Calgary

A billion barrels of bitumen: Cenovus thermal oilsands hit production milestone

Cenovus Energy Inc. says its thermal oilsands operations in northern Alberta produced their one billionth barrel of bitumen on Wednesday.

Energy company's Foster Creek facility launched in 2001

Cenovus Energy Inc. says its thermal oilsands operations in northern Alberta produced their one billionth barrel of bitumen on Wednesday -- about 18 years after after the company's Foster Creek facility, shown here, was launched as the first commercial oilsands project to use steam-assisted gravity drainage technology. (Cenovus)

Cenovus Energy Inc. says its thermal oilsands operations in northern Alberta produced their one billionth barrel of bitumen on Wednesday.

The milestone comes about 18 years after the company's Foster Creek facility was launched in 2001 as the first commercial oilsands project to use steam-assisted gravity drainage technology or SAGD. Its sister project at Christina Lake began producing oil a year later.

The SAGD process involves injecting steam into the underground oil-bearing formation through a horizontal well to allow the heavy, sticky bitumen to drip into a lower parallel well and be pumped to surface.

Oilsands production had previously come mainly from strip mines, but output from new thermal projects grew quickly, outstripping mining in 2012. It is expected to contribute slightly more than half of Canadian oilsands production this year.

Alex Pourbaix is the president and CEO of Cenovus Energy Inc. The company's headquarters are in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

There's little concern about depleting the oilsands — the National Energy Board estimates there are still 165 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered using current technologies and double that number if potential resources are included.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates oilsands production will reach 4.25 million barrels per day by 2035 from 2.9 million bpd in 2018, although that forecast is tempered by concerns about building pipeline export capacity.

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