Oil in Saskatchewan
by Dr Laurier L. Schramm
In Saskatchewan we have about a billion barrels of conventional oil reserves. At current pumping rates this is only
seven years of production. Our reserves will last longer than this, but only to the extent that we reduce consumption
and/or find more oil.
Over the past decade we have been producing faster than we have been developing or finding new oil, so the net reserves have been declining. New technologies are helping to minimize the decline and, although natural conventional oil will ultimately run out, there are potential sources of synthetic crude oil present in Saskatchewan in more forms than one might expect.
Roughly half of Saskatchewan's conventional oil reserves are light crude oil, much of which can be found across the
southern part of the province. Conventional recovery techniques, including enhanced oil recovery (EOR), produce only
40 to 50 % of the oil in a good reservoir.
Improved EOR technology is helping. The use of carbon dioxide (CO2) flooding in the Weyburn oilfield will produce an additional 120 mm barrels beyond the point at which the field would otherwise have been abandoned. Even better, this process leaves the CO2 behind (sequestered) in the reservoir so it also reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
The other half of Saskatchewan's conventional oil reserves is heavy crude oil, much of which can be found in the west
central part of the province. The heavy oil is even harder to recover than light oil, and even the latest recovery
technologies recover only about 10 to 20 %.
A promising emerging technology for enhanced heavy oil recovery, called VAPEX (vapour extraction), uses a solvent mixture to drive out the oil, while using less water, less energy, and with reduced greenhouse gas emissions. This technology has been undergoing field-testing in Saskatchewan oilfields over the past two years and is highly likely to unlock additional reserves.
Bituminous oil sands exist in Saskatchewan, principally in the Clearwater Valley area, near Churchill Lake. Based on
research to date the deposits appear to be small and widely scattered, too deep to mine, too shallow for conventional
in situ technology, and therefore not likely to be economic, yet. The challenge and opportunity is to develop
unconventional technology that can be applied to these deposits.
There has recently been renewed interest in oil sands exploration drilling in Saskatchewan. This is needed to better evaluate the resource. The most promising recovery technology is probably an adaptation of VAPEX, which, with some customisation of solvents and field practices, should be applicable to Saskatchewan's oil sands. Once the bitumen is recovered it can be chemically converted to synthetic crude oil. This could boost our reserves significantly, and could occur in the near future.
Saskatchewan also has oil shale, a sedimentary rock containing organic matter called kerogen. The kerogen can be
chemically converted to synthetic crude oil. Significant deposits can be found in the Pasquia Hills area, near Hudson
Bay. Based on research to date these deposits appear to contain a substantial amount of oil shale that is shallow
enough to mine.
There has recently been renewed interest in Saskatchewan oil shale and at least 25 new core holes have been drilled in this area over the last several years to better evaluate the extent of the resource. If oil prices stay at their current levels, then a modest technology development program should make this large resource economically viable. This could add about a bn barrels of synthetic crude oil to our reserves.
Saskatchewan creativity and “can-do” attitude have led to great advances in developing, adapting, and
deploying new oil recovery technologies, from horizontal and infill wells to light and heavy EOR. Further advances
will allow us to increase our reserves.
Other advances will allow us to develop Saskatchewan oil sand and oil shale. We can even convert our massive coal resource into synthetic crude oil, if needed. With research and development on our side, Saskatchewan oil will only run out if we lose sight of the many unconventional routes to producing it.
Dr Laurier L. Schramm is President and CEO of the Saskatchewan Research Council.