NOT ONLY DOES CANADA HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO BE THE WORLD’S leader in extracting hydrocarbons, but considering the planet’s increasing appetite for energy and the enormous amount of this country’s resources, it has that responsibility.

That’s what the newly installed president of Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC) believes, and he has a plan to see that accomplished.

“It’s more than a vision, I think it’s a responsibility when you have this much resource and you know there’s a thirst for energy. You have no other choice but to rely on developing technologies to get these resources to reserves,” says Soheil Asgarpour.

Asgarpour is taking over from Eric Lloyd, who retired after 11 years as PTAC’s president.

“But you have to do it in a way that minimizes the environmental footprint and greenhouse gas emissions, and takes care of stakeholders, the people of Alberta and Canada. Clearly those things will have an impact on their lives, and the only way to achieve those

[goals] is to be a leader in technology.”

At the helm of PTAC since April 10, Soheil Asgarpour aims to steer the ship toward a future in which Canada’s existing resource of up to 5.5 trillion barrels of oil equivalent goes a long way to meeting North America’s estimated demand for 33 million barrels of petroleum per day by 2020.

Canada has four to seven times the hydrocarbon deposits of Saudi Arabia, in the form of oilsands, tight gas, coalbed methane, shale gas and gas hydrates, says Asgarpour, but the Mid-East country’s oil is easy to get at while Canada’s isn’t.

“We have deposits but not the means of getting them to economic production,” he says.

So, according to Asgarpour, PTAC needs to expand its mandate. Originally set up in 1996 to deal strictly with oil and gas production — and as a founding member Asgarpour was one of the decision-makers behind that idea — the Calgary-based group now intends to focus on the whole process.

“We want to expand to oilsands, downstream all the way to the refined product,” says Asgarpour, adding he feels strongly that the potential for value-added opportunities is huge, but to tap that the economic model has to change.

To illustrate, he says Canadian producers are selling bitumen for about $30 a barrel when, ultimately, it can be worth several hundred dollars per barrel.

After earning a PhD in mechanical engineering from Rice University in Houston, Asgarpour completed the Western Executive Program at the University of Western Ontario and the Leadership Program at Yale University.

He began his career at Gulf Canada Resources Ltd. as a technical supervisor, then became chief engineer. He moved up to director of exploitation and then director of corporate strategic planning before switching to chief operating officer and executive vice-president of Canadian 88 Energy Corp. from 1999 to 2002.

Prior to taking on the job at PTAC, Asgarpour got to see another side of the industry, from the government’s perspective, as business leader of oilsands for Alberta’s Department of Energy.

As a volunteer, he has served as the Petroleum Recovery Institute’s first vice-chairman, and donated his expertise to the Petroleum Society as president. He was also chair of the Petroleum Society. He’s a member of the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta, and has authored more than 30 technical and business publications. His subjects have included: reservoir engineering, production engineering, enhanced oil recovery, horizontal drilling technology, risk analysis, reserves estimation, economic evaluation, statistical analysis, heat transfer and solar energy.

“I’ve put a huge focus on what technology can do for industry and I’ve seen how effective technology can be in terms of helping government and companies meet their goals,” he says.

He lists as examples horizontal drilling and steam-assisted gravity drainage — both of them technologies he has been closely involved with from their beginnings, and whose use has grown exponentially in recent years because they’ve been proven to be effective.

Asgarpour is passionate about the country reaching its full production potential and to have its hydrocarbons processed here in Canada while leaving as little impact as possible on the environment and at the lowest cost.

“I was attracted to this job because I feel I can make a difference,” he says.

He also feels PTAC can make a difference. PTAC provides a way for its 238 member companies to collaborate on research and development (R&D), acting as a facilitator between companies requiring solutions and those that might have them. It brings stakeholders together to identify areas where R&D can contribute, and to launch specific projects to address these problems or opportunities. PTAC also promotes industry participation in the resulting R&D and helps find funding for those projects.

In addition, it helps transfer commercial technologies from other industrial sectors for use in the oil and gas industry.

Its vision is to help Canada become a responsible global hydrocarbon energy technology leader through facilitation in innovation, collaborative research and technology development, demonstration and deployment.

PTAC will do this, says Asgarpour, by promoting enhanced environmental management, cost reductions and improved techniques in the recovery of conventional and unconventional oil, bitumen and natural gas.

Last year PTAC facilitated 13 projects worth $4.5 million — in the areas of environment, emission reduction and eco-efficiency, as well as heavy oil — and Asgarpour would like to see it undertake even more projects while he’s in charge. He’d also like PTAC to collaborate more with sister organizations such as Petroleum Research Alliance Canada and Canadian Oil Sands Network for Research and Development to eliminate duplication, and identify and address gaps.

Asgarpour would also like to see the integration of upgraders, refineries and petrochemical complexes so that they are located side-by-side. The waste heat from one complex could be used as a feedstock by another, water and energy consumption would be minimized and infrastructure such as roads could be shared, he says. It would also be much easier to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from such a complex, he adds.

Transportation infrastructure will be key to Canada’s future, says Asgarpour. “How do we move our products to existing and emerging markets? For that we need a world-class transportation system.”

Asgarpour and PTAC are of the mind that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced through existing technologies such as CO2 capture from sources such as coal-fired plants and oilsands projects. The CO2 could be transported via pipeline from these sources and kept, ostensibly forever, in depleted oil and gas reservoirs. But it doesn’t have to just sit there idly; it can also be used to enhance oil and gas recovery. PTAC is working on getting a cost estimate for construction of that pipeline.

Water vapour generated by these plants also has to be tackled because it, too, leads to climate change, he says.

Reduction of water consumption is another of Asgarpour’s goals. He and PTAC would like to see less water used at both mining and in-situ oilsands operations, as well as in upgrading and refining and at power plants, among other operations.

Cost reductions can be achieved, Asgarpour believes, through the reduction of waste heat.

Another PTAC project is looking at options to replace natural gas in the production of oilsands with gasification of coal, coke and asphaltenes. A study will compare the advantages and disadvantages of using nuclear power, gasification and burning bitumen.

Cost savings can also be made through improved efficiencies of technologies like steam-assisted gravity drainage and cyclic steam stimulation. Automation, labour reduction and increased productivity are other ways to save money, he says.

They all hinge on improved technology — and research and development, which require a great deal more spending by both industry and government, are at the core, says Asgarpour.


New leadership often means new direction. As just the second president to lead Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC), do you foresee major changes to the organization or will your priority be to build on the foundation you inherited?

PTAC is built on a solid foundation. My job is to expand PTAC’s role and mandate. Recently PTAC’s board approved the expansion of our mandate to include downstream and to expand our area of focus from Western Canada to all of Canada. My vision is for PTAC to help Canada become a global hydrocarbon energy technology leader by facilitating innovation, collaborative research and technology development, demonstration and deployment for a responsible Canadian hydrocarbon energy industry.

What do you see as your biggest priorities and goals for the organization in your first year? How might you accomplish those goals?

My priority is to focus on the following six core technology areas:

1. Environmental management

* reduce greenhouse gas emissions through CO2 capture and injection into suitable reservoirs; use less energy to produce energy

* improve land management — oilsands mine tailings ponds; reclamation techniques; reduced footprint

* use less water for reservoir pressure maintenance injection and oilsands production

2. Cost reductions

* waste less heat — improve operational efficiencies; convert waste heat to reusable energy

* evaluate alternatives to natural gas as fuel in oilsands and in-situ bitumen production

* improve steam injection processes in producing bitumen

* increase productivity of scarce skilled labour

3. Improved recovery

* use existing, emerging and new technologies to exploit currently inaccessible bitumen, oil and gas in a responsible, sustainable way

* improve processes

* access and recover unconventional gas with low emissions

* reduce energy expenditure of lift systems — pumps, compressors — which carry oil, gas, water to the surface

4. Upgrading, refining and petrochemical technologies

* produce more marketable and cost-effective products — petroleum products, plastics — within environmental and economic constraints

5. Integrate technologies in a complex

* build an upgrader next to a refinery, next to a petrochemical complex — use much less land and water and integrate/recover waste heat

* use waste by-products from one complex as feedstock for another’s — moving towards zero leftovers

6. Improve transportation modes

* use less energy to move product to market.

Over past two months we have launched several key projects in the above technology areas, including Alternative Energy to Replace Natural Gas in Oil Sands and Design and Cost Estimate for the Collection of CO2 Emissions in the Fort Saskatchewan Area for Use in Enhanced Hydrocarbon Recovery through Existing Technologies. We are embarking on forming a steering committee to look at upgrading, refining, petrochemicals, hydrogen and integration.

Other strategies include:

1. identify priorities and launch significantly more joint industry technology and application improvement projects in the above core areas; manage costs, risk and delivery; focus on responsible development

2. continue to be the preferred link among industry, government and research organizations; reduce duplication with sister organizations, fill gaps; form alliances to implement projects; move concepts to development phase in a streamlined way

3. maintain relevance; establish technology inventory centre to avoid duplication of effort and transfer technology in from other jurisdictions or industries

4. facilitate R&D focus on improving environmental, economic, social and safety performance of the hydrocarbon industry; create pools of funding available to steering committees to reduce red tape

As someone who has worked both in private industry and in government, do you feel you can bring unique skills to the leadership of PTAC?

PTAC’s members include private industry (producers and service companies), governments and research providers. Having had the opportunity of working both in private industry and government enables me to understand the needs, priorities, how decisions are made and the challenges. This understanding is crucial in providing relevant services to our members.

Much has been written about the decline in both public and private sector funding of R&D in recent decades, a decline that was the impetus for PTAC’s creation a decade ago. Has this situation improved, or is R&D investment in Canada still inadequate? And how does R&D investment in Canada compare to that of other major, technologically advanced energy producing nations such as Norway, the U.K. and the U.S.?

I believe neither industry nor government is spending enough money on R&D. For example, the total R&D spending in oilsands is less than 50 cents from each barrel of produced bitumen. I do not think we should compare our R&D spending to that of U.K., U.S. and Norway because our resource base is much larger than theirs. Canada’s hydrocarbon resource base is four to seven times that of Saudi Arabia. However, unlike the Saudi’s oil deposits which can easily be exploited and developed, development of most Canadian hydrocarbon deposits are extremely challenging and may not be exploited economically using current technologies. In addition, development of our unconventional resources would require significant energy input, water consumption, land disturbance and GHG emissions. However, our unconventional resources can be developed properly though development and application of new technologies. With our vast hydrocarbon resources and the global demand for energy, Canada must increase its R&D spending to meet this demand.

Do you feel the oil and gas industry in Canada is generally receptive to trying new technologies, or are companies overly risk-averse when it comes to new ideas and techniques?

The oil and gas industry in Canada is quite receptive to trying new technologies and in my opinion has done an outstanding job. For example, development of oilsands resources has enabled Canada to add 178 billion bbls of reserves through application of technologies. Canada has established its leadership in the application of horizontal drilling and 3-D seismic.

Do you anticipate that environmental issues will become a more dominant R&D priority in the coming years? Do you anticipate the emphasis will continue to shift away from conventional to unconventional oil and gas production (oilsands, CBM, tight gas and shale gas)? Do you see any other trends developing on the research side?

As we deplete our conventional deposits and run out of low hanging fruit, we shift to unconventional resources such as oilsands, tight gas and shale gas which require higher energy input per unit of energy output, higher water consumption and larger land disturbance. In other words, by shifting away from conventional resources to unconventional we would increase the unit costs and environmental footprint associated with energy output. Costs and environmental footprint can only be minimized through innovation, and application of existing and emerging technologies. A key industry focus will be to develop and exploit unconventional resources in a cost effective manner while minimizing the environmental footprint (i.e., water consumption, GHG emissions, land disturbance, et cetera).

By Lynda Harrison, New Technology Magazine