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Dan Themig of Packers Plus Energy Services shows the different-sized, bright-orange balls that are used in the drilling process. (Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)
Dan Themig of Packers Plus Energy Services shows the different-sized, bright-orange balls that are used in the drilling process. (Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)

How science is showing the oil patch the way Add to ...

Moments before Rick George, who led Suncor Energy Inc. for 20 years, was named Canadian Energy Person of the Year in October, 2011, he declared himself “mad keen about technology” in the oil sands industry.

His words were a hip twist on a mantra he, along with his peers around the globe, have long supported: that technological advancements will ease some of the most environmentally challenging issues facing the energy industry, such as eliminating tailings ponds and reducing water use.

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And new engineering techniques are about more than greening the energy industry. Teams are constantly experimenting, trying to find new ways to get more oil and gas out of the ground. Hydraulic fracturing, which revived depleted oil and gas fields across North America, as well as made new ones viable, stands out as a prime example in the past five years. Fracking is now as well known as old-school jack pumps, albeit more controversial.

That’s the catch with technology. It is a slow process, and not everyone wants development in the energy sector to flourish. But until alternatives become widespread, the energy industry will continue to rethink its techniques, looking for technological breakthroughs – big and small.

Here are some technologies in use and ideas scientists, engineers, geologists, and executives are working on, in hopes the faith and enthusiasm for technology they share with Mr. George proves fruitful.

Microwaving bitumen

Harris Corp., which specializes in voice, data and video networks, is one of the last companies you would expect to be rooting around in the dirt around Fort McMurray, Alta.. The 117-year old Florida company, which made a technological breakthrough when it invented a way to automatically feed sheet paper into printing presses rather than doing it by hand, thinks electromagnetic energy may transform the oil sands. Essentially, it wants to microwave bitumen buried deep underground.

Harris is working with Nexen Inc., Suncor Energy Inc. and Laricina Energy Ltd. The technology threads an antenna radiating electromagnetic heat down a wellbore, making the surrounding bitumen less viscous and able to move up a second wellbore with the help of solvents. If it works perfectly, the antenna would replace the need for steam, cutting water use and reducing energy needed to heat the bitumen. So far, the consortium has proven it can melt bitumen, albeit only 15 metres below the surface, rather than at typical in-situ depths and less consistent reservoir quality.

Advances in fracking

A Calgary service company, Packers Plus, holds a dozen patents for hydraulic fracturing technology that allows companies to open oil and gas seams at multiple points along the drill bore without having to case the entire hole in cement.

Packers pioneered its open-hole, multistage fracking approach nearly a decade ago in the Barnett play, the first of the massive shale gas developments that have revolutionized the oil and gas business in North America. The company is now active in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field and in northeastern British Columbia.

Using the company’s “StackFRAC” technology, drilling crews can open oil or gas seams along an entire horizontal length of a drill bore, without having to remove the equipment from the well. Crews drop different-sized, bright-orange balls, designed to withstand high pressure, into the drill sleeve to isolate segments. Increasing hydraulic pressure opens a frack port and the fluid cracks the hydrocarbon-bearing rock. Material consisting mainly of sand – known as proppant – is then injected into the seam to keep it open and allow the oil or gas to flow into the well bore. That process is repeated back along the horizontal well until complete when the well is flowed back to allow the gas or oil to enter the system and the balls to be recovered at the surface. Packers is looking to continually improve its methods, at a research centre it calls the “rapid tool development centre.”

The continuous operation enables the StackFRAC system to greatly simplify multistage fracturing operations, reducing completion times and cost.

Natural gas added to steam in SAGD

Steam has proven to be invaluable in Canada’s oil sands, necessary to melt hard bitumen trapped far underground, all while providing pressure to move the warmed oil up production pipes. But one of its downsides is that when the steam condenses and transforms into water, the pressure in the reservoir drops, hindering production.

MEG Energy Inc. is trying to get around this problem by combining, and tweaking, two existing technologies: Injecting trace amounts of non-condensable natural gas to the reservoir, and using so-called infill wells.

The natural gas keeps the pressure up, allowing the company to turn down the amount of steam it pumps underground. MEG’s pilot project uses about 1.3 to 1.4 barrels of steam for every barrel of oil produced, compared to a steam-to-oil ratio of 2.8, which is generally considered efficient. This means the company can cut its costs and emissions because it needs less water and burns less natural gas to produce steam for each barrel.

It also recycles the natural gas that comes up the production pipes. Some producers already use natural gas as an additive, but MEG is using it earlier in the process, rather than waiting until the oil reservoir is almost emptied.

MEG has combined the natural gas injection system with infill wells, which are additional wells placed near already-producing wells, giving companies access to the bitumen in the space between the existing wells. Further, excess steam can be directed toward new wells, again increasing production at a cheaper rate.

The Calgary-based company said production at its pilot project climbed by 20 per cent, and that it is unaware of any competitors copying its blueprints.

Recovery in Newfoundland’s offshore

Having spent billions of dollars to develop the Hibernia offshore oil field, the partner companies are now looking to squeeze ever-more crude from the subsea rock to extend its life and enhance their investment.

As part of that effort, Hibernia Management and Development Co. has contributed $11.9-million to Memorial University to build and operate a research laboratory that will be able to simulate reservoir conditions, to a maximum of 10,000 pounds per square inch of pressure and a temperature of 200 degrees Celsius. Researchers are studying the reactions between different types of fluids, and between fluids and rocks, to determine the best approach to enhanced recovery from the Hibernia field under the North Atlantic.

Last December, Newfoundland native Lesley James – who holds a doctorate in chemical engineering – took up the post as the first Chevron Chair in Petroleum Engineering at Memorial. Memorial is dramatically expanding its research capability to take advantage of a requirement imposed on companies by the federal-provincial regulatory agency to spend a portion of their oil revenues on R&D in the province.

Dr. James is studying the reactions between different types of fluids, and between fluids and rocks, to determine the best approach to enhanced recovery from the Hibernia field under the North Atlantic.

“Every change in pressure, every change in temperature, and every change in rock will make a difference,” she says, “as well as the properties of oil itself and what you are injecting.”

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