What went through a pipeline between Syncrude’s Mildred Lake site and Suncor’s Base Plant, known as the Interconnect Pipeline (ICP), in March was sour, sour naphtha to be exact, but it resulted in sweet  revenue for Syncrude operations.  

Sour naphtha is one of the products  to come from processing bitumen through the coker units. It contains hydrogen sulfide (H2S), making it sour and challenging to handle.  

So, when the Syncrude and Suncor teams came together to successfully transfer 167,000 barrels of sour naphtha through ICP to the Athabasca Tank terminal some 12 kilometres away, it was a cause for a celebration for Ginni Sangha, VP Regional Planning & Optimization, Mining and Upgrading. 

“In comparison to the volume of bitumen and sour products transferred on ICP since December 2020, the sour naphtha volume was small,” says Ginni. “However, having the opportunity to try something different, which allowed us to keep production steady and support asset reliability, while collaborating with so many teams from across the business was a big success.” 

Other duties as required

When the ICP first came online in 2020, it wasn’t designed to transport sour naphtha. It was built as two bi-directional pipelines to carry feedstock from Suncor to Syncrude, and vice versa, with the goal of enhancing operational flexibility. 

However, storage for sour naphtha is limited and it needed to be transported and processed. 

Above-ground pipelines. There is blue sky and trees in the distance.
The Interconnect Pipeline that came online in 2020 recently helped bring in significant revenue for Syncrude. 

“The best way to handle sour naphtha is to process it in hydrotreater units,” explains Ginni. “We have limited ability to store sour naphtha and when our sour naphtha processing capacity is reduced, we must slow down, which could result in production swings and potentially lower revenue.”

Not wanting to hinder production, but needing to move the product, a team of experts decided to explore the adjustments necessary to the ICP that would allow it to transfer the product safely. 

“Three analyses were done before putting sour naphtha in the line,” says Ginni. “One was at the Syncrude site, to determine how we could put sour naphtha into the pipeline. The second was to focus on the pipeline itself and confirm that the ICP could handle the product. And the third was focused on the receiving side—confirming that the terminal was capable of accepting the product.”

In the end, the sour naphtha was sent through ICP in eight batches.

“ICP is an asset that we’re still learning how to maximize because it’s relatively new,” adds Ginni. “I’m really proud of the ICP project and operation so far and excited about the opportunities we still can explore.”

Running the sour naphtha through the pipeline was a temporary solution to help keep production running, but there are plans to look at doing it again in the future. 

“Now that we know the pipeline can handle moving sour naphtha, we will take what we learned and apply it to the next time to enhance the process,” says Ginni.