The future success of Canada’s oil and gas industry hinges on its ability to develop and deploy new technologies that both reduce environmental impacts and improve cost performance.
The heart of this is novel hydrocarbon extraction, or new oil and gas production methods that can completely reshape the way the industry operates.
It's a central focus area for the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN), which interconnects energy producers and service providers with innovators, government entities, nonprofits and academic institutions.
Canadian researchers have proven many times over that they can effectively develop and deploy novel hydrocarbon extraction technologies – CRIN just wants to help do it faster.
“CRIN creates connections that would not have otherwise occurred, leading to new approaches and identification of new opportunities,” says Matt McCulloch, director of CRIN’s novel hydrocarbon extraction technology research area, and GHG director with Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).
McCulloch’s group is engaging the CRIN community to discuss how to improve the ecosystem’s performance in accelerating technology development, he says.
This includes sessions like an upcoming event in November where CRIN and COSIA will co-host the University of Calgary's Dr. Steven Bryant and Dr. Paula Berton from the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs as they explore applications for ionic liquids in tight oil, kerogens in oil shales, and bitumen from oilsands.
CRIN says participants will discuss this evolving case study, offering constructive feedback and sharing their experiences with moving similar technologies forward.
But CRIN’s work on novel hydrocarbon extraction technology development isn’t just about the oilsands, McCulloch says.
“There is a lot of overlap in both the challenges and solutions across the hydrocarbon sector and many of the same stakeholder groups are involved who are pivotal to accelerating technology development,” he says.
“We want to ensure we are inclusive in our efforts so we get the complete picture for future innovation and ensure we leave no opportunities unexplored.”
McCulloch says that in the coming months CRIN anticipates building a community across the country that will help focus its network on industry priorities while identifying and implementing new practices to accelerate technology development.
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Tight Oil Consortium
The CRIN model is the direction industry needs to be headed, says Christopher Clarkson, director of the Tight Oil Consortium (TOC).
Established at the University of Calgary in January 2011, under Clarkson’s guidance the TOC integrates the disciplines of geoscience and engineering to address the challenges associated with developing low-permeability reservoirs. The group’s production data analysis tools and protocols have been implemented in commercial software and adapted by various operating companies, Clarkson says.
Today the TOC is on the cutting edge of developing reservoir and hydraulic fracture characterization tools that can help the industry development become more efficient. For example, the TOC has recently developed a fast and effective diagnostic fracture injection test (DFIT) for tight reservoirs that can be used to estimate minimum in situ stress in less than one hour, and reservoir pressure in less than two hours (for one tight formation tested).
In the same tight formation, the conventional DFIT method required typically over 12 hours for minimum in situ stress estimation, and over a month for reservoir pressure. This is just one example of how the TOC is developing practical tools to improve development efficiency for the industry.
Clarkson says that integrating the TOC into the CRIN network will help the industry move solutions forward, faster.
“With the whole climate change push, which is only going to get stronger with the federal government going forward, I think as an industry we have to be more proactive. We have all of these wonderful technologies; we can produce oil from rock that we could never have imagined 15-20 years ago. Now we need to start thinking about what we can do to make what we’re doing in heavy oil/oilsands and tight oil more sustainable. I firmly believe in this industry’s ability to innovate and provide solutions to our environmental challenges,” he says.
“We’re not going to switch to low-carbon impact technologies overnight. It’s not going to happen. Our economy would shut down. What we need to do is transition ourselves so that we’re developing hydrocarbons more efficiently, with less environmental impact, and I think this whole concept of CRIN is critical.”
What the TOC brings is a proven unique interdisciplinary model where geologists and engineers work side by side to find solutions to complex reservoir characterization challenges.
Its 19 current sponsors include producers of varying sizes from small companies like Tangle Creek Energy Ltd., intermediates like Birchcliff Energy Ltd., and majors like Canadian Natural Resources Limited and Encana, to supermajors like Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil.
Clarkson says that currently the TOC is developing reservoir evaluation methods that can be used to evaluate reservoir intervals along long horizontal wells. These tools can then be used to target hydraulic fracturing in selected intervals, with the goal of reducing the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing operations without impacting well performance.
“The current paradigm in the industry is to drill these long horizontal wells and put as many fracture stages as possible into the well; normally we’re talking 40, 50, 60 or more fracture stages in a well, without considering variability and rock properties or reservoir quality along the horizontal lateral,” Clarkson says.
Tools like analyzing drill cuttings and drilling data help TOC researchers evaluate reservoir quality variability along a horizontal well, and then use that information to be more targeted in stimulation treatments.
“Our hope is that we can reduce the fracture stage count by say 20 to 50 percent and get the same amount of productivity from the well. In other words, a similar level of recovery of oil and a similar level of well production but with fewer stages,” Clarkson says.
“From an environmental point of view, if you put fewer fracs in the ground there’s less waste of resources, i.e. water, proppant and horsepower to generate the fracs, less risk of triggering natural hazards (i.e. induced seismicity), with lower footprint.
“If you can put half the fracture stages and get the same well productivity, it will [also] work out to a significantly smaller amount of capital investment to get the same productivity.”
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Imperial’s in situ R&D
That dual focus on reducing environmental impacts and improving economics also drives the work of research teams at Imperial Oil Limited, a key CRIN supporter.
For almost 100 years, Imperial has been researching and developing new technologies for hydrocarbon extraction and processing in Canada, including the game changing oilsands technology steam assisted gravity drainage, (SAGD) which was invented by Imperial chemical engineer Dr. Roger Butler in the 1970s.
When SAGD was commercialized in 2001 it redrew the future of the oilsands sector, unlocking vast bitumen resources too deep for economic surface mining and too shallow for existing in situ systems.
Today Imperial’s in situ oilsands research efforts are focused on using light hydrocarbon injection to improve performance of SAGD and other technologies such as cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) and steam flood.
Imperial has a number of novel extraction technologies at varying stages of development, says Dr. Cheryl Trudell, the company’s vice-president of research.
Ready to be deployed commercially are solvent-assisted SAGD (SA-SAGD) and Imperial’s cyclic solvent process (CSP). Imperial expects that SA-SAGD will reduce both greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity and water use by approximately 25 per cent. The technology was officially deemed commercial in 2014 following a multi-year field pilot that continues to operate, Trudell says.
SA-SAGD is the technology of choice for Imperial’s upcoming 75,000-bbl/d Aspen project.
CSP, meanwhile, is specifically targeted at the company’s Cold Lake oilsands project, which has been running since the 1970s.
“Our calculations show that CSP can reduce GHG emission intensity by 90 percent and water use by approximately 100 percent. The beauty of this technology is it unlocks resource that isn’t economic with CSS,” Trudell says.
Imperial initiated a CSP field pilot in 2014 and deemed the technology commercial last year. Technical and research teams are now working on the first commercial-scale CSP implementation at Cold Lake.
Imperial also has novel in situ oilsands technologies in the works that are in the early development stage. One is enhanced bitumen recovery technology (EBRT), which Trudell calls an evolution of SA-SAGD.
“[EBRT] has the benefit of reducing GHG emissions intensity by 60 percent and water use by 90 percent, plus it has lower initial capital and operating costs,” she says.
“There’s definitely an economic prize as well as an environmental performance improvement.”
Imperial is also working on a “late life strategy” at Cold Lake to replace steam flood operations with a light hydrocarbon flood “to see if we can still maintain the same levels of recovery at a much lower GHG emissions intensity,” Trudell says.
Novel hydrocarbon extraction development and deployment is critical to the future of Canada’s oil and gas industry “so that we can demonstrate that we can produce oil and gas here in a very responsible way,” she says.
CRIN is a unique and exciting avenue to advance this cause, she adds.
“I think it’s just really a neat opportunity to work with folks that we typically wouldn’t work with, and that can really help enable the development and the deployment of technologies faster.”