Innovation from repurposed technology

multilateral well technology in oil sands

Oil sands producers are always watching for innovation from other industries that can be adapted for use in the oil sands. In fact, COSIA was founded so that producers could join forces to develop clean technologies faster and with less risk. It’s all part of our goal to reduce the environmental impact of oil sands development.

Such was the case with multilateral wells, drilled like tree roots, which help access more of the subsurface with less surface footprint. They are used successfully in conventional oil fields but had never been adapted to the unique steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) process widely used in Alberta’s oil sands. 

“Advances in directional drilling technology have enabled us to consider an approach that would not have been technically feasible in the past,” says Julian Ortiz, Technology Supervisor at ConocoPhillips Canada.

In the SAGD process, two horizontal wells, commonly known as a SAGD well pair, are drilled into the reservoir and steam is injected under pressure into the upper well where it heats the bitumen making it less viscous. The heated bitumen then flows through gravity to the lower well and is pumped to the surface for processing. However, in between SAGD well pairs remains a wedge of trapped bitumen that can’t be recovered without drilling a fifth well at significant cost. This ‘wedge oil’ is heated and if not recovered can affect the energy efficiency and emissions intensity of the recovery process overall. That’s where multilateral wells come in. 

“We convert an existing SAGD producer well to a multilateral by adding a fork, so that one well becomes two,” Ortiz explains. “No additional surface infrastructure is required, and you don’t need to inject more steam. Your well productivity goes up resulting in fewer emissions per barrel of oil.”

Beyond oil sands applications, multilateral wells are also gaining traction in geothermal applications. Many of the multilateral tools and techniques developed for use in oil sands applications will help improve the cost and performance of geothermal projects around the world. 

ConocoPhillips was the first oil sands producer to quickly deploy various multilateral wells to assess the potential of the technology, moving it from concept design through to field pilot in just three years, with funding supplied in part by Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA). ConocoPhillips’ Surmont site in northeastern Alberta is one of Canada’s top five SAGD operations, producing an average of 140,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day (gross). 

So far, the project has exceeded all expectations, producing over the pilot rate targets. Ortiz says that emissions intensity reduction could go as high as 20 per cent once the technology is deployed in commercial operations after the pilot phase is completed in 2022. The company regularly shares its findings through COSIA, and Ortiz predicts that other producers will adopt the technology once they see the results.

“When we combine this innovation with others that we’re progressing, it all adds up to reduce the environmental impact of our operations in a significant way.”  

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