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ONGC, others eye Canadian sand beds

June 12, 2008 13:18 IST

On the sidelines of crude oil price rise, Indian oil majors including Reliance Industries, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Essar Oil are eyeing exploration opportunities at the oil-rich sand beds of Alberta in Canada.  The firms are believed to be drawing up plans in consultation with the central government and considering tie-ups with international firms for sand-oil exploration.

The world-beating oil reserve in Alberta, the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia, is finally being brought into production since the crude price hovers around $130 per barrel.

The estimated cost of crude production from sand-oil is around $60 a barrel, which promises better margins for exploration companies at the current price, said sources.

Hidden wealth

  • Alberta's oil sands are the largest-known reserve of oil in the world
  • There are two trillion barrels of oil there, with some estimates judging the reserve at closer to three trillion barrels
  • Global oil exploration companies have witnessed an exodus of workers to Canada for higher salaries
  • From India, roughly about 400 workers have put in their papers after getting solid offers from companies working in Canada
  • US downstream companies are expanding their capacity to process the extra-heavy sour crude from oil sands
  • More than two-thirds of the expansion of US refining capacity is being tailored to handle the sand crude oil from Alberta

An Essar spokesperson said, "As a group we keep looking at growth opportunities in the sectors we are in. However, it is not our policy to comment on any specific proposal." While e-mails send to RIL and ONGC on June 10 did not elicit any response.

"The global oil exploration companies have already witnessed an exodus of workers to Canada for higher salaries. From India, roughly about 400 workers have put in their papers after getting solid offers from companies working in Canada.  When the exploration heats up there, a noticeable exodus can be witnessed across the exploration sites," said an oil industry source.

As the spiralling crude price has made extraction from Canadian sands profitable, the US downstream companies are expanding their capacity to process the extra-heavy sour crude from oil sands.

More than two-thirds of the expansion of US refining capacity is being tailored to handle the sand crude oil from Alberta. Sensing the business opportunities in the US and European markets, the domestic as well as the Chinese companies are anchoring on sand crude.

A recent study by US environmentalists estimates that the tar sands capacity in the US will increase by 1.9 million barrels a day, while the cleaner conventional oil refining will decrease by about 300,000 barrels a day.

It also says more intensive process of refining oil sand results in the release of harmful pollutants such as sulphurdioxide, hydrogen sulphide, sulphuric acid mist and nitrogen oxide, as well as toxic metals such as lead and nickel compounds.

The oil is bound up in black bituminous sand close to the surface.  But even though the reserves are so huge and so obvious the oil sands have to be steam heated to release the oil.

Until very recently, it's been a prohibitively expensive process, however, with the world oil price well above $100, Alberta oil is worth winning, said industry experts.

A recent recalculation has revealed that the amount of oil buried underneath the ground in Northern Alberta was 179 billion barrels of crude.

Saudi Arabia has 264 billion barrels of estimated oil reserves, around 21 per cent of conventional world reserves.

The Athabasca deposit is the largest of three major oil sands deposits in Alberta, along with the nearby Peace River and Cold Lake deposits.

Nevin John in Mumbai
Source: