Shifting Sands in the Alberta Oil Sands

The enthusiasm for THAI oil production is now beginning to widen outside of oil industry insiders. Besides this item, I was startled to find it as a lead in a list of world changers in Feedblitz, which is a technology tracker rather than a resource industry watcher. I go there to help track fusion research. A little like getting a review on chip technology in an oil industry journal.

THAI is certainly a game changer and its present state of development is well advanced. They ran their first test wells successfully and encountered sand problems as must be expected when you are minimizing the cost of a test well. Since then sand problems are well corrected and they are now running the operation while also testing the catalytic well liner. I am not as optimistic about that, but it is a bonus anyway.

Today, they can develop a production field with a good understanding of the variables and a good plan for avoiding problems without the CAPRI part of the program.

They have not shared any technical data on production, and that is actually premature anyway. However, a best guess model seems appropriate today as an update of the original modeling work to see how close things are, or how far of for that matter.

It does appear to be working and this company is not permitting a 100,000 barrel per day facility because they need to bet the company.

Shifting Sands: New technology on the way
Posted by
Brett Harris on May 29, 2009

In 1959, Manley Natland, an American paleontologist working for the California-based Richfield Oil company, came up with a unique (and scary) plan for tapping the vast energy reserves in Alberta’s oil sands. Natland suggested burying a nine-kiloton nuclear device deep within the oil sands and detonating it. The idea was that the "bomb" would literally cook the oil out of the sands, making it easy to recover. That may sound crazy, but not only did Richfield win approval from Ottawa for the plan, it actually bought the nuclear device. Fortunately "Project Oil Sands" never came to fruition. But it makes for an interesting read. The story is chronicled in William Marsden’s book "Stupid to the Last Drop."

Well, the oil sands have come a long way since 1959. Today, even the traditional method of mining using giant shovels and trucks seems outdated, primarily because of the excessive costs associated with strip-mining and the increasingly unacceptable environmental impacts. The newest method for mining the oil sands entails injecting steam into the ground to loosen the tarry bitumen from the sand and then pumping it to the surface using horizontal drilling technology. The process is called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage or SAGD. But because of the vast amounts of natural gas and water needed to create the steam, even SAGD has become a target for environmental groups.

There are literally dozens of other new technologies on the drawing board right now that aim to make oil sands not only greener, but cheaper to tap. Most are either in the high-concept or early development stage, but one new technology stands out as a potential game changer. At its Whitesands project near Conklin, Alta., Petrobank Energy is in the final stages of testing a new technology called THAI (Toe to Heel Air Injection). Although not as draconian as Natland’s nuclear idea, THAI sounds a bit like something out of a science fiction novel. It involves drilling a hole into the oil sands, injecting oxygen and igniting a continuous underground burn or "fireflood." Over the course of several months, that fireflood slowly works its way through the oil sands reservoir, heating up the bitumen so it drains into a horizontal collector well. No digging. No huge mining equipment. Just a few pipes, some wellheads and a modest processing facility.

THAI is still considered experimental by the oil sands industry, but Petrobank is so confident that it works, it’s forging ahead with two commercial-scale projects using THAI.

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