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Thinking Outside the Box

It’s no secret that oil is king, especially in western North Dakota. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bakken Formation is the largest continuous oil resource that it has ever characterized. It is estimated that the Bakken and Three Forks Formations combined hold between 300 and 900 billion barrels (Bbbl) of oil, with 10 to 24 Bbbl being technically recoverable using current technologies.

Steve Hawthorne, Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) Senior Research Manager, and the staff working in the EERC’s Environmental Chemistry Laboratory have been developing methods to find cheaper and better tools to extract the available oil in both conventional and unconventional reservoirs by using carbon dioxide (CO2), one of which was finding a new way to measure the minimum miscibility pressure (MMP), the optimum pressure at which to extract oil from formations.

Conventional wisdom states that in order to see oil flow activity, the MMP would need to be reached and maintained; however, Hawthorne’s lab tests show changes in activity both below and above the MMP.

To illustrate these findings, Hawthorne produced a video to show how CO2and crude oil interact at reservoir conditions. The video was recorded in a high-pressure cell in the lab and was shot at the speed of one frame per second, which was just enough resolution to see oil movement and provide visual support that confirms Hawthorne’s earlier hypothesis.

“The video is a visual demonstration that explains that the MMP for a particular system is not a line in the sand,” said Hawthorne.“A lot goes on before the MMP is reached, a lot goes on at higher pressures, and you lose a lot of hydrocarbon as you drop pressure, even though you are above the MMP. That is shocking to a lot of people,” he said.

Other experiments in the lab reveal that substantial amounts of oil can be extracted from the Lower, Middle, and Upper Bakken utilizing CO2, but that a greater understanding of the mechanisms controlling oil recovery will be needed to best apply the technology in the Bakken system. However, using CO2 to increase oil recoveries by a few percent in unconventional reservoirs such as the Bakken could be huge, since even a 1% increase could equate to as much as 9 Bbbl of oil. The EERC’s Oil and Gas Group is currently working on establishing a pilot-scale CO2enhanced oil recovery project to demonstrate this method in the Bakken play.

The EERC, in close cooperation with Continental Resources, Inc.; Marathon Oil Company; and several of the Williston Basin’s other premier operating companies, is engaged in a research program to simultaneously improve Bakken system oil recovery and reduce its environmental footprint. The results of the 3-year program will increase the well productivity and economic output of North Dakota’s oil and gas resources, decrease environmental impacts of wellsite operations, and reduce demand for infrastructure construction and maintenance.

“A lot of what my lab does requires thinking outside the box. I may not know much about petroleum fields, and the folks I work with likely don’t know much about chemistry. We tend to look at things differently from one another—that’s one reason I enjoy working in different fields,” said Hawthorne.

View the “Pressurized COand Crude Oil Interaction” video here.

Peaks and Valleys

The EERC investigates technical challenges associated with transport and geologic storage of variable quantities of CO2.

The EERC, in partnership with the International Energy Agency Greenhouse Gas (IEAGHG) R&D Programme based in the United Kingdom and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is working to identify the technical challenges associated with pipeline transport and geologic storage of variable quantities of CO2.

This is one of several recent projects that the EERC has been awarded by IEAGHG, strengthening an already-key partnership. Project Manager Melanie Jensen and her team proposed the project to identify the extent of technical challenges posed by CO2 capture from emission sources that do not produce a consistent quantity of CO2 over time.

"CO2 is produced in large quantities during electricity generation and industrial processes, and over time, there can be a substantial variation of the CO2 generation rate," said Jensen, an EERC Research Manager. "For example, the generation of CO2 from electric power plants fluctuates with power demand, which varies minute by minute and on a seasonal basis."

Therefore, Jensen adds, the design and operation of the entire CO2 capture, compression, transport, and storage system will need to accommodate this type of variation. "We want to understand the magnitude of these variations so that solutions can be developed to minimize any potential harmful operational effects on all parts of an integrated system, especially the transport and storage components," Jensen said.

The project is concentrating on the effects of variable CO2 flow rate during the pipeline transport of CO2 in vapor and supercritical phases as well as its storage in deep saline formations, in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, and during enhanced oil recovery activities. Not only will the cost implications of these challenges be investigated, but a number of possible solutions will be proposed.
Jensen, knowledgeable in the area of capture-compression-pipeline transport infrastructure, says this is an important issue for the industry, as it will pave the way for future solutions in transporting CO2 across the country, as well as in long-term storage of CO2.

The EERC has gained critical knowledge in the area of pipeline transport of CO2, as well as in the equipment used to dehydrate and compress the CO2 stream prior to transport; regulation of CO2 emission transport and storage; and public outreach related to all aspects of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS).

The EERC leads the Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership, one of seven regional partnerships under the DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory's Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership Program.

"As part of our membership, the PCOR Partnership includes pipeline companies, oil companies, oilfield operators, engineering companies, CO2 transport experts, advanced CO2 compressor developers, and regulatory agencies, all of which are invaluable and provide a unique perspective in this study," said John Harju, Associate Director for Research.

The EERC is also the lead organization for the Partnership for CO2 Capture, a multimember organization funded by DOE and over 20 energy, utility, and CO2 capture developers to assist in accelerating the development of promising CO2 capture technologies that are "near commercial" for utility applications.

The EERC has completed several other projects in the past for IEAGHG. Past projects included issues surrounding the extraction of formation water from CO2 storage as well as two separate projects focused on CO2 storage in deep saline formations. All of these projects fall directly in line with the overall goals of IEAGHG, a nonprofit organization which funds research for CCUS, focusing on technologies that can reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. The role of the IEAGHG program is to evaluate technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions derived from the use of fossil fuels.

"This project is an example of one of the EERC's strategic niche markets that has a far-reaching impact," added Harju. "The EERC continues to leverage and enhance preexisting expertise for the benefit of our industry clients," said Harju. The project should be completed by the end of summer 2014.