Julian Ortiz of ConocoPhillips. Photo by Jason Dziver

Innovation Profile: Julian Ortiz and the non-condensable gas solution

Ortiz adds gas to steam in a quest to lower greenhouse gas emissions while lowering costs in Canada’s oil sands.

The concept of doing more with less sounds easy enough, until you try it. Fortunately, improving efficiency comes naturally to Julian Ortiz, making him the perfect leader for a project using non-condensable gas (NCG) to reduce the amount of steam needed to extract bitumen from underground wells. The project is showing significant potential to both dramatically lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while improving oil recovery in Canada’s oil sands.

However, as is often the case with innovation, this wasn’t immediately obvious when Ortiz helped launch the project in December 2016.

“Things didn’t go well the first three to four months,” admits Ortiz. There was even talk of shutting the project down. A self-described relentless “optimist” with a strong technical background, Ortiz proved up to the challenge.

From Colombia to Canada’s oil sands

Ortiz grew up in Colombia, and graduated in 2004 Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Petroleum Engineering from the Universidad Industrial de Santander in the city of Bucaramanga. He emigrated to Canada soon after, and earned a Master’s in Petroleum Engineering from the University of Calgary. He worked for Imperial Oil and Canadian Natural Resources Limited before joining ConocoPhillips five years ago.

Julian Ortiz applies relentless optimism in his mission to find a new approach to bitumen extraction that could reduce both cost and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo by Jason Dziver.

With experience in heavy oil production, reservoir engineering and production engineering, Ortiz was well placed to assume a leadership position as technology project integration manager in Calgary. Among his key responsibilities is finding ways to integrate new approaches to existing oil production, paving the way for both cost reductions and improved environmental performance.

“I’m responsible for all the subsurface technologies and manage our technology budget, working with different groups from conception of an idea to execution in the field,” says Ortiz.

Driven by efficiency: A new approach to SAGD

With lower-for-longer oil prices over the last few years, Ortiz and his colleagues have learned the importance of getting things done as efficiently as possible. That experience, combined with his previous work for ConocoPhillips on increasing well productivity, served him nicely in his latest innovation around steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD).

SAGD is a method of extracting oil from an underground oil sands reservoir using steam to heat the bitumen, lowering its viscosity so it can flow to the surface.

Ortiz explains that over time, the process becomes less efficient. As the reservoir becomes depleted, more steam is needed to fill up the space vacated by already extracted bitumen, resulting in less direct contact between the steam and the bitumen. This means that instead of the usual two-to-three barrels of steam needed to produce one barrel of bitumen, four-to-five barrels of steam are required. More energy is required to produce the additional steam, which increases costs and greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a problem, so Ortiz and his team went in search of a solution. They found it in the form of non-condensable gas.

The Secret Sauce: Non-condensable gas

“Gas injection in the oil and gas industry has been applied for decades,” says Ortiz, “But it’s not common in the SAGD industry. That’s mainly due to fears that injecting a colder gas and mixing it with steam might lower the temperature of the steam being injected in reservoirs to produce bitumen.”

In a pilot project, the team demonstrated that injecting just the right amount of non-condensable gas did not affect the heat in the reservoir. Meanwhile, NCG co-injection improves steam allocation from less efficient areas to more prolific ones. With more efficient steam usage, less fuel is used to produce steam, thereby decreasing GHG emissions.

“Instead of burning more fuel gas to produce more steam, we co-inject the gas with steam into the reservoir. This NCG migrates and accumulates at the top of the steam chamber that has been created by the SAGD process, forming an insulation blanket that reduces heat loss to non-oil producing areas. This allows us to use less steam to produce the same amount of bitumen.”

Early challenges, and how optimism and persistence paid off

Though Ortiz feels he is now on the right path with this approach, it doesn’t mean the road was always a smooth one. Discussions around the concept began in 2014, followed by two to three years of studying the impact of gas injection in SAGD. By the end of 2016, reservoir modeling and simulations were showing potential. The pilot was launched in December of that year with three well pairs. Unfortunately, the pilot didn’t start off auspiciously: issues with the gas supply resulted in poor results over the first three to four months.

With the project not performing as expected, there was even talk of shutting the project down. Through the adversity, Ortiz’s personality drove him to double down: instead of giving up, he asked to continue the pilot while expanding testing to nine wells.

“I was taking a risk in requesting not only more time, but six more wells,” notes Ortiz.

Fortunately, he was able to sell the idea. Then, working closely with the operations personnel in the field to ensure every detail was covered, Ortiz and his team reset the pilot to run with the nine wells. By the fall, everything was running smoothly. They’ve since observed a 30 per cent reduction in the steam-to-oil ratio (the amount of injected steam needed to produce one barrel of bitumen.)

For his part, Ortiz credits his personal outlook in helping weather the early storm and paving the way to success:

“I think my optimism and relentless nature played a big role in not letting me give up at the first sign of bad news or hint of defeat. I approach my life that same way and it’s what I tell my five-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter all the time: Even though you fail initially, keep on going until you make it work.”

Now, the potential to lower GHGs across the industry

In this case, “making it work” is a timely accomplishment that could have far-reaching implications.

“At ConocoPhillips, we’re on a quest to propose new technologies for emission reduction going forward while working on new targets for GHG intensity,” explains Ortiz.

As he sees it, lowering those targets is something that can only be achieved one step at a time, and this project is a “low risk, low cost” step in the right direction. In part, it’s also the product of that famous mother of invention: necessity.

“In the past when oil prices were strong, we were sticking with established technologies and investing tens of millions of dollars in a few facilities. Market changes forced us to think outside the box and find simple yet innovative solutions,” notes Ortiz.

“The beauty of this technology is its simplicity and ease of implementation in the field. It’s innovative in that many companies were afraid to put cold gas in the reservoir, while we took that leap of faith.”

Ultimately, this solution could benefit both ConocoPhillips and the industry at large.

Says Ortiz, “We have been working with COSIA – Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance – to share technologies that will benefit industry with lower emissions and make the Canadian oil sands more competitive on the world stage. Non-condensable gas injection is an option that has potential for all oil sands operations and for sharing through COSIA. If we achieve a 15-25 per cent reduction in steam use, the impact on GHG emissions in Alberta will be massive.”

Building on the project’s early success, ConocoPhillips has been awarded funding from Emissions Reduction Alberta to help fund a new non-condensable gas co-injection effort aimed at areas that have top water over bitumen. It’s another big challenge, but one that Ortiz believes could deliver equally significant results.

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Julian Ortiz Technology Project Integration Manager, ConocoPhillips