Market Snapshot: A tour of Canada’s oil sands upgraders

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Release date: 2022-02-23

Bitumen or crude bitumen is a thick, sticky form of crude oil. When extracted from the ground, bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter and is too thick to be transported by pipeline. Therefore, it is either upgradedDefinition* to a lighter synthetic crude oilDefinition* (SCO) or diluted with a light hydrocarbon-like condensate (referred to as diluted bitumen or “dilbit”Definition*). SCO has an advantage when compared to heavy conventional oil or diluted bitumen as it is easier to refine, because it does not require expensiveDefinition* facilities to convert it into light products like gasoline, jet fuel, or diesel.

Bitumen can be upgraded by either removing carbon from the bitumen (cokingDefinition*) or by adding hydrogen (hydroconversionDefinition*). An upgrader using coking technology has a lower capital cost than one using hydroconversion,Footnote1 but the total yield of SCO will be lower (80 - 90% of bitumen processed). Hydroconversion, however, offers a better yield (100% or more) because of the hydrogen addition.Footnote2

In 2020, there were four active upgradersDefinition* in Alberta and two in Saskatchewan, with a total SCO capacity of 223.8 thousand cubic meters per day (1 407.5 thousand barrels per day (10³ bbl/d)). The same year, Alberta upgraders processed 42% of the 3.0 million barrels per day of bitumen produced in the province, yielding 1.1 million barrels per day of SCO.Footnote3

Figure 1: Western Canada’s upgraders and bitumen refineries

Western Canada’s upgraders and bitumen refineries
Upgrader Company Location Province Status SCO Capacity
(10³m³/d) (10³bbl/d)
Horizon Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) Near Ft. McMurray AB Active 39.7 250.0
Scotford Shell Canada Scotford AB Active 50.9 320.0
Upgrader 1 & 2 Suncor Energy Near Ft. McMurray AB Active 56.8 357.0
Syncrude Syncrude Energy Mildred Lake AB Active 55.6 350.0
New Grade Upgrader CO-OP Regina SK Active 7.8 49.0
Bi-Provincial Upgrader Husky Energy Lloydminster SK Active 13.0 81.5
Active Upgraders Capacity
Alberta 203.0 1 277.0
Saskatchewan 20.7 130.5
Western Canada 223.8 1 407.5

Bitumen Refineries

Refinery Company Location Province Status Refined Products Output
(10³m³/d) (10³bbl/d)
Sturgeon North West Redwater Partnership Sturgeon County AB Active 7.9 50.0
Source and Description

Source: Oil Sands Magazine

Description: This map shows the location of the bitumen upgraders and the bitumen refinery in western Canada. The attached table provides information (name, owner, and capacity) of each upgrader and bitumen refinery.

The attached table includes information on the existing upgraders (Horizon, Scotford, Suncor Upgraders 1 & 2, Syncrude, and Long Lake in Alberta; New Grade Upgrader, and Bi-Provincial Upgrader in Saskatchewan; and the Sturgeon bitumen refinery in Alberta. Details of the table include the facility name, company/operator, location, status of operation, and SCO capacity in thousands of cubic metres day (10³m³/d) and thousands of barrels per day (10³bbl/d). Subtotals of capacity for the existing upgraders is provided by province and for the entire western Canada region. The bitumen refining capacity is not subtotaled, as the Sturgeon refinery in Alberta is the only one, and it produces refined products rather than SCO. The 9.3 Th. m³/d (58.5 10³bbl/d) CNOOC (ex-Nexen) Long Lake upgrader was shut down in early 2016 after a fire damaged the facility and was not included.

The Bi-Provincial Upgrader in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, and New Grade Upgrader in Regina, Saskatchewan, are integrated with the Lloydminster and Regina refineries,Definition* respectively. The Scotford upgrader in Alberta is also integrated with the Scotford refinery. The North West Redwater Partnership’s bitumen refinery in Sturgeon County, Alberta, is currently licensed as an upgrader, but it operates as a refinery, producing refined petroleum products.

Upgrading was used to commercialize the oil sands when it started production in the late 1960s, because there was no other way to transport bitumen to markets. However, skyrocketing upgrader capital costs and shrinking light-heavy oil differentials from the late 2010s onwards (due mostly to the shale oil revolution), made it difficult to build new upgraders, and only expansions of existing facilities have been completed . New technologies to process and dilute bitumen for pipeline transportation have also made upgrading bitumen optional. Today, the economics of building (or expanding an existing upgrader) depends now on the price differential between West Texas Intermediate (WTI)Definition* and Western Canadian Select (WCS),Definition* as synthetic crude oil (SCO) is tied to WTI and the value of bitumen is now linked to WCS and diluent prices in Alberta.

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