Energy Advocacy: Avatar Team Sees Oil And Gas Industry As Key To Developing Geothermal

Editor's Note: This article is one in a series that will showcase final presentations from this year’s Avatar Program — an industry-wide leadership, training and collaboration forum held virtually this summer. A partnership between Beaver Drilling Ltd., the Young Pipeliners Association of Canada (YPAC) and the University of Calgary, the program was designed to advance innovative solutions to the oil and gas industry and create new business lines, and engage young professionals. These articles will run each Wednesday.

There were nine teams in total and today we feature the presentation of our fifth team. Read all the articles in this special editorial series here.

In the spirit of promoting energy advocacy, a team of young oil and gas professionals participating in the recent Avatar Program proposed the conversion of abandoned, inactive and orphaned wells for geothermal development, which ultimately could provide direct heating and power generation to nearby communities.

“We believe this industry needs to take action to help shift the narrative and position oil and gas as a leader of geothermal energy production,” said Helen Tong, an engineer-in-training with the EIT Rotational and Development Program at Enbridge Inc. “What we strive to do is to build a framework that allows oil and gas assets to be converted for geothermal energy production, and we hope to change the public’s view of the oil and gas industry.”

Previous advocacy campaigns have demonstrated positive aspects of Canadian oil and gas in terms of carbon emissions and energy density vis-à-vis other sources. However, Tong told the Bulletin, such campaigns have not shown the full picture or potential oil and gas in terms of developing renewable energy.

“That’s what we hope to accomplish,” she said, adding her team picked geothermal as opposed to solar or wind, as geothermal provides a reliable baseload energy compared to incremental alternatives. Also, Canada is among the most well-positioned countries in the world to capitalize on geothermal energy. “After the pandemic, now is the opportunity for change and transforming the industry.”

According to the team’s presentation to a panel of industry experts, geothermal production emits about 88 per cent less carbon dioxide emissions than coal, and repurposing old oil and gas wells can save up to 38 per cent of capital costs when drilling a new well. The Red Deer area currently has the highest number of abandoned wells in Alberta — about 300 — with suitable downhole temperatures. It would provide hot water for new residential developments and greenhouses.

In terms of delivering geothermal, the proposed Red Deer project could cover anywhere between two and 50 kilometres, give or take, and it could leverage some existing infrastructure. A lot of the wells with the bottom-hole temperatures do not meet the criteria for power generation, the team noted, which is why those abandoned wells considered in the proposal would be repurposed for direct heating.

Tong said: “What we believe is that this will create a platform for new geothermal projects to be launched. And so, we’re not only targeting the oil and gas industry. We’re tackling the industry as a whole, which is comprised of both oil and gas and renewables. We’re seeing where we can create some sort of collaboration, breaking down energy silos.”

A three-phased advocacy approach

The first step in the Avatar team’s advocacy plan is tackling restrictions and challenges to introducing geothermal, which is the current lack of regulations in Alberta. For example, classifying geothermal as a ‘mineral’ rather than as ‘water’ could allow the province to include this resource within the existing petroleum and natural gas regulation.

“What we propose is the creation of a geothermal energy council that … is comprised of oil and gas industry experts, as well as geothermal companies, to help influence the development of geothermal regulations and provide incentives to help support pilot projects,” Tong said, adding the next step would be applying for financing.

“One of the current federal grants that the federal government has proposed is $1.7 billion towards the cleanup of abandoned oil wells. And so, instead of reclaiming these wells, what we’re proposing to do is repurpose them. Not only would that provide jobs, but it would also recycle asset that would otherwise have been abandoned.”

The last part of her team’s plan would be advertising, launching a government-supported campaign that showcases the potential role Canada’s oil and gas industry could play in developing a clean geothermal sector. “Cost estimates we project right now would directly more so be for the commercial, which is around $150,000 to $300,000.”

She added: “The primary bulk of the costs are more associated with the resources — the time and effort the energy council requires. And then in the second phase there are the separate pilot projects to be launched based on companies that are involved.”

How many potential wells are there?

Knowing how many abandoned and inactive wells ultimately might be candidates for geothermal would be part of the geothermal energy advocacy council’s work, noted Tong. Current data suggests there are 91,000 inactive wells and 73,000 abandoned wells in Alberta, she said.

“There is data released by the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association that identifies more than 60,000 wells with bottom-hole temperatures above 60 C, and 700 of these have temperatures above 90 C, which is enough for direct heat, and then there are 500 above 100 C, which is enough for power generation.”

Once the regulations and incentives are in place, Tong added, geothermal companies and oil and gas companies can work together, taking data and developing the resource. “We do not see oil and gas as the only source of energy, nor do we see renewables as the only source. We’re trying to create a platform of collaboration between the two.”

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