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Bioreaction to the GHG Issue

Technologies use micro-organisms to consume waste CO2

By Carter Haydu

Microbial life forms that gorge themselves on the carbon emissions from Alberta’s oil and gas industry would not only reduce the negative environmental impacts from the sector, but could also provide the province economic growth through refinement of valuable by-products of the bioreactor process.

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Driving Down Downtime

Production at Canada’s biggest thermal oil project typically meets or exceeds design capacity—Imperial Oil explains the system behind the results

By Pat Roche

About a quarter of a century ago, a young engineer named Rich Kruger was working at what was then Exxon Corporation when he was given an assignment by one of the U.S. oil giant’s top executives.

Imperial Oil Limited (roughly 70 per cent owned by Exxon, which became Exxon Mobil Corporation after acquiring Mobil Corp. in 1999) was looking at a significant increase in its proved reserves bookings at its Cold Lake thermal oil project. The Calgary-based subsidiary was talking about increasing its estimate of recoverable Cold Lake bitumen to slightly more than 20 per cent from somewhere in the teens.

“And the question that Exxon had was: is this justified? Is this warranted? And being an upstreamer, the number two in Exxon Corporation at the time said, ‘Rich, I want you to go up there. I want you to crawl all over this asset. I want you to talk to everybody associated with Cold Lake. And I want you to come back and give me an independent view on the validity of the significant increase in proved reserves,’” Kruger recalls.

“I went up there. I did my due diligence. I grabbed every Canadian I could. I talked all about it. I came back to Exxon, and I said, ‘I think your intuition is correct—I don’t think Imperial has it right. I think they’ve greatly underestimated the recovery they’re going to get out of this asset over time,’” Kruger recounted at an investor gathering this year. “That was not the answer that Exxon was anticipating.”

The resource recovery optimism championed long ago by Kruger—now chairman, president and chief executive officer of Imperial—has been more than vindicated. Though recovery rates vary across its vast Cold Lake acreage, Imperial now expects to produce as much as 60 per cent of the bitumen in place, up from the original 13 per cent. The 60 per cent recoveries are expected in the best parts of the reservoir that get the full application of Imperial’s follow-up technologies; recoveries will be lower in poorer parts of the field. But when the project began, a 60 per cent recovery factor was unimaginable in any part of the field.


Cold Lake continued to be Canada’s largest thermal oil project last year, according to Oilsands Review, a JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group publication that ranks Canadian oilsands production. Imperial says Cold Lake is the world’s biggest thermal oil operation. In this case, thermal recovery means steam is injected into the reservoir to heat semi-solid bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface. Even though Cold Lake has been in commercial operation since 1985 and has produced more than a billion barrels, its proved plus probable remaining reserves total 1.7 billion barrels.

But the most amazing fact about Cold Lake is how it continues to meet or exceed its current design capacity of 140,000 barrels per day. Cold Lake’s bitumen output averaged 153,000 barrels per day last year, 154,000 barrels per day in 2012 and 160,000 barrels per day in 2011.

Thermal oil projects typically produce at less than 100 per cent of nameplate capacity due to planned or unplanned downtime. How does Imperial manage to achieve such consistent uptime? “This doesn’t just happen by chance,” Kruger says, citing Imperial’s systematic approach to reliability.

To find out what’s behind Cold Lake’s production per­formance, New Technology Magazine sat down with Mark Taylor, Imperial’s manager of operations technical engineering, which is often shortened to ops-tech engineering. Taylor is in charge of all the operations engineers at Cold Lake who look after the reservoir, the wellbore, and the artificial lift and surface facilities.

Located in northeastern Alberta near the communities of Cold Lake and Bonnyville, Imperial’s Cold Lake oilsands leases cover about 780 square kilometres. The operation consists of about 4,500 operating wells and four plant sites that generate steam, recycle produced water and handle produced bitumen. The current plant sites are called Leming, Maskwa, Mahihkan and Mahkese. A fifth—Nabiye—is under construction and due to come on stream by year’s end.


Taylor says Cold Lake production performance is driven by three factors. The first is capacity development—adding new plant sites and well pads. Another is technology evolution—developing new ways to extract more of the total bitumen in place from areas that are already on production. And the third, which Kruger referred to, is a system of programs and prac­tices to ensure and improve equipment integrity and reliability.

Though the biggest increases in production occur when a new plant comes on stream, technology improvements and reliability programs are also a significant factor. On average, Cold Lake production has grown by four per cent per year since 1985, Taylor says.

But production levels for individual years can fluctuate, depending on such factors as individual well performance. For example, production this year is expected to average about 140,000 barrels per day—lower than last year—but next year is expected to be significantly higher as the 40,000-barrel-per-day Nabiye expansion begins to ramp up. But in most years, relatively minor fluctuations occur as steam is moved around to different areas of the field, some of which are better or newer than others.

“So it depends on what part or combination of parts of the field are on production,” explains Taylor. “We may be at a particularly high year, or we may be in a bit of a low year. But it doesn’t necessarily follow a smooth decline like a conventional field. It tends to bump around.”

Cold Lake uses cyclic steam stimulation (CSS), which means steam is injected into wells for a while, then oil is produced back through the same wellbores, and the cycle is repeated continuously. In small CSS projects, average production for the year can be affected by the number of months on steam injection rather than oil production.

But unlike the output from small CSS projects, production at Cold Lake doesn’t vary with the steam-and-produce cycles. At Cold Lake, the goal is to always run the plants at full steam capacity, says Taylor. “That’s the name of the game for us—full steam capacity injected out into the field.

“One of my favourite quotes is, ‘Steam is the gasoline in the bitumen production engine,’” he says. “If you want to make oil, you got to put steam in the ground. And so what we really focus on is running our steam plants at maximum capacity, getting as much heat into the ground as we can, and then thereafter optimizing the bitumen production and getting the most that we can out of the field.” Together, the four existing plants process 550,000–600,000 barrels per day of water as the condensed steam is mostly produced back with the oil, separated, treated and routed back into the boilers to be re-injected as steam.


Of the three factors Taylor lists as driving production per­formance—capacity addition, technology and reliability—adding well capacity is the simplest. Well pads are drilled and surface facilities with the necessary oil production and monitoring capabilities are built. Adding steam capacity is much more complex, requiring a new plant.

As wells age, they need less steam. So even though the steam-generating capacity of each plant remains fixed, new wells are continuously added as the original wells mature and the amount of steam they require declines. Production from the new wells offsets natural declines in older wells.

While CSS remains Cold Lake’s bread-and-butter technology, Imperial uses other techniques to recover more oil without injecting more steam. One such follow-up process is the conversion of some mature parts of the field to steamflood.

Unlike CSS, where all the wells cycle between steam injection and oil production, a steamflood dedicates some wells solely to steam injection and the rest are used exclusively for oil production. At Cold Lake, Imperial converts portions of the field to steamflooding by drilling infill wells that are used exclusively for steam injection. Dubbed injector-only infills, or IOI wells, these long horizontal wells are drilled between existing CSS wells. The existing CSS wells are then used exclusively for oil production. Steam continuously injected into the IOI wells sweeps oil toward the producers. In that sense, the basic idea of a steamflood is similar to a conventional waterflood.

Early in the life of Cold Lake wells, steamflooding isn’t an effective technology, partly because the reservoir temperature is lower and the bitumen is more viscous. But as the temperature rises and the bitumen viscosity falls, the reservoir becomes more amenable to steamflooding. Also, as steam penetrates more of the reservoir, the CSS wells eventually become interconnected. This inter-well communication reduces CSS efficiency but makes steamflooding more attractive.

The age at which Cold Lake wells are converted to steamflood can vary with reservoir quality, but it’s typically after five to 10 years of CSS operation, Taylor says, adding they could then operate under steamflood for another 10–20 years.

In a paper presented at a Society of Petroleum Engineers conference in Malaysia in 2011, Imperial said Cold Lake recovery levels may potentially be increased to more than 65 per cent by adapting steamflood principles to mature areas of the reservoir. On its website, the company says Cold Lake is the first application of continuous infill steamflooding to such high-viscosity oil. (The viscosity of Cold Lake bitumen is in the 100,000–200,000-centipoise range versus about 10 centipoise for conventional light oil.) Imperial says its infill steamfloods operate at a lower pressure than CSS.

After piloting steamflooding in late-life wells at Cold Lake for several years, Imperial received regulatory approval for commercial expansion. In its 2013 in situ oilsands update posted on the Alberta Energy Regulator’s website, Imperial said it had 55 infill wells on steamflood last year. These infills were providing steam to 34 well pads with a combined total of about 700 wells. The company has applied to expand steamflood approval to its entire Cold Lake development area. In the same update, Imperial said overall steamflood performance has been as expected.

Taylor described steamflooding as Cold Lake’s primary follow-up process. Another method for recovering more bitumen after CSS has run its course is Imperial’s patented process called liquid addition to steam for enhanced recovery, or LASER. As previously reported in New Technology Magazine, LASER adds a small amount of a light hydrocarbon to steam injected into the reservoir. The added hydrocarbon—for example, condensate, which is very light crude oil—goes into solution with the bitumen, increasing resource recovery from mature wells without increasing steam requirements. LASER can be used on CSS wells or during steamflooding.

(Since the focus of this article is Cold Lake’s stellar production performance, it doesn’t examine technologies Imperial is just testing or plans to use in the future, such as steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), solvent-assisted SAGD or cyclic solvent process. These were reported in previous editions of New Technology Magazine.)


The third driver of Cold Lake’s production performance—after capacity development and technology evolution—is the myriad programs and practices Imperial put in place to prevent and deal with what are euphemistically called “unplanned events.”

“Reliability and operations integrity is more than just volumes,” says Taylor. When you’re handling hydrocarbons at high pressures and temperatures, an unplanned event is also a safety concern. It can hurt the company’s reputation with the public. It’s a distraction from the base business. And, of course, it can reduce output and increase operating costs, thereby hurting profitability. “So high reliability is certainly about volumes. But it’s also about the safety, business focus, stakeholder relationship,” Taylor says. “So we put a lot of effort into reliability and operations integrity.”

To ensure and improve reliability, the company has a var­iety of systems and programs, many of them proprietary.

One is its operations integrity management system, or OIMS. It covers everything from the design and operation of facilities to operator training. OIMS includes a system called PDRR—prevent, detect, respond and recover. In discussing reliability during Imperial’s annual investor day in New York, Kruger singled out PDRR. The chairman and chief executive officer attributed Cold Lake’s enviable uptime to “a very systematic rigorous approach to achieving reliability.”


            The best way to achieve reliability is to be sure nothing breaks.

                        “After we build something, we develop an equipment strategy for it,” explains Taylor. “So that says: How do I operate that piece of equipment? What kind of main­tenance does it require? How often do I need to go in and do inspections and preventative maintenance items on it?”

                        The prevention side also covers operator training and competency assurance. This includes a detailed program to ensure operators know the range of normal operation for every piece of equipment. For equipment classified as integrity-critical, operators have to be re-certified every three years. On normal operating procedures, they must be re-certified every five years.


            If something starts to go wrong, detect it early and nip it in the bud.

                        Detection also has an element of operator training—learning to recognize when equipment is outside its normal operating range. But operators are only as good as the data they rely on, so Imperial has a program that regularly tests the instrumentation and control systems to ensure they’re functioning properly.

                        Alarm management is another component of detection. Within Cold Lake’s control rooms, operators who are constantly monitoring and adjusting the processes get various warnings and alarms. So operators must understand the alarms and respond appropriately.


            Even responding is about the planning that occurs before accidents happen. Do you have the spare parts? Do you have the personnel? Are contractors ready for an unplanned event? If something does go down, how long will it take to get back online?

                        Again, training is critical. Cold Lake has emergency response teams, both in the field and in Calgary. (Cold Lake can also draw on a network of emergency response experts, both from within Imperial and within ExxonMobil.)

                        “We practice. We simulate often,” says Pius Rolheiser, a company spokesman. “When we have an incident at Cold Lake, people are familiar with what the processes are.” Mock exercises are part of the system. And afterwards, the emergency response teams sit down to find ways to do it faster and smoother.

                        Imperial’s staff will often work with equipment manufacturers—for example, if a generator has gone down and they need help understanding why it failed and how to get it back up.

                        A key component in Cold Lake’s response is its “sparing” philosophy. If a piece of equipment is deemed to be sufficiently critical—for example, if its failure would mean a significant loss of production—then the company will have spares on site, or even “hot” spares that are already installed. If, for example, a critical generator goes down, the preinstalled spare can just be switched on. “So we can have an event that has no consequences,” says Taylor.

                        In other cases if, say, a critical pump goes down, a spare is sitting in the warehouse. So that may mean a day or two of downtime while it’s fetched and installed. “But,” says Taylor, “that’s way better than being down for a month or two if you had to order a new pump and get it from a supplier.”


            The last R in PDRR: get back to full capacity—ideally, even before repairs are finished.

                        “At Cold Lake, one of the most important things that we have is the ability at the four plants to move fluid—in particular, produced water—between those facilities,” says Taylor. “So we could have an event at Maskwa—let’s say one of our generators goes down, [and] we need to cut back production from the field because we don’t have any place to take that produced water. But what we can do instead is redirect some of that produced water over to one of the other fields that maybe has some additional spare steam capacity that can take on that water.”

                        Such interconnects enable Cold Lake to effectively recover from a downtime event. But if a plant does go down—for example, a power failure trips the plant and knocks it down, which means part of the field will get tripped down as well—Imperial has a response plan that methodically sets out what needs to be done to get those facilities back up and running.

                        Rapid recovery is also about advance preparation. For example, a critical piece of equipment may require a specialized welder and specialized parts. Thanks to a previously prepared work pack, “we know who to call,” says Taylor. “If we need to bring somebody up from the States, we know how to get them in across the border with appropriate visas and paperwork. We know where to source the material.”

            ...AND REVIEW

            The implied third R in PDRR: constantly look for better ways to prevent, detect, respond to and recover from unplanned events.

                        “The last part [of PDRR] is continuously improving the process through understanding...really fundamentally understanding what went wrong, so that we can go back to our prevention and do what we can to prevent another occurrence,” says Taylor.

                        There’s nothing new about doing post-mortems to find out why something failed and how such failures can be prevented. But Imperial at Cold Lake goes further, taking the lessons learned to all four components of PDRR.

                        While standard root-cause analysis is a “really im­portant, and may be the most important, part of the exercise...we also go, and we look at it and say: ‘How could I have responded more effectively? How could I have re­covered more quickly?’ And [we] go through all four of those steps and say, ‘How could I do better at all of those in order to improve my overall reliability?’” Taylor says. “Because all four of those PDRR components affect the amount of lost time that you have. So we go through that root-cause analysis and look at each of those four com­ponents on PDRR and understand how we can do it better.”


Of course, none of the hard work that goes into a reliability assurance system such as PDRR will show up in next quarter’s cash flow. Committing to such a system requires a certain corporate culture.

“These are all investments in time, in engineering work, in operator training that are there really for the long-term...solid, consistent, reliable achievement of our volumes goals,” says Taylor. “And it’s really through processes like that that you get that consistent achievement of goals.” Like other oilsands oper­ations, Cold Lake experiences problems like gas line breaks and power outages. But Imperial’s respond-and-recover mentality lessens the impact.

Speaking to U.S. investors, Kruger called Cold Lake “a wonderful example of [PDRR] in application. It is a system that was, in part, developed at Cold Lake.’s something we’ve shared and have received benefits from networking across ExxonMobil to achieve industry-leading reliability in this asset.” Despite more than a billion barrels of production over three decades, he predicts: “I think Cold Lake’s best days are yet ahead of it.”


Trail-blazing in situ oilsands producer challenged by maturing assets

Read more...For a technology that wasn’t used on a large scale until 2001, steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) isn’t doing too badly. Last year, it produced more than 570,000 barrels of bitumen a day, making it Alberta’s second most important oil extraction method after bitumen mining, which produced 978,000 barrels a day in 2013.


Big Data


Creating value from the flood of oilfield data reaching head office

Read more...The world is experiencing a tsunami of information. International Data Corporation, a consultancy, reported that the amount of data stored worldwide in 2012 added up to 2.7 zettabytes (see box on page 16). That amount is growing at approximately 50 per cent every year, which means it’s somewhere north of five zettabytes by now.

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