Big Oil

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2006-05-06 Print this article Print

Rocketing oil prices are driving the nation's big oil companies to record profits. And ExxonMobil stands out in the industry. By investing in proprietary systems and ensuring that technology is tightly aligned with its top goals of finding more oil and ga

's Big Challenge">
In the still-thawing landscape of northern Alberta, Canada, rolling hills and pine forests abruptly give way to massive open mining pits, tangles of pipes and the constant rumble of heavy machinery.

Dump trucks, so gigantic that drivers must climb 15-foot-high ladders just to get behind the steering wheel, transport 400-ton payloads of a heavy black oil-and-sand mixture from the mines to huge crushers. The oil sand is then mixed with hot water to create a slurry and pumped to an extraction plant, where bitumen, a molasses-like form of heavy oil, is separated from the mixture.

The Syncrude operation, located just north of the booming city of Fort McMurray, is a joint venture between Imperial Oil, the Canadian arm of Exxon, Petro Canada, Murphy Oil, ConocoPhillips, Nexen and the Canadian Oil Sands Trust. It's an extremely labor-intensive process-two tons of oil sand are required to produce just one barrel of oil-yet this operation produces about 240,000 barrels of its trademark product, Syncrude Sweet Blend, every day.

Information technology is deployed throughout the operation, from an internally developed computer program that monitors the health of the 13-foot-high, $35,000 tires on dump trucks, to a newly constructed control center where engineers monitor complex automated processes from their desktops. Monitoring teams control processes such as regulating the flow of bitumen into giant cokers, which use intense heat to break down the tar-like substance into more usable oil components.

The technology here, supplied by key partners like Honeywell and Hewlett-Packard, represents 30 years of constant alignment of technology with the needs of the business, says Daniel Brown, Syncrude's team leader for process integration services.

When oil prices skidded to $10 a barrel in the 1980s on an OPEC-engineered glut, investments in new technologies like hydrotransport, where the oil sands are mixed with water and transported to the upgrading facilities in a slurry, helped Syncrude stave off bankruptcy. Now, the partners in Syncrude invest $30 million a year to uncover ever-more-efficient extraction methods.

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Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.


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