If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself—but you'll likely keep more of the profit too.
That's the logic behind one of the most ambitious, long-term, greenfield oil and gas refinery projects in North America in recent decades. In an era when almost all large-scale refinery projects on the continent are brownfield renovations of existing plants and almost all new refinery construction seems to be in Asia or elsewhere, the North West Redwater Partnership in Calgary, Alberta, is working to build a brand-new refinery to process bitumen from operations in the province's Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River oil sands regions into diesel fuel and other products. As its name implies, NWR is a partnership between North West Upgrading Inc. and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.
"The founders, including our process engineering vice president, started with a vision in 2003 to build a merchant upgrader that could take producers' bitumen and process it. Their plan was delayed awhile and modified to a fee-for-service model due to the recent recession, but now we're building it and a whole new company at the same time," says Gordon Ellwood, P. Eng., NWR's chief automation engineer, who joined in 2010 after 28 years at Shell Canada. So far, the young firm has about 500 employees and consulting staff.
Because bitumens from oil sands regions have traditionally been pipelined to the U.S. for processing, Alberta's government has long wanted to do some of that refining closer to home to increase jobs and gain some of the revenue that value-added products can provide. After a tender, the province granted NWR a bitumen royalty in kind (BRIK) contract in February 2011, which means the refinery won't have to buy feedstock because about 75% of its Phase 1 feedstock will be supplied by the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission. Next, the refinery will process it into high-value products, such as ultra-low-sulfur (ULS) diesel, diluent, naptha, vacuum gas oil (VGO) and other products, and market them on behalf of the feedstock owners. The ULS will meet low-carbon fuel standards, which means it can be sold in European markets that often have low-carbon and low-sulfur regulations.
"I believe we're the only partnership that Alberta has like this," adds Ellwood.
Processing on the Prairie
Located on 1,200 acres to allow for future expansion, NWR's new refinery is about 45 kilometers northeast of Edmonton and immediately west of Agrium's Redwater fertilizer operation in Sturgeon County (Figure 1). This location has many advantages, including close proximity to major crude oil and diluent pipelines leading to Midwest and West Coast markets, established local support infrastructures, and a stable and skilled regional workforce (Figure 2).
There are several opportunities for byproduct synergies with other industrial plants in Alberta. The land also is suitable as a foundation for future eco-industrial development based on essential feedstocks produced from upgrading and refining bitumen, and NWR expects its products will encourage development of downstream petrochemical applications and industries.
"Alberta's bitumen has to deal with market access issues," says Doug Bertsch, NWR's vice president of regulatory and stakeholder affairs. "And recent concerns about bitumen pipelines and rail transport is raising the value of our project and reinforcing that it's the right thing to do. Refining in Alberta increases the market potential of our bitumen. Alberta has a better-established, environmentally responsible and safer
infrastructure than many other places in the world, and diesel is a thinner, more concentrated fuel that can go by rail, truck or ship to local and export markets, and use less energy to get there."
Bertsch reports that NWR's refinery isn't just a new project, but it's also planned to be a long-term one as well. Regulatory approval is in place for three phases. Phase 1 is scheduled start operations in 2016 with an estimated capital cost of $8.5 billion. This first phase will process about 50,000 bbl/d (barrels per day) of bitumen and produce about 38,000 bbl/d of diesel, as well as other high-value, low-sulfur products. Pending owner sanction, two more 50,000-bbl/d bitumen phases will start up on-site in the early 2020s. Besides the novelty of being greenfield plants in North America, these refineries will also be configured differently than their older cousins.