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Inside the Process Loop: Recovering Saskatewan's long-lost heavy oil

Don Horne   


In Saskatchewan, there are hundreds of millions of barrels of heavy oil still in the ground and currently no economical way to extract it. Most of the heavy oil in Saskatchewan is produced using a well-known production technique known as Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand (CHOPS).

Thousands of wells where this technique has been used are coming to the end of their useful life, having produced only seven to 10 per cent of the Original Oil in Place (OOIP). The CHOPS production process relies on developing long, thin production channels in the reservoir, which are called wormholes.

A mature CHOPS well may have many wormholes extending away from the well, creating a complex root-like structure that extends hundreds of meters into the surrounding reservoir. Mike Crabtree, vice-president of energy with the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC), says while wormholes are central to the success of CHOPS wells, they bypass the majority of oil around the producing well, making subsequent production of the remaining oil very difficult.

“The challenge for industry has been to develop and commercialize Post-CHOPS technologies that can use existing wells to produce more of the remaining oil left in the reservoirs,” he says. “What industry needs now are new, innovative and field-ready Post-CHOPS technologies to be brought forward by technology developers and small-to-medium enterprises. These technologies must be technically and commercially viable, as well as environmentally sustainable. These same technology developers and small-to-medium enterprises require access to low cost, readily available, lower risk, pre-commercial field trial opportunities.”


SRC’s new Post-CHOPS Well Test Centre is a fee-for-service facility that provides field and pilot-scale testing, monitoring and validation of new Post-CHOPS technologies using endof- life, but-still-active, CHOPS wells. The centre, a first-of-its-kind in Canada, is an attractive commercialization route for technology providers as it reduces costs, risk and time from technology development to market. For industry, de-risking and prevalidating technology will allow them to move quicker into full-scale commercial piloting.

Crabtree says the average time it takes to test a field-ready or near-field-ready technology in the oil and gas industry can be anywhere up to two-and-a-half years or more.

“With the Post-CHOPS Well Test Centre, we can incentivize operators to provide wells for tests with the objective of getting that time from two-and-a-half years down to around about six months, thus significantly reducing the operating costs of the technology company and the risks,” he says.

The facility accelerates new Post-CHOPS technologies by providing assessment and validation of technologies during the field trial process, including assessment of technoeconomic performance, field readiness and environmental sustainability. It also reduces technological risk for enduser operators and provides a detailed risk and mitigation assessment, allowing operators to move quickly from commercial pilot trials to commercial-scale adoption.

The process for field tests will be both low cost and flexible to all parties using a quickto- fail, stage-gated process that minimizes late field failures. Between Kindersley and Lloydminster (along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border), there is estimated to be about 26 billion barrels of OOIP in Saskatchewan alone. According to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Economy, primary production is expected to leave 23 to 24 billion barrels unproduced.

An increase in heavy oil recovery from seven per cent to 20 per cent of the OOIP would represent more than three billion barrels of additional reserves worth approximately $100 billion based on a $35 oil price. The new Post-CHOPS Well Test Centre will offer operators the opportunity to significantly extend the lives of their existing reservoirs, largely using their existing well stock, while increasing both production and reserves.

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Economy is supporting the test centre by allowing producers/well operators, who provide testsite wells and who meet the criteria, to access an existing royalty initiative that will temporarily adjust the royalty applied to other wells operated by the producers. Crabtree says the level of interest in the centre has already been fairly significant.

“It does border on excitement because Saskatchewan is one of only a few jurisdictions in the world that has anything like this,” he says. For more information on the program or the new well test centre, visit

About the author: Rebecca Gotto is a communications advisor at the Saskatchewan Research Council who specializes in media and government relations.


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