Always trying out new ideas to develop our petroleum resource: PTRC

Getting more out of our 56 billion barrels of oil in Saskatchewan

Regina – The key organization that backs much of the petroleum research in this province is the aptly-named Petroleum Technology Research Centre, located in Innovation Place on the University of Regina campus. The PTRC has been working in close contact with the Saskatchewan Research Council, University of Regina, and numerous other agencies for over two decades now.

The PTRC was founded with one principle motivation – to find ways to get more oil out of Saskatchewan large, but challenging, original oil in place.

Dan MacLean took over as the president and CEO of the PTRC two years ago. Asked on Feb. 28 where are we right now, and were do we need to go, MacLean said, “Saskatchewan is the leader in research in CO2 sequestration into deep saline reservoirs.”

In the last week of February and first week of March, three Chinese delegations came together to visit Saskatchewan and learn about the implementation of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. The PTRC was part of a reception by the University of Regina for that mission, and also offered workshops on its areas of expertise, in coordination with the Regina-based International Carbon Capture and Storage Knowledge Centre. The bulk of the Chinese contingent came from Sinopec, one of China’s major nationally-owned oil companies.

“Sinopec is here to talk about that. They’re working closely with the University of Regina and the Knowledge Centre. We’re providing color, in particular, on Aquistore. The Knowledge Centre’s mandate is to share the CCUS (carbon capture utilization and storage) message around the world. Primarily, they seem to be focusing on the Chinese. They’ve had numerous conversations with them over the years, and it’s a natural extension for them to come here,” MacLean said.

Asked if China could, in the upcoming years, use CO2 for enhanced oil recovery like southeast Saskatchewan has, he responded, “There’s a continuum of work being done on two fronts – on the carbon capture side of it, and, on a broader side, what do you do with the CO2? The natural thing, the thing historically we’ve done with CO2, is to try to use it to improve oil recovery. Weyburn is the example here. We’ve been doing it for 20 years, injecting CO2, storing it – it is a sequestration mechanism – and one of the byproducts happens to be you improve oil and gas recovery from it.

“The second thing is Aquistore. If you can’t use it in an EOR (enhanced oil recovery) scheme, then you store it. You put it away. It’s not really storage. It’s disposal. Aquistore, in particular, you’re putting it into a saline reservoir. If you were to turn that around and try to re-produce it out of the saline formation, you probably wouldn’t be able to. It’s locked into the rock.

“But what else can you do with CO2? That’s where we’re going with this. I’ve talked to PTAC – the Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada – they’re located in Alberta, they’re the equivalent of us.”

MacLean said he regularly confers with the president of PTAC to ensure they’re not duplicating efforts. “If there’s something happening in Alberta, let’s try it here. I’m not married to a made-in-Saskatchewan solution, if there’s an opportunity to apply a technology that we can use to apply here to improve oil and gas recovery.”

Recent conversations have included converting CO2 into other products like methanol. In British Columbia, the Gates Foundation and Canadian Natural Resources Limited are working on other applications for CO2, he noted. “There’s no reason we couldn’t look at that sort of stuff here.”

Beyond CO2

“We sit on 56 billion of barrels of oil in this province. Under current recovery mechanisms, we may only get 10 to 12 per cent of that out of the ground. So there’s this huge target, sitting out there. On the heavy oil side, with our industry partners we’re working with, they’re saying there’s probably a billion barrels of incremental oil that could be unlocked using technologies PTRC, with their support, are looking at. We’re looking at various types of vapour and solvent injection into our cold flow production here.

“So what’s the next big thing in that? That’s what we’re trying to find out. Our challenge here is you do these things in the lab, but you can’t just do one or two. You’ve got to do a lot of them. This is almost classic oilfield exploration, but it’s exploring for new recovery mechanisms. In the exploration world, a one-in-ten risk is kinda normal, so I’m looking at that for us, one-in-ten. So every year, we fund up to about ten projects, between the U of R, and SRC, and our industry partners in the Heavy Oil Research Network (HORNET). We’d like to hope that one out of ten of those projects could be applied in the field. So you do the bench analysis here, you identify the one or two that might work, and get industry partners to use one or two of their wells to try it out in the field.

“And that’s another story. It still might not work in the field. But it’s all about building confidence, so that one-in-ten in the lab, okay, I’ve got confidence. Then you put that one project in the field, and still those field results don’t look right. Reality in the field versus the lab just don’t line up. So you do another one, and another one, and this is a continuum. We do this every year. There’s ten more funded projects, and then ten more, and then ten more, and then ten more, with the hope that one or two along the line are going to click and we’ll pull the trigger on something really important.”

A few years ago, one project involved trying to send tiny sensors between wells via the wormholes (void spaces) that are characteristic of heavy oil fields. But that project’s initial promise proved not to garner results in the field, and is now dead.  This is the way bench scale moves to the field – hit and miss – and PTRC along with its researchers at different organizations keep working on other ideas.


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