After decades of exhaustive attempts to overcome the dirty reputation of oil sands, we finally have an environmentally-friendly and low cost method to tap into these vast resources in the state of Utah -- good news both for Mother Nature and all oil and gas investors.
MCW Energy Group's CEO, former Exxon President of the Arabian Gulf region, Dr. R. Gerald Bailey, tells Oilprice.com in an exclusive interview that his hunt for an innovative technology that simultaneously makes money and cleans up the environment is over. The race to capitalize on Utah's vast oil sands resources is on, and only the 'clean' -- both financially and environmentally -- will survive.
Coming hot off of the successful launch of clean oil sands operations in Utah, while other oil sands projects are under fire from protesters, Dr. Bailey discusses:
The difference between Utah and Alberta when it comes to oil sands resources.
How new technology can -- and is -- extracting oil sands without harming the environment.
Why the new technology is as much about remediation as it is about extraction
How to create new revenue streams and use the resulting clean sand for other purposes.
Why it's finally possible to make money extracting oil from oil sands cleanly -- despite the current world's depressed oil prices.
What Alberta's tailings ponds look like now, and what could be done to clean them up -- eventually.
Interview by James Stafford of Oilprice.com
James Stafford: After many years of oil companies attempting to develop Utah's vast oil sands deposits without harming the environment, where are we now?
Gerald Bailey: Right now, we're experiencing an exciting moment in the history of oil sands technology. For the first time, we can finally extract oil from Utah's oil sands without any environmental damage. And significantly, we can do it at a cost that makes sense, even in this depressed oil price environment. It's taken decades for someone to come up with this technology and actually make it commercially viable; and it was these elements that attracted me to MCW Energy. I wanted to get involved in this project while it was still new and largely off investor radar -- now it's poised to explode as an additional source for independent American oil production.
James Stafford: So, oil sands don't necessarily have to be dirty?
Gerald Bailey: No, oil sands in themselves are not dirty. It is quite simply sand that contains oil, just like sand underground in an oilfield contains oil. They are dark with oil. The word 'dirty' has been derived from the fact that most current extraction processes use hot water or steam, which results in an oily water stream that leaves behind toxic tailings ponds.
James Stafford: How is this new proprietary extraction technology developed by MCW Energy different? How does it work?
Gerald Bailey: It's really quite simple. The technology works in the same way as soap takes grease off plates: The grease adheres to the soap and pulls it away and off the plate. Our technology -- which focuses on proprietary solvents -- works in the same way. It adheres to the oil and pulls it away from the sand.
James Stafford: What happens with the sand after this process?
Gerald Bailey: Well, that depends on what other local market uses there are. Generally speaking, we wash the sand with our solvents and then return it to the earth 99.9% clean. You can grow plants on it and it is no longer contaminated with oil.
James Stafford: And are there any other uses for this sand? Is there any kind of a market for this once it's been cleaned up?
Gerald Bailey: As I mentioned, for now the sand is usually returned to the earth -- clean and safe. But there are other potential applications that we are exploring. One possibility is to sell the cleaned sand as frack sands, which is a spin-off business that's growing as fracking activities in America increase. Frack sands require certain quantities of silicon and not all sands are equal in this respect. Much of the desired frack sand comes from the Midwest -- from Wisconsin and Michigan, for instance. For years Utah oil sands containing bitumen/asphalt have been used in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado to build roads and highways.
James Stafford: So the immediate term goal is to focus on ramping up production in Utah and then licensing the technology for global application?
Gerald Bailey: Yes. MCW has achieved commercial viability already through a fully operational oil sands plant in Asphalt Ridge, in the heart of the Utah oil reserves both in sands and in conventional reservoirs, near the town of Vernal. It's termed "America's first environmentally-friendly oil sands extraction project." Since the beginning of this year, we have been cleaning Utah's oil sands and selling the oil to the market.
James Stafford: Why Utah?
Gerald Bailey: Asphalt Ridge is one of Utah's 8 major oil sand deposits. Asphalt Ridge alone is believed to hold some 1 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Utah has some 55% (Department of Energy Estimate: 32 billion barrels) of the United States oil sands deposits.
James Stafford: How much is the project producing now and what are the forecasts?
Gerald Bailey: The project is producing 250 barrels a day right now at a very reasonable production cost of $30 per barrel, with plans to build a 5,000/bpd plant, which could bring costs down to $20 per barrel. Even in this current world market, those numbers mean profit. While Alberta's oil sands are expensive to produce oil using their existing technologies, and are very troubled right now, MCW can make a profit on Utah's oil sands even with oil at $40 per barrel. And that's what today's market is all about -- innovations that spell profit even in times of crisis. Finding a company that has no debt -- such as MCW -- in this atmosphere was a huge selling point for me.
James Stafford: How do you convince the public of the prospects of clean oil sands for Utah given the international outcry about Canada's dirty oil sands?
Gerald Bailey: That is the challenge. Certainly, Canada has given oil sands a bad name and that is unfortunate, but the process and situation in Utah is entirely different and the two cannot be compared.
Utah oil sands are found in a different position---much of Utah's oil sands deposits lie from surface to just 400 feet. You can just scoop up the oil sands with a front loader and then process it with MCW's proprietary solvents. The oil comes out and you sell the oil and put the sand back in the environment.
In comparison, Canada's oil sands have to be mined because they are several hundred feet deep and the oil needs to be extracted with steam. The resultant polluted water returns to surface with residual oil that cannot be separated. This dirty water and sludge is stored in huge tailings ponds, so large I understand they can be seen from space. Utah's sands are oil wet, rather than water wet, eliminating the need for tailings ponds.
James Stafford: What does this really mean for the environment?
Gerald Bailey: We are here to clean up the oil sands business -- for now, starting in Utah. And any savvy investor knows that technology that is environmentally friendly and commercially viable rules the day. This is already a proven, cost-effective technology. Our main technology process advantage is that we require no water to extract hydrocarbons from the oil sands. Almost all other technologies require up to 3 barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced.
Utah being largely a desert state, usage of water for resource development is an extremely touchy issue. Our system features a closed-loop technology....nothing leaves the system except the cleaned sands and oil. And after tweaking our process, we've managed to dramatically reduce our labor costs, decrease the costs of the petroleum products we use in extraction and, increase our process efficiencies ---all which result in the lowest production costs in the industry. Our next step is to share this technology with the rest of the world. For now, that means anywhere that has oil sands deposits similar to Utah's.
James Stafford: Are you talking about a technology that extracts oil sands in an environmentally- friendly manner, or does it have broader environmental applications?
Gerald Bailey: Oh, the environmental applications are much broader. Our process may also be viewed as a remediation technology. This is not just an opportunity to get in on another source for oil, but also an opportunity to clean up the land after disasters or the resulting polluted tailings ponds resulting from other less efficient extraction processes
James Stafford: Are you suggesting such a technology could have played a role in cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for example?
Gerald Bailey: I am. We could have applied our technology there and cleaned up significant areas of the contaminated beach. If you go there right now, you can still find a lot of polluted sand behind the beach dunes and in the adjoining swamps. This technology will certainly add value for its wider remediation applications.
James Stafford: For now, though, MCW's technology seems to be flying under the radar -- where many will not have heard of it.
Gerald Bailey: You know, I recognized this when I joined the company that MCW had a technology that nobody else had. I also recognized that it could make a huge splash on the world oil scene. Now it's ready to reach out to the public. This comes at a time when oil sands extraction is a tense issue in Utah, with protesters attempting to block an oil sands project owned by another company, which is using a water-based technology. Educating the public on the different processes of extracting oil sands will be key to pushing an environmentally friendly agenda forward.
There has been no protest to our Asphalt Ridge project in Utah to date because we emit nothing to the air or soil and there is no water to discard. MCW has worked very closely with the Energy Development Department in Utah, meeting or exceeding all environmental requirements. We're working under the guidelines of their Responsible Resource Development Program, which is proof that resources may be safely developed with placing the environment at risk. Nonetheless, the general public still needs to be made aware of both the environmental and economic possibilities here for the future.
James Stafford: What is the long-term goal here? Building plants around the world, or licensing the technology?
Gerald Bailey: MCW is prepared to go several routes. We can build a plant for others, or we can build and operate these extraction plants as a joint venture. However, licensing is definitely an excellent way to deploy our technology worldwide. This unique MCW technology has major global applications. You can create an attractive revenue stream for everybody who implements it. Russia, China, Afghanistan, Dominican Republic, Namibia, Jordan and Trinidad -- these are all great potential license purchasers with considerable oils sands deposits.
Eventually, we could even potentially clean up Alberta's tailings ponds by de-watering the abandoned sludge and applying our new solvents to squeeze the rest of the oil out.
It is actually surprising that nobody discovered this before... it is like the Wright Brothers, they found a way and they proved the process. Someone always comes along to solve the problem. MCW has accomplished this...Our technology works; there is no pollution; nothing toxic goes back into the ground or into the air. We will be driving a lot of cars on the refined gasoline that comes from these huge reserves. This is a national and historical first -- one I am willing to bet my 50-year reputation on.
By James Stafford for Oilprice.com