|The oilsands. (QMI Agency/Pascal Ratthé)
CALGARY — Oilsands operators say they're ready to zap dirty oil accusations with electromagnetic force.
No, they're not targeting environmental activists with incapacitating rays, but instead they're well on their way to using radio waves to more efficiently extract black gold from the oilsands.
A consortium of companies have field-tested the process that heats the oilsands electrically with radio waves, reducing the amount of steam and water needed to extract bitumen from sand.
European governments are weighing slapping a dirty oil label on the oilsands that producers fear could impact their marketability worldwide.
But the new technology could be a way to not only reduce costs, but also environmental damage and the outcry against Alberta's massive resource, said Glen Schmidt, president of Laricina Energy Ltd.
"Canadian oilsands in-situ is already very competitive not only economically, but environmentally," Schmidt said.
"This kind of technology continues to make it more competitive."
In-situ production uses wells instead of mining to extract oilsands bitumen.
Laricina has teamed up with Nexen Inc., Suncor Energy, and Harris Corp. to develop the approach, having tested it in Florida in 2011 and in a Suncor oilsands well last January.
Oilpatch critics often point to the immense amount of water used in oilsands production.
But Schmidt said using the electromagnetic energy -- combined with an oil solvent injected to move the bitumen -- avoids using fossil fuels to generate steam.
Costs for industry are cut by bypassing the need for water treatment facilities, he said.
"Anytime you can improve operating or capital costs, you reduced the environmental impacts," Schmidt said.
A larger pilot field test is scheduled for 2013 and the companies hope the process can become commercially viable before final testing.
Half of the $33 million cost of the project has been borne by the province, the other half by the consortium.
The three-day Global Petroleum Show in Calgary that's drawn 2,200 exhibitors and about 65,000 visitors abounds with environmental technology.
Even so, environmentalists contend the mere burning of fossil fuels, even those extracted more responsibly, are hastening global warming.
And they argue planned dramatic increases in production will accelerate emissions.