Harold Vinegar on recovering viscous, hard-to-get oil

Vinegar talks about a new, more eco-friendly oil recovery process that uses giant underground heaters to help thick, old oil flow more freely.

The world’s energy demand is growing. Experts say it may double by the year 2050.

Harold Vinegar: That’s really hard for easy oil to keep up with. By easy oil, I mean oil that’s easy to reach and easy to recover. And it’s extremely unlikely that it’ll be able to keep pace with that growing demand.

Harold Vinegar, a Chief Scientist for Shell, is talking about what he called ‘easy’ or ‘conventional’ oil. He also talked about hard-to-get or ‘unconventional’ oil – including a heavy oil that’s hard to pull from the ground.

Harold Vinegar: And these are actually very old oils that are extremely viscous. They can have a texture almost like peanut butter. And they just won’t flow in the subsurface because of their viscosity. So it’s necessary to heat them in situ – in the ground – in order to get them to flow.

This process is called ‘in-situ upgrading.’ The underground heaters measure up to 2,000 feet – or 600 meters – long. The heated oil is easier to recover.

Harold Vinegar: What we’re actually doing here is speeding up the natural processes that would occur over millions of years. We do it in a few years. He said this ‘in-situ’ process is in the late stages of testing. Vinegar said he’s especially optimistic about early success in Colorado and Canada. Vinegar has spent nearly 30 years developing the ‘in-situ’ process. He said that because there’s no mining involved, there are no chemical contaminants from mined rock. Plus, he said, less water is used in the oil recovery process.

Harold Vinegar: So, for example in Colorado, one acre contains over one million barrels of oil per acre. Just think about that.

This podcast was made possible in part by Shell – encouraging dialogue on the energy challenge.

Jorge Salazar