Microbial Enhanced Oil Recovery

This week Business Week magazine has a whole special section on oil. Now, I don't usually read magazines like Business Week or the Economist, but my father tells me that in general, BW is a pretty moderate publication. The main article on the issue, "Is there plenty of oil?", is pretty optimistic that there is, but is not entirely dismissive of the idea that there might not be. Of course, then they say something like this, which TOD readers have expressed wariness about before:
But there's little reason to assume that the next five years will simply see a continuation of current trends. Thanks to a combination of higher prices, increased exploration and production spending, and improved technology, oil supplies are poised to grow much faster than they have in recent years. Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), a respected energy consultant, sees 20 or more major new fields coming on line each year through 2010. Altogether those fields could boost worldwide production capacity 15%, from 87.9 million barrels per day to 101.5 million by the end of the decade, CERA estimates. As a result, supply should exceed demand by 7 million bbl. per day, a huge leap from the current cushion of 1 million bbl.
In a companion article called "Tapping Gushers Beneath The Gushers", they run through some methods for recovering oil from mostly depleted wells. These include techniques like supercomputer simulations and CO2 injections. Then, they mention MEOR: microbial enhanced oil recovery. The online version is subscription only, but here are the relevant paragraphs:

The latest idea is called MEOR, for microbial enhanced oil recovery. Various labs around the world are engineering special bugs that generate CO2 biologically, along with detergent-like chemicals that help flush oil out of rocks. The microbes can be cultivated underground or in well-side vats. Because they grow explosively, the Energy Dept., which is funding several research projects, says MEOR technology may be the most cost-effective of all tertiary processes.

MEOR is already used in Venezuela, China, Indonesia, and the U.S. to treat deposits of heavy oil -- a molasses-thick form of oil. Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory hope to develop new armies of bioengineered bugs that can infiltrate underground rocks and turn the gunky stuff into the sweet-flowing crude that erupts like the gushers in Hollywood movies.
(A few petroleum companies, universities and governments that also have descriptions of the process: Cano Petroleum, Mississippi State, Canada.)

Anytime I hear about introducing any kind of species--be it bacteria or plant life--into an environment where it didn't exist before, I get uneasy. We all know about kudzu, and perhaps you've heard of the northern snakehead fish (wow, the government has a whole website called invasivespecies.gov!). Can it really be beneficial to inject microbes into the ground and let them grow unchecked at a very fast rate?

On the other hand, as the Canadian government website (which also has links in a bibliography) points out (in a section called "Sustainable Development and MEOR"), the use of microbial bacteria may reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals during drilling:
As MEOR reduces or eliminates the need to use harsh chemicals during oil drilling, it is an environmentally compatible method of carrying out tertiary oil recovery. MEOR will become increasingly economically feasible as genetic engineering develops more effective microbial bacteria that may subsist on inexpensive and abundant nutrients.
OK, so far it doesn't sound so bad, aside from my original objection. And in fact it was difficult to find websites listing other environmental drawbacks, but I found these lecture notes which list the following problems:
A. Subsurface water
  • 1. migration of organisms or metabolites into groundwater
B. Wastewater
  • 1. spent fluids due to additional drilling
  • 2. equipment washing
  • 3. brinewater, media, chemicals for pH adjustment
C. Atmospheric Emissions (e.g. H2S)

D. Solid Wastes
  • 1. bacteria in filter solids
So j, what more can you tell us about MEOR?

Technorati Tags: ,

Here's the CERA link you'll want to look at. The Yergin line. Pollyana. It's All Good.

good backgrounder on hydrogen from Penn State. The devil is in the details!

Gmack--Thanks. Actually, if I can get my act together, I'm thinking of doing something on hydrogen tomorrow.

Who has read the CERA report? it is hard to draw conclusions about the validity of their analysis from only news release from CERA. All these new projects comong online look good on paper, but only the first appraisal wells will confirm this.

Business Week is a pretty moderate publication. They were, rightly, brutal on the energy bill saying (June 27, 2005) "Lobbyists are Gushing" and "Even Congress may not be able to swallow all the pork".

However, I was not impressed with this week's oil article. It seem superficial, was based heavily on the CERA report and didn't try very hard to get at the facts. The piece linked below, also by Business Week gives a broader perspective as it interviews several experts.


Off topic, but why is the daily price chart showing CLNU, when next month (August) is CLNQ?

I about spit my cornflakes when I saw the ticker over 60.50.

oops...am I not supposed to change months forward at the beginning of the month? I figured on 1 JUL, I moved to the next set...? please advise, I'm happy to turn it back.

In the BW article that Jack links to, the whole picture is summed up by the responses to the question "At what price do you see West Texas Intermediate crude oil by the end of 2005?"

Answer? We have no freaking idea, but since you asked us nicely, we'll pull some something out of our asses for you. The only responsible interviewee is John Kingston, who answers: "Nope...we at Platts don't do that."

From: http://nymex.com/jsp/markets/CL_spec.jsp

Trading terminates at the close of business on the third business day prior to the 25th calendar day of the month preceding the delivery month. If the 25th calendar day of the month is a non-business day, trading shall cease on the third business day prior to the business day preceding the 25th calendar day.

how interesting...I will change it back. Sorry about the corn flakes everyone...

If you do hydrogen, some nice pictures here of an old Austin A-40 converted to run on a hydrogen fuel cell in 1970:


Interesting that it had a range (with all those bottles) of 180 miles ... as opposed to the new Honda FCX (just "delivered") which gets 190 miles. Heck of a lotta progress in 35 years.

Anyway, one hydrogen timeline is here:


(i consider myself an open-minded skeptic)

I wonder if we can do some ideal (that is, assuming no supply/demand disruptions from economic slowdowns, geopolitical turbulence, etc.) simple calculation like the following:

current supply/demand = 84 mbd now (tight, maybe .5mbd slack)
demand growth = 2%/year
depletion from existing fields = 5%/year
production coming on-line = ???%/year (plug in your numbers here -- CERA or Simmons, The Oil Depletion Analysis Centre etc.)

So, what does this look like?

Microbes are still some distance away from widespread use. Acutally getting them where they need to be, and ensuring their proper feeding and progression turns out to be a lot more complicated in the ground than it is in the laboratory, or at the surface.

HO--Is there a sense that they're dangerous in any way? Or just not quite feasible yet?

j was having trouble posting to TOD, but he sent me this email which I thought we might all benefit from:

I worked with a company that tried the MEOR stuff about 5 years ago. It isn't really new, and the main thing it has proven useful is for changing paraffin into something that you can clean out more easily. Problem seems to be that while the bugs will break down heavy SG oils, that still doesn't make it flow to the well. So we tried fraccing (pron. Fracking - artificially fracturing the rock
formation with extreme high pressure sand/fluid mixture) to try and improve the flow to the wells. We got a 15% increase for a few months, and then back to business as usual.

Don't get me wrong - there were a lot of us really interested, as we could buy up old fields and make a ton of money. But the bugs are not capable of creating improved permeability (interconnectedness) in the rocks, so even if the oil is lighter SG, the reservoir factors must be amenable for this to work. And the bugs only seem to be able to survive where there is water as well - only along the oil/water barrier... I suppose they could have made some new bugs that are better, but they would still need the water for reactions, and be limited to that area to thrive.

Just a note from the guys who actually do this stuff...

Here's a page of links and information on microbial enhanced oil recovery from SearchTuna.

J's experience sounds similar to the more recent test results that I am familiar with. I am not sure of the bugs they used, but knowing the folks that actually ran the tests am sure that it was not dangerous. It just did not give the benefits that were hoped in the time that was expected.