. So if the Frobisher responds well to tertiary recovery through carbon dioxide floods, it opens up a lot of possibilities for extending the life of some of Saskatchewan’s most prolific oilfields, taking recovery rates from the mid-20 per cent range to over 50 per cent.

The Weyburn Unit could take more than four times more CO2 than it is now. But the possibility of using CO2 across the Frobisher formation dramatically increases the opportunity it expand oil production in southeast Saskatchewan. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Back in 2012, Canadian Natural Resources Limited president and CEO Steve Laut expressed interest in using CO2 for enhanced oil recovery in the Steelman Unit.

A few months ago, I wrote about the possibility of using carbon dioxide in the Bakken around Stoughton, based on the fact Tundra Oil and Gas has been running a CO2 pilot for about 14 years in the Bakken near Sinclair, Manitoba. And while that still has potential, the opportunity in the Frobisher formation is much higher.

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That’s in part due to the fact most of the Frobisher is not nearly as “tight” as the Bakken, and therefore does not need to be fracked, dramatically reducing the price of new wells. The higher porosity and permeability means fluids, including compressed CO2 and oil, are able to flow much more freely.

And Whitecap’s initial results were not a five per cent improvement, or 50 per cent, but five times higher. That’s something everyone, including the provincial government, should take notice of. Imagine if you could increase crop production from 60 bushels to the acre to 300 bushels? Or quintuple potash or uranium production from certain mines? You’d be an idiot to not at least take a hard look at it.

Panther Drilling, the rig on the right, working in the Whitecap Resources-operated Weyburn Unit just outside of Halbrite on Feb. 24. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

I’m not suggesting it will remain anywhere close to that level, but the fact the CO2 flood in the Weyburn Unit, in the Vuggy and Marly units of the Midale formation, has already dramatically increased recovery rates and lengthened the lifespan of a field that otherwise would have long gone dry is significant. If the same process can be expanded to the much more prolific Frobisher formation, that’s a very big deal.

Even if it was a 25 per cent improvement – that’s well worth investigating.

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Frobisher is a big deal

How prolific is the Frobisher?

If you look at the map published by RiggerTalk.com, using data from the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors, you will find that most of the drilling activity in southeast Saskatchewan follows a certain pattern. Most if it is along the Frobisher subcrop – the edge of the formation where it pinches out, forming a structural trap. Of the 16 rigs working in Saskatchewan on March 3, it’s a good bet 10, and possibly more, were drilling Frobisher wells. The daily well report for March 3 published by the Ministry of Energy and Resources shows out of 19 wells listed that day in Estevan field office area, all 19, across five oil producers, were either targeting Frobisher pools or listed “Frobisher Beds” as their bottom stratigraphic unit. It may be a fluke all that day showed the Frobisher, but it definitely shows its significance.

Here’s a map showing the subcrop, from the Ministry of Energy and Resources: Mississippian Subcrop Map

So if Whitecap, which has been growing to be one of Saskatchewan’s largest oil producers, has found a way to substantially increase production from this formation, shouldn’t we take a hard look at how we can take advantage of it?

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Stop the process of winding down coal

There’s one thing we should do right now – stop this idea of shutting down our coal-fired power plants near Estevan. You hardly hear SaskPower mention coal-fired power anymore. I keep hearing how those plants are getting enough maintenance to just get them to the planned phase out of 2030, but not likely a day beyond that. The way things are going, they’ll likely limp to the finish line, but not an inch past that. Similar things are said to me about the mines and their iron.

I’m suggesting we should strongly reconsider that. Pour some money into keeping both the power plants and the mines viable should we choose to extend their lives beyond 2030.

The Government of Saskatchewan and SaskPower should have some real serious discussions with Whitecap, and possibly other oil companies like CNRL, about the possibility of dramatically increasing carbon capture and producing as much CO2 as we can. That means putting carbon capture on Shand Power Station. But it could also mean either refurbishing Boundary Dam Unit 6 or, shockingly, building Shand Unit 2, and maybe even Unit 3, with High Efficiency Low Emissions (HELE) technology, designed from the ground up with carbon capture running from Day 1.

Artist rendition of a GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 reactor. GE-Hitachi

 

One might say that’s going to cost billions, and you’d be right. But I dare say doing so will cost less than just one 300 megawatt small modular reactor, whose price is not yet known, but previous SaskPower Minister Don Morgan said could run between $3 and $5 billion.

It’s going to take a long time to squeeze the first megawatt out of that first reactor. If everything goes to plan (and it never, ever goes to plan with nuclear), we might see the first SMR megawatt around 2034-35. Putting CCS on our existing coal fleet, and maybe, dare I say, expanding it, with HELE and CCS, could help bridge the gap in the interim until we get several SMRs up and running, and have become proficient in their operation. That’s baseload power that won’t go to zero like wind does every so often, and solar does every night.

Doing so would keep the Estevan economy rolling, not just from coal mining and power generation, but also oil production.

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I’ve been writing about the Saskatchewan oil industry for almost 16 years now, and I am increasingly alarmed by the fact I haven’t seen the “next big thing,” in southern Saskatchewan. Drilling numbers keep on their slow decline. Companies like Crescent Point have largely lost interest and are pouring their capital expenditure money into exciting Alberta plays. That may be great for Alberta, but Saskatchewan needs to do something to keep things going here. That we’ve kept oil production relatively flat for the last 23 years is a small miracle. But if we don’t get a lot more new investment, it won’t stay that way.

The Sask Party provincial government a few years ago set a bold goal of increasing oil production from the current 454,000 barrels per day to 600,000 barrels by 2030. I asked Premier Moe about that in my year end interview with him last December. He said he thought it was a modest goal.

But as I pointed out to him, and Energy and Resources Minister Jim Reiter, I’m not seeing evidence of the province moving to make that happen.

This is something the Government of Saskatchewan, through its Crown corporation SaskPower, can do. If we tell the feds to stick it when it comes to shutting down coal by 2030, if we put carbon capture on existing units and even build new coal units with carbon capture, then supply that CO2 to companies like Whitecap, and maybe others like Canadian Natural Resources Limited, we could extend the life of our most prolific play in southeast Saskatchewan – and perhaps increase its production while we’re at it. All the while, we’d be ensuring baseload power production.

This plan’s impact would be measured in generations, not an election cycle, or a corporate quarter.

And it might also save us some money by reducing our nuclear expenditure.

But action has to be taken now. Because if we let those power plants and mines slide past the point of no return, an opportunity may be lost that we will be kicking ourselves for later.

We can’t let that happen.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor and owner of Pipeline Online, Saskatchewan’s Energy News. He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@pipelineonline.ca

 

Pipeline Online provides the in-depth coverage on energy issues in this province that no other media comes close to. It does NOT receive federal journalism subsidies, and it will NOT allow the federal government to limit its freedom of speech, as it is now moving to regulate podcasts. With recent action from Facebook to block news links, it’s important to follow Pipeline Online in other manners. The easiest is to check each morning at PipelineOnline.ca, with the top story posted at 7 a.m. Monday to Friday, and additional coverage throughout the day and weekend. But you can also follow on LinkedIn and Twitter. You can follow editor Brian Zinchuk online at LinkedIn as well (you’ll see more stories that way). You can subscribe to a weekly newsletter. And if you wish to advertise and support this journalism, call 306-461-5599.

 

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Whitecap is now injecting CO2 into the Frobisher, opening up all sorts of possibilities