It's greaves time again

I have been musing, over the weekend, a little more about the problem about what you consider a reserve. And, just being mischievous, I got to thinking a little about the Canadian Oil Sands. At the present time a very significant part of the production of the deposit comes from the surface mining of the sand. As I noted in an earlier post , the relatively simple way of getting the bitumen from the sand, merely requires breaking the material into individual grains as it is carried, in a hot water pipeline, to the initial refinery. The first stop along the way is a rather large tank, where the clean sand sinks to the bottom, while the bitumen is taken from the top to be treated.

Now the point is this, that process is relatively simple and does not cost huge amounts of energy (and the water is recycled). Virtually all the oil in the deposit is recovered, and the sand is dropped into ponds where, after the water is drained away, it can be covered with the original top cover, and restored to its original condition. Except only that the bitumen is gone, and it won't get your feet dirty if you walk in the streams.

Grin, well now that I have several folks blood a little warmer, let me get to my point.

The alternate current method of extraction, for deeper deposits of the sand is the Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage method (SAGD). This involves drilling horizontal holes down into the sand, and then feeding steam into the upper hole, so that the bitumen will be softened and will flow down into the lower, drainage hole. The recovery of oil using this process is stated to be about 60%. It is a bit more energy intensive, and also uses more water, though again a lot of this is recycled.

But here is my question. Mining has, for many minerals, transitioned from a surface operation, to an underground one, and there are technologies which allow almost 100% recovery of the valuable mineral from the deposits. This can be more effectively achieved if the majority of the material being mined is then pumped back underground to provide ground support for the material which has yet to be removed.

Now when one comes up with this idea is this sufficient to transform the reserve calculations for the oil to be recovered in Alberta and increase it by about 2/3rds? The example is perhaps a little overdrawn for the immediate future (though quite possible perhaps in a decade or so) but I raise the question because of what might be called the timely adjustment of reserve calculations.

We have heard a lot in the past week or so about reserve calculations, and I think Dave has quite effectively covered the ground in regard to the issues that CERA brought forth in their recent publication. But the whole issue of reserve calculations is filled with "what if" calculations of this type. Can we really get all that oil out of the oil shale? How much can we really extract from oil reservoirs of differing geology and geography? And more critically when can you really anticipate that the impact of new technology will change the amount of oil that can be recovered from a field?

Bear in mind that in almost all cases more than half the oil in a layer of rock gets left behind after the wells are closed down. If oil gets that valuable will we be going back and mining it in the same way that we do coal? (Short term answer, for technical reasons is likely no, though in the longer term . . . . . . .)

Now it would be nice if there was much evidence that there were lots of new technologies being developed to look into issues such as remote mining of oil layers, or other methods of a more conventional approach that would get us that additional recovery from the rock. Unfortunately, as Matt Simmons noted the other day, we just don't have the academic resource, the personnel, nor apparently the interest to look into these in sufficient detail. And the funding, despite the publicity, is not really all that evident for seeking to find these solutions.

Pity, really! But that aside, it is clear that some of the thinking on reserve amounts is beginning to consider that these technologies are going to be available. It takes on average about 20 years for any one of them to get to the point that it is widely adopted, even if the lab experiments look absolutely fabulous. Thus it might be constructive, when dreams are sold, suggesting that the oil wealth of the world still lies before us, if more specific details as to how it might be produced at the necessary rates and in the critical amounts of time wherein it will be needed, were provided. For example, in my mining example above, is just pronouncing the idea an adequate basis, or should lab experiments be done before we count it, or a first field trial, or a first full scale trial, or the first actual underground operation?

As I noted before, in commenting about changing reserve calculations, just increasing recovery rates without a justification as to why one makes the change, does not carry with it a vast amount of credibility.

how it might be produced at the necessary rates and in the critical amounts of time wherein it will be needed

That's the crux of the matter.  If the peak in extraction rate is as imminent as many think, is a possible future increase in rate of much relevance?  Surely once human society has had to cope with insufficient oil supply there will be structural changes, and the need for those changes will enter the public consciousness.  Surely.

("...and stop calling me Shirley!")

Interesting ideas, nevertheless.

I find it hard to understand how the people running the tar sands operation believ that we can continue on the model of an "Extraction Economy" at all.  By Extraction Economy I mean specifically a drill/mine and burn economy.

This focus on drilling and mining make no sense in real terms -- environmental economics.  Even more to the point, if I grant the untenable premise that we can dig, drill, and burn our way through the resource crisis and global warming crisis, it seems obvious that we cannot dig and drill and burn enough to support 90% of the people already on the planet.  We might extract enough energy to support a minority of the people currently alive, but I don't see how we could do any better.

So this leaves us with the ongoing Mother Of All Resource Wars in addition to resource shortages and the impacts of climate change.

Why not marshall our economic resources to develop and implement a sustainable economic model?  I find David Holmgren's "Energy Descent Scenarios..." comments to be helpful.  they are linked to at EnergyBulletin.  

An organised powerdown to transform our economy into a sustainable one will require a huge investment, so why are all these people focused on drilling and digging and burning?

Interesting conjecture. Propose on one hand that people will fight wars to avoid a power down, and on the other that an organized power down will prevent this. I think there's a logical problem here.

I know I'd rather fight than live in a cave with sticks and stones. To say nothing of the fact that such a lifestyle would require the death of about 99% of the current worldwide population. People wouldn't fight to prevent that? Keep dreaming.

I wouldn't fight, but that's because I'm pretty sure that their are acceptable alternatives to the extraction economy. Farm from living "in a cave with sticks and stones", a low-energy lifestyle can be quite comfortable and just as fulfilling as what the western world calls normal. I say this because I've been meeting/living with people that live low-energy lifestyles and adjusting my own based on my experiences. Honestly, it really isn't as bad as living "in a cave with sticks and stones".

Besides, fighting won't make the resources being fought for any more plentiful. Perhaps those left standing after such a fight would be in a better situation than if everyone just chose to power down in the first place, but that's definitely debatable, the odds of being left standing after such a conflict probably aren't all that favourable, and even after the conflict, they're still going to have to power down. So what's the point of fighting?

I guess here's the question.

  1. Why a power down at all? We have enough Uranium, we have enough sun, wind, whatever. What's the problem. I know you want a powerdown so badly, but just come out and say it, don't try to cloak it in some sort of shroud of inevetability.

  2. How low energy is this lifestyle you're talking of? How about we add up 6 billion people living this low energy lifestyle  and see where that gets us. Is this feasible? Surely this would take some source of fuel, where will it come from? Even a low energy future, unless you want to force 90% off the population into poverty, is going to be using more energy than we are using today.

Basically, either there are other sources out there (nuclear, or whatever) in which case we have all the energy we need, or there are not, in which case we're screwed.

I find it hard to believe that there is enough energy for everyone (6 billion people!) to live at 1/5 (or whatever) of our current US energy use, but no more, no less. Seems like an aweful slender needle to thread. Any explanation for this wonderous happenstance?

Once a straw is drilled into an oil field the gas and water drive propels that petroleum for many years.

In contrast tar sands, oil shale, Orinoco bitumen etc. require heavy machinery, steam, hydrogen etc. etc. for every barrel ever produced and forever. There is no comparison, and completely different eroei and especially 'net energy' loses make these apples and oranges. An industrial infrastructure dependent on liquid petroleum will not operate on this gunk. It is a different economy.

I strongly agree with pstarr on the issue of EROEI - once you get below, say, 1:10, you have to discount the resource base by the energy loss incurred by the extraction process.

Also, all these thoughts completely ignore that we just can't afford to use all this oil due to its desastrous effects on global warming.

In my view, the argument of supposed prolonged transition time we could buy ourselves with more FF reserves is fundamentally flawed: as long as there is no scarcety pressure, nothing fundamental will change at all.

The only consequence of peak oil and global warming can be to think real hard about how to peacefully transform our societies to be fully sustainable and then implement the best ideas we came up with as quickly as possible. It seems to be an almost impossible task given the huge inertia, but if we don't make it, we'll break it. Either we will cange the climate disastrously or we will have a superdeep economic depression and energy crisis - both will leave a significant number of people in poverty, or starve or die in wars.


I have yet to see a life-cycle analysis of tar-sand energy returns as per Pimentel & Patzek's biofuel study (Natural Resources Research, Vol. 14, No. 1, March 2005)

Whether one discounts P&P's specific results their methods should instruct us on the futility of many (all?) highly unconventional liquid alternatives. Of course, if we consider such projects merely to be CTL schemes then the debate must simply return to the global warming area.

It will become abundantly clear the current oil-sand infrastructure (the monster trucks, the heavy equipment, the transport system etc.) is merely the final manifestation of our cheap liquid-petroleum energy binge. As equipment repairs replacements march in lock-step with increasing petroleum costs, the futility of these schemes becomes apparent.

This is what Deffeyes had to say about poor quality energy

When oil was $3 per barrel, many people said that if oil ever reached $8 per barrel, Green River oil shale would have its revenge on Spindletop and shut down the oil industry.

The same could said today about myriad other unconventional schemes. Petroleum will never be expensive enough for this stuff to make sense. The world would have to be a different place
Your simple way of getting bitumen to a refinery will not work. There is sand, of course, but there is also very fine clay which will not settle and is oil wet. That is why Suncor uses centrifuges to get the fine stuff out of the diluted bitumen. If the bitumen contains too much silt the coke formed from the delayed coker will be too hard to grind and to use as fuel to make steam to heat the incoming tar sands.
Ernest McCray
Cartagena, Spain
Um! It is working. See the commercial development section of this site


I could be convinced that mining of oil is a feasible prospect for deposits like Alberta's tar sands, I'd even accept the recalculation of Alberta's recoverable reserves on the basis of this potential. What I likely won't be is convinced that these or any reserves will have ANY effect on overall flowrates. Alberta's oil is nonflowing and slow going as far as a fuel supply goes. The mobilisation required for a 100,000 barrel a day increase in production is gargantuan. Every announcement of a miniscule investment puts the local economy into a new speculative frenzy.

As always, I second the concerns about EROEI for tar sands, particularly in view of the fact that our highest quality fossil energy source - natural gas - is being burned to heat the bitumen.

Can anyone confirm whether the natural gas used in the oilsands is otherwise feasibly deliverable to markets? Alberta is striped with pipelines - it seems strange that the economics of in-situ heat production for a low quality syncrude (heavily discounted) are more favourable than selling the methane on the open market. Is this in fact the case?

Mining has, for many minerals, transitioned from a surface operation, to an underground one

I'm not sure about this, European coal mining transitioned from uderground in Europe to above ground in S Africa and Australia.  U mining, high grade deposits in Canada are mined underground, but else where it is low grade open cast that is the order of the day.

Can you name some minerals that have transitioned from surface to below ground on a global, as opposed to local, scale?

Also, a popular theme of mine at present is natural reservoir energy / potential.  In Tar Sands this is zero.

I happen to like SAGD as a process, partly because it seems to be environmentally more sustainable, but also because it does a first stage refining in the ground - the least volatile bitumens get left behind.

I'm thinking of working up a post on the Claire Field, West of Shetland.  Europes biggest oil field - I kid you not.  So why was it Brent Blend and not Claire Blend that hit the markets.

Shorting Claire would have had a certian ring to it.


Reading from the link I see that the first stage of development is of an area with initial oil in place of 1.75 billion barrels of which they believe they can recover 250 million barrels. That is 14% recovery with all the technology that peak oil sceptics tell us is going to up the recovery factor.

It is probably safe to assume that this is the best part of the field and the rest of the 2.7 billion barrels will either have poorer yield of be more expensive to extract.

It is perhaps not surprising that it has not previously been developed despite being discovered 29 years ago.

Nick - that's the whole point, Clair has heavyish oil and poor reservoir quality.  Mid way between oil sand and Brent.
I think you are reading a lot more generality into my comment than I had intended.  I was thinking of such operations as Bingham Canyon where they are moving from an open pit mining of the copper ore into the underground, and, in a number of cases, diamond mining as, once they extract the surface accessible resource, they start to work down the pipe.

Further, if you go up on the hills West of Alnwick you will come to Eglingham, where my ancestors worked from the coal outcrops into shallow underground coal mining (You have to look hard to find the evidence of mining, and the remains of the houses).

I was trying to use the concept as the basis for discussion of how one can reclassify the volumes of oil available from a reservoir (along the lines of the changes that folk such as IHS and CERA are currently making).

My point in regard to SAGD is that it requires more energy (you have to heat the water to steam instead of of just getting it hot) and that it only recovers up to 60% of the oil - thus by "inventing" underground mining of the sand one could claim that one had increased the reserve available.




My understanding is that Encana grabbed most of the best acreage amenable to SAGD, leaving the surface stuff for others.  I also think they have a solid plan for up scaling their operations, and they own rights to a lot of gas.

So my guess would be that in upsacling terms, SAGD may have a brighter future - but I've not been able to follow this debate in sufficient detail.  WRT energy inputs and steam, a lot of the energy added below ground in the form of steam stays there and will continue to do work for the recovery process for many years to come.

So, has there been any good net energy studies done comparing SAGD with mining? This, encompassing life cycle of resource extraction, would be pretty central to the Athabasa tar sand debate.

In Venezuela, Statoil were working with PDVSA on a diesel reflux system for heavy oil recovery.  Has anyone ever posetd on that?  I still know folks at Statoil - one of whom may be able to provide enlightenment.


I believe we might improve the level of debate if we were to distinguish between Reserves and Flows.

Reserves are an uncertain quantity. The primary reason for calculating the reserves in a field is to assist with a set of investment decisions in regard to that field. If the estimated  ("Proved" and "Probable" reserves are simply estimates with differing margins of error) reserves appear to justify and support the economic decision to develop then we have a producing field. If they do not, then  we have nothing except a lease committment. We can think of reserves as "latent oil" which will only become a tangible commercial reality when a certain economic thresholds are met.

The size of the reserve is therefore the product of a complex economic calculus which assigns relative values to the geologic structure, the prevailing technology, the socio-political environment, and present and anticipated market demand, and a host of other factors. Change any single variable in this complex calculation and you can justify any position you like. Or, you can do as the OPEC nations have done, and simply pick an arbitrary number. A discussion of Peak Oil based on reserve estimates is an endless debate akin to arguing over the number of CERA employees that can stand on a wellhead.

Flows, on the other hand, are tangible and real. They can be counted and verified. Flows can also be obstructed by changes in the technological envelope, socio-political upheavals, and by simple economics. If oil flows are being diverted to domestic internal uses then less will come to market and the market price will be higher.

For some nations, Peak Oil may have already arrived. They cannot afford liquid fuels at the current price level; the flow is interrupted and they learn to live without. If there is a conflict with Iran then it is likely flows will be interrupted and we will learn to live with less.

Key to this approach is the recognition that the world may have unlimited reserves but constrained flows. In such an environment the tangible effects we associate with Peak Oil may be experienced well before we have exhausted world reserves.


BOP, I  most certainly second your opinion, flows are what matters, not absolute reserves. I'd like to point out the example of the State of Texas as an example of this. According to the Bureau of Economic Geology of the University of Texas's booklet "Potential for Additional Oil Recovery" or somesuch title we only recovered about 15-20% of the petroleum originally in place. This is an old pamplet, about 1981 or so but still valid. Our flows are down to 25% of the flows at the peak in 1970, but our recovery has only increased slghtly. As much as any other factor this is because petroleum engineering was invented here.
  Early unrestrained production, like the Gushers at Spindletop  (1901, 100,000/bbl day) ruined the reservoir pressures in many fields and limited economic recovery of the oil. In 1933 the Legislature gave the Railroad Commission the authority to limit production in order to prevent "economic waste" . The RRC started requiring operators to test their wells showing flow rates and pressure draw downs and started limiting production to keep prices up and set the best production rate for our fields.
  But it was too late for many of our giant shallow fields. The cap rock at Spindletop produced about 60,000,00 bbls of 18 gravity crude. Its probably got another 60,000,000 barrels in the limestone, but if you drill a 1200 ft well over there today you'd get a well that produces 3 bbls a day and a huge water cut. Most operators won't undertake the risk ofa well for that kind of return. There is plenty of open(unleased) acreage at Spindletop today, including the land where the Lucas Gusher was located.
Isn't CO2 used as a solvent in some industrial processes?

Just wondering, and I recognize that this is not accomplishing any sequestration, but if you used CO2 in lieu of some of the water that's currently being used, you could perhaps separate the bitumen at a lower temperature (but higher pressure).

I don't think oil dissolves in CO2 at any reasonable temperature or pressure.

Not sure though, probably depends a lot on the definition of reasonable.

There is supercritical CO2, which is an excellent solvent.  However, you need pressure over 1,100 PSI for it to exist.
HO if I could just clarify...

The water drawn for in situ tar sand recovery is recycled for further industrial use only.  

According to Pembina, roughly 90% of the resource ends up in huge tailing ponds that are toxic to wildlife, people and the environment as a whole.  

If proposed targets of 3mmbbl/annum are to be achieved, both water and NatGas usage rates must be reconciled.

SAGD has been in developement since the late 70's through AEUB & PTAC. Research expenditures are well over 22 Billion $$ or more.

SAGD is by far the most energy and environmentaly efficient manner to remove the oil from the clay/sand/soil, compared to other methods. The PSV "tank" is a hydrocyclone that in one step or process, removes oil, water, and sand, After this point is where everything becomes very expensive due to the environmental regulations. Oil is not easy to separate from the water, so there is a multi step process that the oily water must travel through until it is in the tialings pond. Clay is benefit to the oil industry both naturally and commercially. Cetco is a manufacturer of clay that is added to adsorb the oil along with chemicals to floc and lock to purify the water, however the water must be clean to less than 500 ntu to be discharged into the ponds.

In SAGD the water must be lab quality to re-enter the hot water heaters, (heater-treater) They are experimenting with these to use less natural gas (thermodynamics) and less CO2 But at the sacrifice of oil water separation methods. Any operators out there would correct me on this, but they start first steam for a number of weeks then slowly back off the dry latent heat until the return water is around 80 degrees. At this point they switch over to the heater treaters and just use hot water. 83% water recovery rates has been realised todate but additional equipment may, just may up this water recovery rate. As anyone knows in Alberta water is more important than the oil sands to many a farmer,and native.

Marginal wells are shut in at 2000ppm oil cut, I believe 12 or 12:1 is uneconomic. Going back and reopening these Oaklahoma/Texas wells may be in the works if better equipment is installed.

Just as a side note, this water that goes back into the ground for ANY reason must be clean drinkable water. Its called produced water and depending on the region is is undrinkable when it comes up with the oil because of the formation it came from. Saline salty water must be treated to be re-injected down hole to the zone, in some instances it is also injected with the salt into a older well.

Produced Water is very interesting, it is not ordinary water as we percieve!

There is a science behind it. Too back this water can't be pumped to irrigation agriculture or undeveloped countries for better use.

Thanks for that OCB!
Produced water for SAGD or oil and Gas exploration:

Produced Water comes from the process of lifting oil and gas from water-bearing formations-typically ancient sea or lake beds As oil and gas is lifted to the surface, water is brought along with it. Here are some facts about Produced Water:

  • In 1993, 1.09 trillion gallons of produced water were generated - enough water to flow over Niagara Falls for 9 days.

  • 65% of the produced water generated in the US is injected back into the producing formation, 30% into deep saline formations and 5% is discharged to surface waters.

  • Produced water salinity in the US ranges from 100 mg/l to 400,000 mg/l (seawater is 35,000 mg/l).

The US Department of the Interior defines produced water as follows:

Produced water is mainly salty water trapped in the reservoir rock and brought up along with oil or gas during production. It can contain very minor amounts of chemicals added downhole during production. These waters exist under high pressures and temperatures, and usually contain oil and metals. Because of this, they must be treated prior to being discharged overboard. As with drilling muds, following treatment, they must be tested for toxicity and cannot exceed set discharge rates. In the Gulf of Mexico area west of the Mississippi River, where elevated levels of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) have been detected, radium must be measured and bioaccumulation monitored if the produced water is to be discharged overboard 706503b0fb1f5efb5ada6d


Oilcan - you got to remember that a lot of the water produced in oil fields is actually injected water that is refluxed - going round and round in the system.

Sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium etc are a metals - so you / they need to be wary of using the term dissolved metal as a hazzard.  Also, water that is too depeleted in dissolved content can be harmful to health and the environment.  An equilibrium condition is best.

Radium, is one of the intermediate radioactive elements (actinides) formed from the decay of uranium to stable lead.  Radium is highly water soluble, highly radioactive and behaves rather like calcium geochemically.  So in the sub-surface, radium gets leached out of uranium bearing minerals but can then be deposited in mineral form in production pipes etc as radioactive scale - a real problem for the industry.

Euan, the recycled water slowly over the years, recedes in the quantity of minerals, and solids. The constant flow of water through the formation actually cleans the reservoir.  on the surface, the water is purified through nutshell media filtration systems and liquid/solids filtration separation process'. I agree with the Radium issues, like the KGB spy now dying from this, aqua life will suffer at the cost of the oil cos.

Deer Creek Energy in Alberta uses a series of filtration systems including deionizers.

Also in conventional oil fields, there is a wax build up over time that reduces flow, again chemicals are used to increase flow by dissolving the wax. Micro-biocides and other organism killing chemicals are present and must be treated down stream of the operation.  Agreed too, is scale build-up.

Question though, would Ozone clean the water? Kill the bacteria? Works great in hot tubs.

I don't understand this constant reliance on water to do the extraction. We extract oils from soybeans and corn using hexane, why would you want to use water which is so hard to heat and has no ability to dissolve the tar in the oil sands.

You have to crack the tars to more volatile hydrocarbons anyway. Why not mine the tar sands, extract with warm hexane and recover the hexane during the refining stage. You don't have to heat the hexane very high, certainly not the energy input to create steam. If hexane does not dissolve the tars I am reasonably sure there is some hydrocarbon mix that can. The whole idea of using hot water to seems a little off to me.

hibbarra, the problem using hexane (here in Canada) is you are not allowed to inject chemicals down hole  on a regular basis (I am not sure of the quantity allowed by policy) The reason why is fracturing the formation through over pumping or equipment failure can result in these chemicals entering the aquifer system.

However, Nsolv, uses some kind of proprietary solvent chemical that the AUB governing body has allowed. There is not much publically on this new technology.

Was not suggesting that the solvent (hexane or other) be injected. The sands would be mined or removed for the extraction step. All the solvent would be recovered for reuse; none would be put in the ground.  Here is a link of a small scale project that is like what I am describing.