Jeremy Gizen believes the secret to successful technology development is keeping an open mind to discovery.
“Sometimes in chasing down one opportunity, you open the door to other opportunities. You need to keep an open mind to what you find,” says Gizen, Vice President, Subsurface Operations, Environment & Regulatory at MEG Energy, a 90,000-barrel-a day Alberta in situ thermal oil producer.
In making this point, Gizen is sharing the story behind one of the company’s biggest technological developments—enhanced modified vapour extraction (eMVAPEX). It’s the focus of a $105-million pilot project to dramatically reduce water use, increase efficiencies and cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity at MEG’s Christina Lake facility, located about 150 kilometres south of Fort McMurray.
The Eureka moment
Gizen remembers a turning point in 2011. At the time, Gizen and his engineering team were collecting data on a group of infill wells that had not yet been produced at Christina Lake.
“We went into the wells to confirm what we thought we knew . At first, we didn’t get the results we wanted, but we kept collecting information,” remembers Gizen, then MEG’s Director of Production Optimization. “The data we collected didn’t align with our expectations which forced us to reconsider our assumptions.”
Gizen and the team shared the well data with other experts, including Chi-Tak Yee, MEG’s Chief Operating Officer and Sube Bharatha. Both are engineers who had once worked with the late Dr. Roger Butler.
“We went back to do a closer analysis of temperature and other well conditions, and started to see something different,” says Gizen, who has degrees in chemical engineering and biological and mathematical sciences.
As the team searched for more information, a new approach to resource recovery started to crystallize in their minds. Traditional modeling of the SAGD reservoir assumes that heat is predominately transferred through conduction—much like your basic oven. The new data allowed the engineers at MEG to fine-tune their understanding of the convective behavior of the injected steam into the reservoir.
Armed with this new knowledge, MEG’s engineers were able to modify the recovery process to harness the accumulated heat in the reservoir and replace the steam required to mobilize the oil with a light hydrocarbon such as propane or butane. Further modifications were made to the operating philosophy of the well pairs and infill wells to maximize the overall recovery of the injected hydrocarbons.
“The light hydrocarbon would blend with the oil to reduce the bitumen’s viscosity. It would also ‘flash’ into vapor, helping to maintain optimum reservoir pressure,” Gizen explains.
Since then, development of the technology has advanced quickly, going from a single well “proof-of -concept” pilot in 2016 to three wells in 2017. Now, eMVAPEX is in the midst of a full pad scale demonstration involving seven well pairs. A recycling facility has also been built to recover and reinject the propane, further improving efficiency.
Support and growing attention
As the project has evolved, it’s captured the attention of major agencies promoting investment in clean technologies. In 2018, for instance, MEG was awarded $10 million in funding from Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) to support project commercialization.
“ERA has been a great support to this project, not only financially but also through sharing ideas with their project advisors. MEG is excited to collaborate with a team that shares MEG’s vision for a lower carbon future” Gizen says.
Certainly, the technology’s future is promising. MEG is predicting the new approach, if proved to be successful, could significantly improve its steam-oil-ratio (SOR), thereby freeing up steam to apply to new wells, and increase overall production. Moreover, with eMVAPEX requiring less steam per barrel of oil, direct GHG emission intensity could be reduced by over 40% per cent compared to traditional in situ methods.
Already on the strength of eMVAPEX and other clean production technologies, MEG has reduced its GHG emissions intensity by almost 10 per cent in the last five years.
Encouraged by progress, Gizen’s team is studying project results, fine-tuning the technology and looking at what’s needed to advance the technology to full commercialization at Christina Lake.
“At MEG, all employees play a part in the development of our technologies. Working on this project has been extremely motivating and brings our teams closer together. Collectively, we’re working on a new technology that’s going to have impact. We’re proud of our work and excited to see what eMVAPEX can do to change the way we do business in the future.”
Learn more about MEG Energy at www.megenergy.com.