A real options analysis and comparative cost assessment of nuclear and natural gas applications in the Athabasca oil sands
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This report offers a comparative valuation of two bitumen production technologies, using real options analysis (ROA) techniques to incorporate strategic flexibility into the investment scenario. By integrating a probabilistic cost model into a real options framework, the value of an oil recovery facility is modeled to reflect the realistic alternatives available to decision-makers, where the course of the investment can be altered as new information becomes available. This approach represents a distinct advantage to traditional discounted cash flow (DCF) estimation, which is unable to capture operational adaptability, including the ability to expand, delay, or abandon a project. The analysis focuses on the energy inputs required for the recovery of heavy oil bitumen from Alberta, Canada, and examines both natural gas and nuclear steam plants as heat sources. The ACR-1000 reactor is highlighted as a substitute for conventional natural gas-fueled means of production, in light of the recent volatility of natural gas prices and the potential for emissions compliance charges. The methodology includes a levelized cost assessment per barrel of bitumen and estimation of cost ranges for each component. A mean-reversion stochastic price model was also derived for the both natural gas and oil price. By incorporating cost ranges into a ROA framework, the benefit of retaining project flexibility is included in its valuation. Formulated as a decision tree, built-in options include the initial selection to pursue nuclear or natural gas, site selection and licensing, the ability to switch heat source in the planning stage, and the final commitment to construct. Each decision is influenced by uncertainties, including the course of bitumen and natural gas price, as well as emissions policy. By structuring the investment scenario to include these options, the overall value of the project increases by over $150 million. The ability to switch technology type allows for an assessment of the viability of nuclear steam, which becomes economically favorable given high natural gas prices or high emissions taxes. Given an initial selection of natural gas SAGD, there is a 25% probability that a switch to nuclear steam will occur, as evolving financial conditions make nuclear the optimal technology.