Engineering and economics of enhanced oil recovery in the Canadian oil sands

Hester, Stephen Albert, III
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Canada and Venezuela contain massive unconventional oil deposits accounting for over two thirds of newly discovered proven oil reserves since 2002. Canada, primarily in northern Alberta province, has between 1.75 and 1.84 trillion barrels of hydrocarbon resources that as of 2013 are obtained approximately equally through surface extraction or enhanced oil recovery (EOR) (World Energy Council, 2010). Due to their depth and viscosity, thermal based EOR will increasingly be responsible for producing the vast quantities of bitumen residing in Canada’s Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River formations. Although the internationally accepted 174-180 billion barrels recoverable ranks Canada third globally in oil reserves, it represents only a 9-10% average recovery factor of its very high viscosity deposits (World Energy Council, 2010). As thermal techniques are refined and improved, in conjunction with methods under development and integrating elements of existing but currently separate processes, engineers and geoscientists aim to improve recovery rates and add tens of billions of barrels of oil to Canada’s reserves (Cenovus Energy, 2013). The Government of Canada estimates 315 billion barrels recoverable with the right combination of technological improvements and sustained high oil prices (Government of Canada, 2013). Much uncertainty and skepticism surrounds how this 75% increase is to be accomplished. This document entails a thorough analysis of standard and advanced EOR techniques and their potential incremental impact in Canada’s bitumen deposits. Due to the extraordinary volume of hydrocarbon resources in Canada, a small percentage growth in ultimate recovery satisfies years of increased petroleum demand from the developing world, affects the geopolitics within North America and between it and the rest of the world, and provides material benefits to project economics. This paper details the enhanced oil recovery methods used in the oil sands deposits while exploring new developments and their potential technical and economic effect. CMG Stars reservoir simulation is leveraged to test both the feasible recoveries of and validate the physics behind select advanced techniques. These technological and operational improvements are aggregated and an assessment produced on Canada’s total recoverable petroleum reserves. Canada has, by far, the largest bitumen recovery operation in the world (World Energy Council, 2010). Due to its resource base and political environment, the nation is likely to continue as the focus point for new developments in thermal EOR. Reservoir characteristics and project analysis are thus framed using Canada and its reserves.