Tech Talk - The Latest Canadian Oil Spill

This post is seeded by a note from Luis de Sousa (h/t Luis) who noted a story in Mother Jones. That story, in turn, fed from one in the Toronto Star and is about surface contamination of oil, coming from the underlying tar sands and emerging as a watery bitumen mixture over at least four areas in the Cold Lake region of Alberta. The story is difficult to report, since the contamination is centered within the Cold Lake Air Missile Range, where the Canadian military fires and tests live weapons. Unfortunately, as written, it seems to have some technical inconsistencies.

The oil migration was apparently started by underground extraction wells that are being used to extract the oil from the oil sand, without having to dig it up first. There are two main ways of injecting steam through wells down into the oil sands that can produce the oil. The one that is most commonly discussed is the Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) process, but the more commonly one used in the past is often known as “Huff and Puff.” I have described both of these in some detail in an earlier post. In this case the process would appear to be the older one, and as a refresher, here is what I wrote about it a couple of years ago.

Surface mining of oil sand can only progress so far before the gradually deepening seams of the sand become too deep to continue to economically mine them. At the same time the viscosity of the oil is such that it does not flow easily to a conventional type of a well. This is not a new problem for the oil industry, which has had to address issues with the quality of the oil that it finds coming out of a well more than once over the past decades. One of the more easily applicable methods for improving the flow characteristics of the oil is through heating it. (And a quick caveat, the quantities of heat that I am talking about at the moment are significantly different from those that are needed in treating oil shale, and I will come to that topic in a couple or three weeks).

The example of the effect that temperature makes on the ease with which a fluid flows that always first comes to my mind is of a visit to the Nurse’s cabin north of Montreal one winter, a long time ago, when after struggling through waist-high snow, we sat and poured whisky from a bottle left there, as we waited for the wood stove to heat the cabin. When we started the Scotch poured as though it was a heavy syrup.

Viscocity of an oil is something that we usually only think about when we buy the engine oil that we put into the car on odd occasion. Buying the right oil means either looking for the little label that has the right description or reading the manual to get the number. But the oil that we buy for the engine is rated in part on how it behaves at different temperatures. We want the oil in the engine to easily circulate around the parts, and lubricate them from the time that we switch the engine on. But if the engine starts cold, and the oil is too thick, then it may not move easily around the parts, which may run dry for a while and wear more rapidly – which is not good. However if the oil becomes too thin once the engine reaches operating temperature then it doesn’t act as a good lubricant, and again engine wear is increased. And so manufacturers of the oil will adjust the contents, depending where in the country they plan on selling the oil, and what the temperature variations the oil can expect to operate under there. (And this is why oil is sometimes bought with two numbers – as in 10W-30 – the first number relates to the cold start, and the latter the performance at the engine operating temperature. And the higher the number the more viscose the oil is under those conditions.)

A typical oil found up in the oil sands of Alberta is much thicker, and more difficult to flow under normal operating conditions than that used in a car. For the areas of the province that are too deep for surface mining the temperature is not affected much by the changes in surface temperature, but the ground temperature is still low enough that the oil is very viscose, and production from a normal vertical well is usually too slow to justify the expense of putting in a well.

So how can the viscocity be reduced? For a simple example, take an apple, which has fallen in the butter, and you want to clean it off. If you take the apple and put it under a cold stream of water the butter sticks to the apple, but if you raise the water temperature, suddenly the butter melts and runs off the apple. This happens best at about 185 degF, and if you were to turn a pressure washer onto a greasy surface you would find that it works better if the water is also heated above that temperature. (Some pressure washers are sold that way).

Think now, if you will, of little Johnnie (helped of course by Jessica) having raided the orchard and spread butter onto all the apples, gluing them together and filling the kitchen full, right to the ceiling. How do we clean the butter off and get it back without taking all the apples out and cleaning them one by one (which is sort of what they do with the surface mined oil sand up in Canada).

We could just stand in the hall and stick heaters up against the wall of apples, hoping that the heat would melt the butter and work its way back to the ones further into the kitchen. That sort of works, but burns the local apples and doesn't reach all that far. (They have tried setting fires inside oil wells, and we’ll get to that maybe next week). You could fill the kitchen with hot water, but while that washes out some of the butter, a lot of the heat goes into the apples and the water is cold before it reaches the back of the room. And the water doesn't have that much pressure to push the remaining butter off the apples.

What we need is something that will get through the gaps between the apples and keep its heat. So how about steam? So you go and get a steam cleaner (such as you use for carpet cleaning) and blow the steam into the apples. That works but as the butter starts to flow out it clogs the gaps and starts to re-harden except when the steam is right there. So you start to run the steam for a bit, stop and collect the butter that comes out, run the steam for a bit, etc. You can do this in an oil well and it has the exciting technical name of "Huff and Puff" (would I kid you?). To make the steam more effective it is heated to between 150 and 300 deg C. Where the rock is very permeable and the steam can, in time, work its way back through the particles (apples) this can recover a lot of our butter. But you still lose a lot of heat, which is expensive to generate, just in heating the apples.

The NETL shows how the process works, in three steps:



Puff - The 3 stages of the process as illustrated by NETL.

The problem is that this is still limited by the length of the borehole through the deposit, and because it is an intermittent process, it doesn’t give a continuous flow of oil.

In the current case at the Primrose Oil Sands project this particular leak came up under a body of water making it more difficult to control, but it was the fourth at the Primrose site, though earlier ones were in the Primrose East development. In their public statement on the issue Canadian Natural stated:

This spring bitumen emulsion was discovered on the surface and based on all the evidence gathered to date, we believe this rise to surface involves mechanical failures of wellbores in the vicinity of the impacted areas. A complete review is ongoing.

The location of the latest leak under a body of water seems a little hard to support that conclusion – though I am not that familiar with the project history.

What I do remember, however, from lectures that I have given on ground freezing when teaching ground control, was the great difficulty one can have in controlling the path of any fluid injected into the ground. I mentioned some of that in a post I wrote on permeability, some time ago. The gas used in the ground freezing is usually liquid nitrogen, and it is injected to freeze the ground around the injection point and along the path that the fluid takes. (In other words the reverse of that used in steam heating of the oil). But it has proved to be a very difficult process to control, because any small fissure in the ground can have a sufficiently lower permeability that the surrounding rock that all the fluid will flow to that channel. This is particularly a problem in the case of the oil sand, because if the steam finds an easy path to the surface (and the fact that this is the fourth instance suggests that the particular oil formation may be prone to such fissures) then as the steam migrates it heats and softens the bitumen so that it will flow with the steam, widening the channel and over time, making the situation worse if steam continues to be injected.

Fortunately, with the “Huff and Puff&#8221, steam is only injected for a short while before injection stops and the oil recovery phase begins. Yet in the latest case, that was sufficient to bring over 4,000 bbl of bitumen to the surface. It seems likely that the process will need to be modified to give better control to the steam paths and the oil migration. This can probably be achieved by switching to the SAGD process, which is planned in later work at the project. In the interim they might want to steer away from using the technique in regions where the oil grade is higher and there is the potential for the sand to outcrop or come close to the surface without a confining cap rock.

Note that another tar sands in situ oil extraction technique has apparently not worked out so well, at least based on the stock price of Petrobank, which developed the THAI (Toe Heel Air Injection) technique, an in situ combustion approach. Petrobank's stock price was up to about $2.80 (Canadian) in 2007, and down currently to about $0.55.

2007 Oil Drum article on Petrobank and THAI, co-written by Gail and an investor in Petrobank:

2013 Globe and Mail article:

Thanks for sharing that, reminding me of that past post.

When dwelling in the 'eternal present', wisdom is less present and less robust. Some perspective through time really helps. In retrospect some very prescient, knowledgeable, and wise people posted, were posting.

The phrase 'cautionary tale' is stuck in my mind. Lots of lessons here - that, and previously inert oil now leaking into the environment.

I was one of the people raining on PetroBank's parade at the time they made their first announcements. I was involved in a similar air injection fire-flood project in the oil sands some 30-odd years ago working for Amoco Petroleum, a.k.a. Standard Oil of Indiana, now part of BP. We spent about $50 million and achieved about the same results - i.e. the process didn't really work as well in practice as in theory. It kind of soured me on the whole fire-flood concept, so I wasn't holding out much hope for PetroBank.

OTOH, Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) works really well. Better than you would expect, considering.

There seems to be some confusion about stock prices for Petrobank, I suppose because of spinoffs and reorganizations.

Yahoo shows Petrobank's stock price rising from less than $3 to a peak of about $58 in December, 2007 (following the August, 2007 Oil Drum article), and then falling to $0.55 in 2013, which would be a loss of 99% since December, 2007.

Petrobank indulges in all sorts of financial engineering so just looking at the share price will give you a misleading impression of its capitalisation. You'd need to check through all the spinoffs, share issues, buyouts, takeovers that they have done over that time to check whether an investor is actually up or down.

That said, they have definitely failed to make the sort of money out of THAI that they were hoping to (or any money at all) and cut back drastically on the funding committed to developing it. They have burnt a fair amount of money, but they didn't actually bet the company on it.

I reckon the big problem in their pilot implementation (I worked on THAI in the lab before Petrobank bought the patent, and I have a pretty good idea of how it works in the lab) is that they ran it at too low a rate. THAI has a thermal wave moving through the reservoir, and that wave has a speed it want to travel that depends on the reservoir properties (thermal conductivity and heat capacity). You run THAI at that rate, or you get something that isn't THAI going on in the reservoir. They shifted to running it much slower than that rate because of sand production, and they never solved the sand issue except at a lower injection rate. Consequently they've never had the process in sync with the thermal wave and its never worked properly. I have yet to see a sign that they have worked out how to get the injection rates they need, and until they do, THAI isn't going anywhere.

Thanks for this educational piece. I suspect they will come up with new systems to extract the oil over time. Although surface mining becomes impractical as the seams go deeper, why not traditional shaft mining? Run a shaft down and then go horizontally and bring up tar sands through the shaft to the surface for processing. I guess the low energy density of the tar sands makes this impractical right now but perhaps as oil prices rise, that technique will eventually become cost effective.

They actually tried shaft mining in the oil sands on an experimental basis, and that's where the Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) method originated.

First they tried sinking a shaft and mining out horizontally from it. That was expensive. Then they tried drilling bitumen wells horizontally from the shaft. That didn't produce much oil. Then they tried drilling steam injection and bitumen production wells in parallel out horizontally from the shaft. That method worked quite well in producing oil (hot bitumen), but was expensive.

That coincided with improvements in direction drilling, especially horizontal wells, so the oil companies said, "Hey guys, why don't we just drill parallel horizontal pairs of injection and production wells off gravel pads direct from the surface, and save ourselves a lot of money."

And that's the SAGD method. The rest is just details.

The problem at Cold Lake appears to be failure of bad cement jobs on some old Plugged and Abandoned wells on the lease. The problem is not the new steam injection wells, it is the abandoned old producing wells which are blowing out because the plugs aren't seated well enough. The new steam injection wells are putting too much pressure on the old, crappy plugs and casings.

CNRL blames well bore failure for spill

Steve Laut admits Canadian Natural Resources made a mistake.

Admit? Heck, Laut came out Wednesday and offered up a corporate mea culpa - our bad, we messed up. It was a poor cement job, not a flaw in the process or the reservoir.

The president of CNRL could hardly have been more adamant that the cause of a spill of 6,300 barrels of bitumen emulsion at its Primrose oilsands operations was entirely caused by human error and more than likely due to problems with faulty cement jobs in well bores.

It was the first spoken public comment by anyone at CNRL since it reported that oily water was seeping from its in situ oilsands project to the provincial regulator June 24. The conference call with industry analysts and its media availability followed days of speculation over potential broader impacts after four spills at the site in May and June.

Until now, CNRL had only indicated it was a "mechanical" issue.

The concern is that the high-pressure cyclic steam stimulation process used to produce bitumen at Primrose had somehow penetrated the cap rock above the reservoir, created underground pathways and forced the watery mixture to surface. The two-stage "huff and puff" procedure is used in about one-third of in situ oilsands production.

Laut was confident the leaks occurred in vertical sections of the wells that were drilled in 1997 by the company that had previously held the oil lease on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range in northeastern Alberta.

"You do need a well bore failure to get this to surface," he said. "There is physically no other way it can happen."

It's interesting that the environmentalists are criticizing the effects on local wildlife of an oil spill on a major air weapons range. Have they thought about the possibility that the combined Canadian/British/American Air Forces might take out Bambi's Mother with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone? Oil companies have to get clearance from Range Safety to go there, but who tells the cute litte deer and fuzzy wuzzy bears that an air strike is coming?

From Wikipedia
Cold Lake Air Weapons Range

CLAWR is the northern equivalent to the United States Air Force's Nellis Air Force Range and provides a different training environment with heavy boreal forest and numerous lakes more closely resembling European terrain. It hosts over 640 actual targets and 100 realistic target complexes, including 7 simulated aerodromes with runways, tarmac, aircraft, dispersal areas and buildings, as well as mechanized military equipment such as tanks, simulated radar and missile launching sites, mock industrial sites, and command and control centres.

The heavily forested terrain of this facility resembles European topography. With its unrestricted airspace, and equipped with state-of-the-art targets, Cold Lake Air Weapons Range is considered to be one of the finest combined air operations training ranges in the world. It contains an instrumented aerospace testing and evaluation range, a manned air-to-ground range (including a high explosive range), and an air-to-air gunnery range.

The relatively unrestricted Cold Lake Air Weapons Range represents one of the largest live-drop training ranges in the world and is the largest low-level flying area in North America. It continues to provide the air force with an unparalleled training environment.

Of course, there is oil on the range, too, and given the amount, they do drill for it regardless of air strikes. The Canadian government has to pay for all that expensive equipment somehow.

And, speaking of Range Safety, their web site is www dot rangesafety dot ca.

Your safety is our priority

The Air Force conducts live fire training exercises on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR). Access to and movement within CLAWR is strictly controlled to ensure your safety. The information found on this site must be reviewed prior to entering CLAWR, before planning or conducting work projects, and during daily safety meetings. The Operational Notices are subject to frequent change and all personnel are accountable to have the most up-to-date information.

CLAWR General Access Briefing

Only authorized company personnel and contractors who have completed the CLAWR General Access Briefing and been issued an access card will be permitted entry to CLAWR. The training can be completed online or in person at the CLAWR Orientation Centre where the access cards are issued.

Off-Road Training Module

If you intend to travel off any high grade, all season road surface on the CLAWR, as detailed in the CLAWR General Access Briefing, you must also complete the Off-Road Training Module in person at the CLAWR Orientation Centre.

It would be difficult for the media to penetrate this security. I'm thinking of passing the online safety training courses in particular.

Actually, the DMZ in Korea is becoming a wildlife sanctuary, landmines and all.

Actually, animals do quite well on military exercise reserves. Their advantage is the lack of civilian hunters to shoot them and automobile drivers to turn them into road kill. They can dodge the military fire as long as the military tries not to shoot directly at them.

I remember driving by the Suffield Military Reserve in southern Alberta (which also has oil and gas drilling), where the British Army was conducting 360° live fire exercises with armored vehicles (at that time the British Army had more tanks in Canada than Canada did). On the other side of the fence were literally hundreds of pronghorn antelope, peacefully munching away on the deep grass. They had no cattle to compete with, and apparently knew that the military was not going to allow any shooting that close to the fence. Also, poachers were not going to cross the fence to get at them.

A few poachers did cross the fence, but the British soldiers put on their night-vision goggles and conducted simulate counter-terrorism exercises on them, and that thoroughly discouraged them and any other poachers from venturing in.

rangesafety dot ca has safety info for the Suffield Military Reserve, and also google Canadian Forces Base Suffield National Wildlife Area.

Oil companies have to get clearance from Range Safety to go there, but who tells the cute litte deer and fuzzy wuzzy bears that an air strike is coming?

LOL! Hey RMG, good to see posting here in the final days of TOD. While I may have some differences of opinion with you. I still love your style and your sense of humor! With you, Westexas and Darwinian all posting these days it's almost like old times. Who knows maybe someone could convince Rockman to make a guest appearance as well...
That would be a nice grand finale to the TOD site.

A hearty second to that sentiment.

While not always agreeing, always appreciated.

Maybe as the end draws nigh, us various posters can let others know where they can be found. As this site will still be able to be accessed, we can look and see where all our various friends will be posting.

Rockman is at Energy Bulletin, Darwinian is starting a blog, RMG?

I'll be out surfing! The local newspaper I grew up with has some hilarious posters, commenting on the news, but nothing very serious, or sustained.

Wunderground is great for hurricanes, but otherwise operates at about a 4th grade level. Lots of name calling and silly feigned insult and bravado. Poorly moderated. Jeff Masters is great though.

Not sure yet where to go for great global energy discussion...

I'm not going to be starting a blog. We spent last month touring castles and visiting relatives in England and France. In a couple of months we'll be off to Baja Mexico to do a few weeks of sea kayaking. In between I'll be working on the house and yard (a yard with free-range grizzly bears). That is more in my interest spectrum these days.

It's too bad the message-to-noise ratio on The Oil Drum deteriorated so badly. The minority of people who knew something useful about oil and gas were swamped by the people who know nothing about anything but are highly opinionated about everything. I guess that's life.

Hey RMG, nice to see a long letter from you - good insight into this area.


a manned air-to-ground range

is it just me or does this sound like a candidate for those "world's worst jobs" shows?


Yair . . . RMG I've missed you mate . . . good to see your name again.


a manned air-to-ground range

is it just me or does this sound like a candidate for those "world's worst jobs" shows

Not really. One of the companies I worked for bid to drill on the CLAWR (but we didn't win any leases). It is more tense than the normal oil drilling, but not a LOT more tense. Things can always go wrong, and some of them can be fatal. You just have to pay attention to the air attack calender and not be there when the attack is on. Also you have to put the wellheads 8 feet underground with a thick steel plate over them.

Drilling for oil always has tense moments, just not usually ones involving supersonic fighter jets.


Your disdain and contempt for those advocating environmental concerns is tiresome.

Maybe you missed out on Another Mother for Peace's slogan from back in the day, "War is not healthy for children and other living things."

In all probability the "environmentalists" and First Nation activists protest the very existence of the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.

Your expertise on things oil industry related is appreciated. Your opinions about those who do not share your world view, not so much.

Glad to see you posting during The Long Goodbye.


Maybe you missed out on Another Mother for Peace's slogan from back in the day, "War is not healthy for children and other living things."

The thing I don't like about slogans is that people repeat them without thinking. It prevents them from looking at the reality behind the issues. The problem with ignoring the reality and focusing on the illusion represented by the slogan is that it can be disastrous. The reality that you ignore can kill you. The illusion that you prefer can't save you.

An example is a slogan like, "War is not healthy for children and other living things."

If you look at a map of the world with the countries in which travel is most dangerous highlighted in red, the countries with the highest birth rates are the countries which are the reddest. The conclusion that you can draw from that is that, "Too many children lead to war". It's not an accident. They are indirectly correlated.

Of course, that reality is the absolute antithesis of the slogan, "War is not healthy for children and other living things." But it is the truth, so I would say that the slogan should be, "Too many children lead to war and are not healthy for other living things."

So don't save the children, just have fewer of them, save as many as you feel like, and the world will become a better place. If you have too many children, and save too many of them, the world is screwed.



It's interesting that the environmentalists are criticizing the effects on local wildlife of an oil spill on a major air weapons range.


Have they thought about the possibility that the combined Canadian/British/American Air Forces might take out Bambi's Mother with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone?

Interesting that the initial noise in the thread came from you.

The thing I don't like about slogans is that people repeat them without thinking. It prevents them from looking at the reality behind the issues. The problem with ignoring the reality and focusing on the illusion represented by the slogan is that it can be disastrous. The reality that you ignore can kill you. The illusion that you prefer can't save you.

I was thinking when I posted the slogan. I was making a direct response to your "noise." Since you brought up Bambi's mother, the reference was to "other living things." Giving voice to the voiceless.

I was looking at the reality behind the "Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone" and saw transnational military-industrial BAU. I was looking at the oil spill and the reality behind it was transnational corporatist BAU. You're right, if you don't see the reality behind, it's disastrous.

You missed the point and went off on a tangent. What can kill you is a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone (no lack of hubris in the people that name these things). I was not looking for salvation. In this particular discussion I harbor no illusions.


I reacted to the slogan, "War is not healthy for children and other living things", which is particularly vacuous. Back in the day, it was one that really irritated me, because excess children ARE a cause of war. Most wars are over control of resources, and are started by countries which are overpopulated. WWII was a prime example. Most people miss the connection.

The "take out Bambi's Mother with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone" comment was a joke, man. Can't you take a joke?

It's more of an in-joke because they probably are firing Hellfire missiles from Predator drones on CLAWR - it is one of the US's prime cruise missile testing grounds. However, Bambi's mother is probably safe because modern drones are smart enough to detect the difference between a deer and an Al Qaeda terrorist (joke again).

"transnational military-industrial BAU" is way too stereotypical a slogan for me. I've never been good at being Politically Correct and repeating the Party Line. I was the type of kid who dug up a dinosaur bone, brought it to Sunday School in a bible-belt community, and asked the teachers to explain how it got there. And I was serious - I wanted answers not dogma, but I got told to shut up and not ask questions like that. The experience affected me permanently, and I've been questioning people's dogma ever since.