Regina – As the story goes, twenty years ago, then-Saskatchewan Minister of Energy and Mines Eldon Lautermilch and Ralph Goodale, who was then federal Minister of Natural Resources, were having a smoke in Kirghizstan. Over cigarettes, they decided on the need to push for petroleum research in Saskatchewan.
“This landed squarely on my desk,” recalled Dr. Malcolm Wilson back in 2009, then director of the Office of Energy and Environment at the University of Regina. He recalled being told, “Malcolm, create a petroleum research facility.”
Thus begat the Petroleum Technology Research Centre (PTRC), a not-for-profit research company located in a dedicated building at Innovation Place in Regina, beside the university.
“From nothing in 1998, by 2002 the University of Regina had the largest petroleum engineering program in Canada,” Wilson said in 2009. The creation of that program was largely because of funding provided through the PTRC and its public and private sector partners.
In later years (2011 to 2013) Wilson would head up the PTRC, the organization whose purpose is to help figure out how to get as much of Saskatchewan’s oil out of ground as possible, with a particular focus on our billions of barrels of heavy oil.
The PTRC celebrates its 20th year in operation this November, and in September invited Wilson, along with past CEOs, researchers and industry leaders, to a one-day conference at Government House in Saskatchewan to recount successes and talk about the future.
Most of the PTRC’s work has focused on heavy oil, but the use of carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) became a key area of research when the Weyburn oil field in Southern Saskatchewan began to inject it in 2000, and the resulting Weyburn-Midale Project garnered strong industry interest.
Wilson, who was one of the scientists responsible for the first report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), knew that the utilization of CO2 for oil recovery was a win-win for Saskatchewan. The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.
In more recent years, under the direction of new CEO Dan MacLean, the PTRC has turned some of its attention to light oil, particularly the hard-to-access deposits in the Bakken and Viking formations in southern Saskatchewan.
Over the years, the PTRC has been involved in several major research initiatives.
“JIVE was a very big success for us,” said Norm Sacuta on Oct. 12. He has handled the PTRC’s communications for over a decade. JIVE, Sacuta explained, stood for Joint Implementation of Vapour Extraction. “It was started about 2005. Over the course of the project, there were four field trials, injecting different kinds of gas (solvent) vapour into heavy oil fields.”
That included propane, methane, butane and CO2. The field trials included Nexen, Husky and Canadian Natural Resources Limited.
“Different trials had different levels of success. The main obstacle in those field trials that limited advancement for some of those companies to move to full-scale demonstration, was not being able to get back the solvent during oil production. With propane, butane and methane, you’ve got to get the solvent back in a decent amount that oil recovery doesn’t become too expensive.
“Husky’s field trials were the most successful, which is why they went on and did industrial-scale projects involving solvents and CO2.Those were direct results (the decision to go forward) based, in part, on the results of JIVE.”
Husky went on to continue to develop CO2 usage in enhanced oil recovery.
As part of the JIVE project, a substantial three-dimensional model that looks like a giant R2-D2 was developed at the Saskatchewan Research Council to model the underground reservoirs at different pressures and depths. It’s still in use in the PTRC building.
Another solvent project was worked on with Statoil on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, to reduce CO2 emissions in oilsands operations. It was eventually turned completely over to Statoil.
Very shortly after the PTRC got going, PanCanadian and Apache got going with their enhanced oil recovery carbon dioxide miscible floods at their respective Weyburn and Midale units.
Perhaps one of the most visible projects PTRC has been involved with was the International Energy Agency Greenhouse Gas (IEAGHG) Weyburn-Midale CO2 Monitoring and Storage Project.
It was considered the world’s largest natural laboratory, covering an area 200 kilometres wide, 200 kilometres long and 4 kilometres deep, encompassing much of southeast Saskatchewan. It’s been dubbed the largest CO2 sequestration project in the world, and acted as a test bed to hone skills in geologic storage.
There were four technical themes to the project.
Site characterization developed a model for the selection of suitable CO2 geological storage sites.
Wellbore integrity looked at increasing the knowledge and assessment of risk associated with leakage from abandoned wells caused by material and cement degradation.
Monitoring and verification looked at assessing techniques to quantify CO2 volume and distribution.
Finally, performance assessment involved a reliable, integrated simulation model to predict long term storage accurately, and to develop reliable probabilistic methods of predicting leakage from storage sites.
Weyburn was not about oil production for the PTRC. When PanCanadian began planning the carbon dioxide flood, it was a unique opportunity to do observations at a commercial level. Eventually the Weyburn field was bought by EnCana, and they agreed to the research side of the project. Cenovus split from EnCana in 2009.
Apache Canada came onstream with the project in 2005, adding the Midale field to the mix.
The research is wrapped up now, and Whitecap Resources now has the operating stake in the Weyburn Unit, while Cardinal Energy Ltd. is the operator of the Midale Unit. PTRC has made itself available to both operators should questions arise about the research that was conducted.
PTRC provided information during the project, both to the public and to policy makers, on CO2 sequestration. Its information was meant to be used in cap-and-trade policy decisions, regulatory advice for wellbore completions, and the like. In the end, the PTRC quite literally wrote the book about geological storage.
Another major project for the PTRC is the Aquistore project, part of the Boundary Dam Unit 3 Integrated Carbon Capture and Storage Project.
Initially the plan was conceived in partnership with the Regina Co-op Refinery. The original plan was a project to capture a portion of the refinery’s carbon dioxide emissions and pump them into a nearby deep saline aquifer. However, the project evolved to become part of the Boundary Dam initiative when it became clear the CO2 source would be coming from there.
The $26 million Aquistore project involved drilling the two deepest wells in the province, two kilometres west of the Boundary Dam Power Station and carbon capture unit. One well acts as an injection well, the second as an observation well. The wells themselves are highly instrumented, as is the surrounding area, with various kinds of measurement and monitoring technologies (31 in total). This included the installation and periodic usage of a permanent seismic array around the Aquistore site, allowing for 4D seismic monitoring – three physical dimensions, and the fourth dimension being time –tracking the progress of the carbon dioxide just under 3,400 metres underground. SaskPower now owns and operates the wells, but PTRC continues to conduct the research project, providing data and modeling to SaskPower and to some 7 project partners.
Networks of Centres of Excellence
Starting in 2009, the PTRC was able to get $10 million in funding over four years from the Government of Canada through the Networks of Centres of Excellence program to do research at the lab level, and in the field, to look at enhanced oil recovery technologies that would have a direct impact on improving environmental impacts. The program set up by the PTRC was called STEPS (Sustainable Technologies for Energy Production Systems).
STEPS was a business-led network of centres of excellence. Of 40 applicants to the Federal government’s NCE secretariat, ten went onto final proposals, and only four, including PTRC, were chosen to receive funds
Some of the projects in the STEPS program were tied to early stage development in the Saskatchewan oilsands. This included looking at electrical heating for oilsands.
“It didn’t really go anywhere because of significant challenges with a lack of caprock above our oilsands. And Oilsands Quest eventually stopped operating. When prices tanked, that was it for Oilsands Quest,” Sacuta said.
U of R CO2 initiatives
For a time, the University of Regina had a suite of organizations involved with carbon dioxide, quarterbacked by Office of Energy and Environment. One focused on capturing CO2 on a commercial scale, another on putting it in the ground and making sure it stayed there, and the third on developing standards to make sure these efforts were recognized.
The International Test Centre (ITC), which worked on coming up with their own carbon dioxide capture technologies. Their method ultimately was not chosen for the Boundary Dam project.
Then there was the International Performance Assessment Centre for the Geologic Storage of Carbon Dioxide, or IPAC-CO2, which focused on coming up with standards for the capture and storage of carbon dioxide. The PTRC’s involvement, especially with the Weyburn-Midale project, brought things full circle, working on the research of geologic storage and enhanced oil recovery.
IPAC-CO2 was shut down in 2013. ITC has been re-organized into Clean Energy Technology Research Institute (CETRi).
Sacuta said, “We tended to be more of a funder for those research areas – never capture. We were not interested in capture. We did tend to fund, at the U of R, CO2-EOR research. That involved both heavy oil, where CO2 had not yet been injected.”
Light and tight oil is getting more attention from the PTRC now as it enters its third decade in operation. “We just bought, for use by the SRC and the university, a high resolution CT (computerized tomography) scanner. We got Western Diversification funding for that this past year,” Sacuta said.
“They’re going to be using that as part of this tight-oil research.”
Dan MacLean, president and CEO of the PTRC, was in Kuwait on PTRC business during the time of this interview. Regarding the future of the organization, he said by email, “We are proud of what PTRC has accomplished in its twenty years, and more importantly where we are headed. It’s the company’s goal to realize 5 billion additional barrels of reserves in the next five years by developing technologies that will help turn that stranded Saskatchewan oil into recoverable assets. And we plan to do that in the most energy efficient means possible.”