Petrobank Energy and Resources’ Toe to Heel Air Injection (THAI) process recently passed a significant hurdle, validating a technology its backers say will not only get out more oil, but also have a smaller environmental footprint. The mainstay technology now used for in-situ bitumen is Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage — or SAGD — which uses steam to heat the bitumen so it flows downward into wells and can be pumped to the surface. The McDaniel & Associates evaluation of the Whitesands operation estimated that THAI will produce 259 million barrels, or 17 per cent, more oil than had SAGD been used.
Calgary-based E-T Energy is working on using giant electrodes to heat underground formations. Another Calgary firm — N-Solv Corporation — is developing a process to inject heated solvent vapour and stimulate oil flow. Petrobank’s technology, however, is the first to be evaluated in the field for its capacity to increase recovery. The next step for THAI will be a further study by McDaniel to get a more precise production estimate once Petrobank reaches commercial flow rates — greater than 250 barrels a day — and sustains that for at least three months. The potential for THAI extends well beyond the oilsands, including increasing production from heavy oil deposits further south in Alberta and Saskatchewan. “There’s probably another 20 billion barrels of oil that isn’t recoverable using current technology that we can apply our technology to,” said Bloomer
There are more than a dozen producing in situ projects and more than 80 companies have proposed projects. The 10,000-barrel-per-day first phase of Great Divide is across the highway from Algar, the $375-million second phase, which is less than a month from finishing construction and, thanks to improved design, will be able to boast a smaller footprint. Petrobank uses a proprietary technology called THAI — toe-to-heel air injection — to spark underground combustion that allows enhanced recovery of an upgraded product with minimal use of natural gas and water. Once it gets going, the process produces excess water, says Bloomer, noting that of 1,500 barrels per day coming from the reservoir on the day of the tour, 750 to 800 barrels are water, with 30 per cent of that already existing in the oilsands resource and the rest a byproduct of the underground combustion. Mining still accounts for about two-thirds of oilsands production of 1.8 million barrels a day, but various thermal projects are catching up fast. In situ oil production is expected to meet and exceed mining production by 2017.