How this facility in central Alberta is giving new life to oil waste

Paul Sudlow, vice-president of projects at Recover Energy Services Inc., holds up a jar of recycled oil, extracted from drilling waste.  (Liam Harrap/CBC - image credit)
Paul Sudlow, vice-president of projects at Recover Energy Services Inc., holds up a jar of recycled oil, extracted from drilling waste. (Liam Harrap/CBC - image credit)

Out of the thousands of oil facilities that dot Brazeau County, one stands out from the rest.

Instead of producing, compressing or pumping fuel, Recover Energy Services Inc. recycles oil from drilling waste.

The company's facility is located just outside Lodgepole, about 170 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.

"I'm pretty proud of what our team has accomplished here," CEO Stan Ross said.

When a new oil well gets drilled, sometimes thousands of metres deep, companies use a drilling fluid, such as an oil-based mud. This is to help lubricate the drill and carry chunks of rock and ground out of its way.

It's all in the mud

This isn't the kind of mud typically found in a farmer's field. It's a mixture of oil, brine, emulsifiers, wetting agents, clay, lime and other chemicals.

"It's kind of like being a bartender," Reg Patterson, president of Barron Base Oil Corporation, said. The company produces oil-based mud.

"You can't drill a well without some type of fluid," he said.

In most cases, drilling waste — which resembles wet concrete —  is mixed with sawdust, which can double the amount. The waste is then sent to a class II landfill, taking years to break down.

Liam Harrap/CBC
Liam Harrap/CBC

In 2021, there were just under 1,800 new oil wells in Alberta, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator. Each new well can produce 17 trucks of waste or about 500 metric tons, Ross said.

Recover Energy takes drilling waste and extracts a base oil from it, since November 2021. Manufacturers, such as Barron Base Oil Corporation, use this base oil to make more mud to help drill for more oil.

"There's not an unlimited supply of base oils," Patterson said. "So having a locally produced product from Alberta is definitely beneficial to everyone,"

After extraction, Recover Energy. dries out what remains and sends it to the landfill as it still has some contaminants, like residual chlorides.

However, it's still a much lower amount being sent to the dump overall, Ross said.

Liam Harrap/CBC
Liam Harrap/CBC

In theory, with more refining, the base oil could be turned into diesel fuel, Ross said.

To get the base oil, Recover Energy, uses a solvent called hexane, a compound typically used to extract vegetable oils, such as canola.

The company also recovers the hexane and reuses it.

Reducing GHG emissions 

Within a year, Recover Energy has accepted about 200 loads of waste and produced more than 40,000 barrels of base oil. By doing so, Ross said, the company has avoided up to 68,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions due to less waste being sent to the landfill.

That's equal to taking approximately 14,000 cars off the road for a year, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

"It's phenomenal," said Gurpreet Lail, CEO for Enserva, the national trade association that represents energy services and supply companies.

This new technology, she said, could be a game changer.

"There's tons of innovations taking place right now."

While there are other technologies, such as thermal, that process drill waste, said Ross, none are as environmental as Recover Energy.

"Our carbon footprint is extremely low for what we're accomplishing."

Recover Energy has identified more than 20 other locations it could expand to throughout North America.

Additionally, the company takes the drill waste for free, making its profit from selling the base oil.

Liam Harrap/CBC
Liam Harrap/CBC

Going green 

In 2021, Brazeau County launched the Western Economic Corridor initiative to diversify its economy.

While the area has approximately 10,000 oil and gas facilities, it's trying to attract cleaner technology.

"One man's waste might be another man's gold," said county reeve Bart Guyon. "We're finding that other businesses are taking a look to see how can we help green the barrel of oil."

Part of that attraction is reducing costs.

Liam Harrap/CBC
Liam Harrap/CBC

Since 2015, the county has reduced taxes by 30 per cent. If residents and businesses pay by the end of June, they qualify for an additional 30 per cent municipal tax cut.

"People run to pay their taxes here," said Guyon.

Other green projects in the country include a floating wetland to help break down sewage and a company trying to find easier ways to send crude oil through pipelines.

"Oil and gas are not going anywhere, but the combustion engine obviously is," Brian Jean, minister of jobs, economy and northern development, said during a county facility tour held in mid-February.

"We are an energy superpower here in Alberta and we have to make sure we are at the forefront of all technologies necessary to go to the next step."