Human World

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

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.

July 14, 2008
Human World

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