Public-Interest Benefit Evaluation of Partial- Upgrading Technology


  • G. Kent Fellows University of Calgary
  • Robert L. Mansell University of Calgary
  • Ronald Schlenker University of Calgary
  • Jennifer Winter University of Calgary



Approximately 60 per cent of Alberta’s oil sands production is non-upgraded bitumen which, after being mixed with a diluting agent (diluent) to allow transport, is exported. A popular view within Alberta — and particularly among Albertan politicians — is that a much larger share of oil sands bitumen should be upgraded in the province. However, without public subsidies or government underwriting, it is uneconomic to build and operate new facilities in Alberta to fully upgrade the bitumen into synthetic crude oil. But there are new partial upgrading technologies being developed that, subject to successful testing at a larger (commercial) pilot scale, can prove to be not only economic in Alberta, but also generate large social and economic benefits for the province. The advantages include a much smaller capital investment, a significant increase in the value of the product and market for the product and, even more importantly, a dramatic reduction in the need for large amounts of expensive diluent to transport the product to market. Indeed, the only diluent required will be that to move the bitumen from the production site to the partial upgrader and this can be continually recycled. The market for the synthetic crude oil produced by full upgrading is only getting tougher. Any Alberta bitumen fully upgraded here would compete closely with the rapidly expanding supply of light U.S. unconventional oil. Partial upgrading does not upgrade bitumen to a light crude, but to something resembling more of a medium or heavy crude, and at a lower cost per barrel than full upgrading. Unlike in the increasingly crowded light-crude market, the Alberta Royalty Review Advisory Panel recognized that currently there are gaps in several North American refineries that could be filled by this partially upgraded Alberta oil. A partial upgrader serving that less-competitive market not only appears to hold the potential for investors to make attractive returns in the long term, it would also provide important benefits to Alberta from a social perspective. Since partially upgraded crude can be shipped via pipeline without diluent (as bitumen requires), producing it in Alberta would free up pipeline capacity otherwise tied up by current volumes of diluted bitumen or dilbit (diluent typically represents about one-third of each barrel of dilbit). It also reduces the cost to shippers of paying tolls for diluent exported in the dilbit and recovering diluent at the U.S. pipeline terminal, where it is less valuable than if it were recovered in Alberta at the partial upgrader. The value of each barrel produced would also be higher, benefitting oil sands producers. Partial upgrading also seems to promise a lower emissions-intensity profile compared to other bitumen-processing technologies. Based on the model of a single 100,000-barrel-a-day partial upgrader, the value uplift could be $10 to $15 per bitumen barrel. Meanwhile, there could be an average annual increase to Alberta’s GDP of $505 million, and as many as 179,000 person-years of employment created (assuming a 40.5-year operating period). The increase in taxable earnings would increase provincial revenues by an average of $60 million a year, not including additional federal tax revenues. If successful, there would be many such partial upgraders with corresponding multiplication of these benefits. But there remains the critical task of proving partial upgrading technology at a higher scale than current testing. This might also depend on the province helping sustain investors through the “death-valley” between successful research and initial testing and demonstration of full commercial viability. The province has stepped into help technologies cross that “death valley” before. The promise of partial upgrading may well justify, as manager and steward of Alberta’s resources, helping bridge that valley again.






Research Papers