Sustainability at Suncor

In situ technologies

We are advancing a portfolio of in situ technologies with the potential to lower the carbon intensity of producing bitumen.

Next generation in situ extraction

Current technology for in situ production, steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), employs parallel pairs of horizontal wells to recover the bitumen. The top well distributes steam to heat the reservoir, allowing the bitumen to flow to the lower well where it can be pumped to the surface.

One of the challenges of SAGD is that it is energy intensive because the reservoir is typically heated to 200°C or more to get the bitumen to flow. The process consumes a significant amount of natural gas and necessitating large amounts of water handling and treatment that generates greenhouse gas emissions.

We are advancing a portfolio of in situ technologies to lower the carbon intensity of producing bitumen and improve cost competitiveness for existing processes and for future assets. This means considering how to reduce steam as the dominant process and if successful, would significantly reduce our upstream GHG emissions intensity. We believe the solution will include a hybrid of the technologies we’re progressing with the aim to reduce energy and water use, lower capital and operating costs, and improve production rates and resource recovery.

We are advancing a portfolio of in situ technologies to lower the carbon intensity of producing bitumen and improve the cost competitiveness.
Paul Morris
Director, In situ technology, Upstream

Our initial piloting and analysis these technologies indicate there is significant potential for GHG emissions reductions for existing facilities (brownfield) and up to 50% or more for new growth facilities (greenfield). In addition, we anticipate the downstream emissions associated with refining new product streams will be reduced. These technologies may deliver a lighter, lower carbon-intensity crude oil, resulting in less diluent required for transportation and further reducing the lifecycle GHG emissions for these technologies.

“We believe these technologies, if successful, would allow oil sands-derived oil to have GHG intensities at or below the average North American barrel,” says Paul. “In our view, a likely solution will be a hybrid of the many innovative approaches and technologies we are currently evaluating.”

Technology and innovation will help shape the future of energy production and consumption. We take a portfolio approach – advancing multiple technologies at any given time, with the expectation that not all of them will be a success. The technologies profiled in this Report on Sustainability reflect only a portion of the many initiatives our teams are currently working to understand and advance.

Suncor works extensively with research organizations, technology providers and universities, as well as with our own technical experts to identify, evaluate and advance early stage technologies. Our current areas of focus include:

  • solvent recovery processes, coupled with a range of heating technologies
  • non-condensable gas co-injection for SAGD
  • wellbore technologies, including flow control devices

High temperature reverse osmosis produced water treatment

Suncor has partnered with Devon Energy and Suez Water Technologies and Solutions with funding support from Emissions Reductions Alberta (ERA), in a project that develops high temperature reverse osmosis (HTRO) membranes suited for SAGD treatment conditions. If successful, a high temperature membrane plant could reduce the energy required and infrastructure for the SAGD water treatment process.

Learn more about HTRO from Suncor’s Mick McGregor, senior technology engineer.

Water Technology Development Centre

The Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC) is a first-of-its-kind demonstration site for companies to test water treatment technologies at a commercial scale. The $140 million WTDC, attached to Suncor’s Firebag steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) central processing facility, began operations in August 2019 and is testing a number of technologies to improve environmental performance in water, land footprint, waste and GHG impacts.

Convened under Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, Suncor and the WTDC partners, Canadian Natural, Husky and CNOOC International, are using the facility to test multiple water technologies concurrently, enabling the partners to conduct more pilots than each could on their own, while sharing the risks and costs. This will allow operators to speed the development and implementation of new water treatment technologies, ultimately shortening the current eight-year timeframe required to field test technologies and move them to commercial application.

In May 2019, the WTDC was named JWN Energy Excellence Awards champion in the Operational and Project Excellence – Oil Sands Category.

Take a tour of the WTDC

Heavy Oil Late Life Energy Recovery (HOLLER)

Heavy Oil Late Life Energy Recovery (HOLLER) is a technology that injects tailings water into end-of-life SAGD chambers, providing the opportunity to dispose of mine tailings water safely. Injecting the tailings water into a SAGD well creates a geothermal reaction through a heat recovery mechanism, generating zero carbon emission electricity, while responsibly sequestering the tailings water. HOLLER has the potential to improve SAGD economics while reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and water usage, and enhancing surface reclamation efforts at the mine.

In 2020 we completed an injectivity test that confirmed HOLLER can dispose significant amount of tailings water and are developing a pilot at MacKay River that will test the technology in an end-of-life SAGD chamber.


Suncor is focused on solvents as an alternative to steam in recovering bitumen from in situ reservoirs. Our current focus in solvent recovery processes builds on our experience and background knowledge, gained from participation in experiments going back more than 20 years.

In the solvent-based processes that Suncor is pursuing, a light hydrocarbon solvent such as propane or butane is used as the primary means to mobilize bitumen. Currently, Suncor is advancing, to the pilot phase, a suite of solvent technologies referred to as Solvent+, where the “+” refers to a range of heating technologies that can be coupled with solvent injection. These include:

  • wellbore heating
  • superheated solvent injection
  • electromagnetic heating 

If successful, Solvent+ offers the potential for significant environmental improvements over SAGD including reducing GHG emissions intensity by 50 to 70%.

Solvent+ wellbore heating

This is a variant of Solvent+ where in the primary mode of heat addition to the process is in the horizontal section of the solvent injection well. The leading wellbore heating technologies under consideration include:

  • Electric resistive heating (ERH) which relies on highly resistive metals to generate heat when current is passed through them, similar to a toaster wire
  • Closed loop steam (CLS) which uses a closed system installed within the well to circulate steam to conductively heat the solvent

Suncor is currently planning an ERH pilot with operations expected to begin in 2021.

Solvent+ superheat

This is a variant of Solvent+ wherein the primary mode of heat addition to the process is at the surface through the heating of solvent well beyond its vapourization temperature. Once superheated, the solvent is added to the reservoir through the solvent injection well.

Solvent+ electromagnetic

Also known as electromagnetically assisted solvent extraction (EASE), this is a variant of Solvent+ wherein the primary mode of heat addition to the process is in the reservoir through the use of electromagnetic (EM) energy.

Much like a microwave oven, this process directly heats the water in the reservoir which in turn heats and refluxes the solvent in situ.

Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating ®

To advance the electromagnetically assisted solvent extraction, or EASE (Solvent+ EM), technology, we have done extensive work over the past six years through the Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating (ESEIEH®) field pilot at our Dover site.

This field pilot is a project that has been supported by a consortium of partners as well as $1.5 million contribution from Alberta Innovates to support the pilot.

ESEIEH® uses wells configured in horizontal pairs much like a SAGD operation. With this process, steam is replaced by electromagnetic heating and solvent.

We anticipate having results from the ESEIEH® pilot in 2022 that will allow us to more fully evaluate the commercial potential of the Solvent+ EM technology.

In Situ Demonstration Facility

The In Situ Demonstration Facility (ISDF) will be a place where we can optimize and, test our Solvent+ technologies. This facility will be flexible in its design enabling Suncor to pilot and test multiple heating options with first production scheduled for 2026.

Suncor expects to test a combination of a wellbore heating technology and superheat in the first phase of the ISDF. Future phases may be used to test additional heating technologies.

The current project schedule has startup commencing in 2025.

Steam enhancements

While Suncor is pursuing solvent-dominated recovery technologies for future growth, steam is the driving recovery mechanism for our existing operations and near-term growth opportunities.

The steam enhancements technology portfolio encompasses all improvements to the SAGD recovery process including the addition of solvent, non-condensable gases and chemical additives as well as improvements to startup processes. These technologies offer the potential for achieving meaningful reductions in GHG intensity and water usage rates.

Suncor continues to advance this program through simulation, piloting and demonstration. The current program focus includes:

  • NCG Co-injection

Expanding Solvent SAGD

Expanding Solvent SAGD (ES-SAGD) is an enhancement of SAGD technology wherein a small volume of hydrocarbon solvent is co-injected with steam. The addition of the hydrocarbon solvent is expected to accelerate bitumen production and reduce steam requirements, process water requirements and greenhouse gas emissions. An important component of our evaluation of this technology is enhancing our understanding of solvent retention and recovery.

In 2020, we completed the solvent injection period of the pad-scale demonstration at Firebag and we’re now in the monitoring phase post injection including solvent recovery. We continue to evaluate opportunities to optimize solvent recovery. The estimated emissions intensity reduction on a full well life cycle basis is 5 to 10%. We have regulatory approval for ES-SAGD to deploy on future commercial pads.

Non-condensable gas co-injection

Later in life, mature SAGD reservoirs exhibit declining production and increasing steam-to-oil ratio (SOR). Suncor piloted Non-Condensable Gas co-injection (NCG) to divert steam from aging wells to newer wells with lower SOR. Methane is co-injected with steam to reduce the SOR while maintaining production and pressure.

This technique reduces environmental impact by optimizing steam demand at our facilities while reducing energy intensity and CO2 emissions.

The pilot projects at Firebag and MacKay River have shown encouraging results, prompting commercial application at both fields. NCG co-injection will be phased in as mature wells progress through the decline phase.

Suncor is also examining the use of NCG co-injection early in the SAGD life to improve recovery in certain types of reservoir.

Wellbore enhancements

Improving the reliability of SAGD assets creates opportunities to be more efficient with oil recovery while using less energy and water.

Suncor is advancing a portfolio of wellbore enhancement technologies that aim to reduce costs, improve safety and reduce the GHG footprint of our SAGD operations through improved wellbore reliability and efficiency.

These technologies are typically field tested at existing SAGD operations but are readily adaptable to our growth projects irrespective of whether steam or solvent recovery process are employed.

Suncor expects that most of the current wellbore enhancement technologies will be ready for commercial deployment in a one-to four-year time span. The current focus includes:

  • electric submersible pump (ESP) reliability
  • flow control devices (FCDs)
  • wellbore heating
  • well integrity

Electric submersible pump reliability

Electric submersible pumps (ESP) are used extensively in Suncor SAGD operations. Improving the lifespan of the pumps greatly improves maintenance and reliability costs, avoids lost production and reduces GHG emissions. We are focused on improving the ESP reliability through both Suncor-led projects and joint industry collaboration have multiple lab studies and field trials.

Flow control devices

Controlling where steam is allocated to the reservoir allows us to improve steam distribution along the well. This improves steam efficiency and well reliability by preventing catastrophic steam breakthroughs.

Flow control devices (FCDs) are designed to provide the ability to control the steam allocation and drive improved reservoir conformance. Suncor is focused on enhanced designs that improve on FCD reliability and functionality and we have been successful in developing the Suncor M-Tool to further improve the efficiency and reliability of the devices, as well as reduce costs through design simplification.

The M-Tool is currently being piloted at MacKay River and Firebag, with encouraging preliminary results. We are also working with industry partners to allow this improved design to be tested and deployed across the in situ space.

ESEIEH® is a registered trademark of L3Harris Technologies Inc. in the US, Canada, and other countries.
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