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Topic 58: Discuss the safety and environmental issues of unconventional crude oil exploration

haroon latif's picture

There has been an increase in the exploration of unconventional crude oils, which almost equal global conventional oil reserves - from bitumen through to heavy oils. Discuss the safety and environmental issues that arise from their exploration, and possible solutions.


haroon latif's picture

Bitumen or Tar sands are found mainly in Canada and are an abundant unconventional crude oil resource. But due to there high API and viscosity level (I.e. they do not flow) they present a challenge to engineers to mine for them. The stages of tar sand exaction to processed to crude oil is given below: 

1) Mining & extraction - removal of surface land - plants and trees uprooted to create quarry to mine for tar sands, extracted with huge shovel like machinery.

2) Transporting - tar sands mixed with water to form slurry and transported via pipelines to processing plant.

3) Upgraded to final commercial product 

According to the NRDC, Tar sand exaction has detrimental impacts on human lives and the environment. From damaging the local ecosystem, to producing greenhouse gas emissions and producing toxic waste that pollutes the ground water supply. The ‘toxic waste’ is a mixture of sand and bitumen residue with volatile and acidic properties, and is the discharge from the upgrading process.  

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) has tried to mitigate these impacts caused by tar sand production, by using clean energy sources to power the extraction process (such as nuclear or renewable energy) and focusing on land reclamation once a mine has been made redundant. However the impacts of waste water and contamination of the fresh water supply still need to be addressed further.  

Ref NRDC: Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks Accessed 6th December 2012 

Alain-Yves (2011) Heavy Crude Oils From Geology to Upgrading - An Overview

Haroon Latif
MSc Oil and Gas Engineering

Adejugba Olusola's picture

The development of Oil sands has impacts on the air, water and land. Some of these environmental concerns around Oil Sands are detailed below:

Land Use & Waste Management – Mining operations of oil sands involves clearing trees and vegetation from a site and removing the overburden comprising of top soil, muskeg , sand, clay and gravel – that sit atop the oil sands deposit. Already in existence in Alberta is that as a condition of licensing, projects are required to implement a reclamation plan.

A stringent legislative requirement and appropriate implementation such as requirements to conduct Environmental Impact Assessments will identify potential issues and identify techniques to manage them.

GreenHouse Gas(GHG) Emissions - The amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced from steam generation and processing of oil sands is a concern however, they need to be compared with other crude oils. Lifecycle assessments to track GHG emissions from the extraction of crude through to production and use of end products can be conducted. In a “well to wheels” study conducted by BP in Alberta, it measured total GHG emissions from production through to consumption and found the lifecycle emissions for oil sands-based products to be 5-15% higher than those from average crude oil products used in the US[1}. In some cases, oil sands crude have lower life-cycle emissions compared with other heavy crude oils{2}. Options to manage emissions include implementing new technology and operating practices to improve the efficiency of energy use in both downstream and upstream processes.

Water Management – The development of oil sands is dependent on the technology being used for extraction but can be water intensive. Water is needed to make steam so the supply and management of water is an important part of the process. Water withdrawals can be made from natural river flow but to protect the quality of the river, no production water should be returned to the river. However, the use of water from underground acquifers will ensure a high level of water conservation without impacting on potable water for use in communities around.Innovation and application of new technologies is critical to reducing the environmental footprints of oil sands development.



2.       Government of Canada. Oil Sands – A strategic resource for Canada, North American and the global market. August 2011.

Adejugba Olusola

Oluwatosin A. Oyebade's picture

Just to add more on your points Adejugba, Facts and figures points out that current reserves of Unconventional crude is much more than the conventional crude available now so exploitation of unconventional crude is inevitable.

Despite the large reseres of the unconventional crude, there are a number of safety issues associated with its exploration and production depending on the region where its being exploited and the nature of the crude. For example in Canada, tar sands are known to ruin boreal forests and swamps, shake off massive amounts of noxious waste and result in bulk amounts of GHG emission. Regions producing tight shale oil would face different critical issues from fracking due to extra energ required during its extraction. During pipeline transportation of oil sands to refineries, the corrosive and acidic mixture of diluted bitumen and volatile natural gas lquid condensate present poses risk of spills and pollution to aquifers, watercourses and ecosystems in general. Generally, new safety standards need to be enacted to effect protection from raw tar sand oils in pipelines especially in the United States where the crude reserve is abundant but stricter climate policies that integrate the full carbon effect and co-products of bitumen such as petroleum coke need to be endorsed in places like Europe where the tight oil reserves are closer to population centres.


Oluwatosin Oyebade

Msc Oil and Gas Engineering


Tianchi You's picture

It is estimated that unconventional oil will be increased significantly, in that case , the issues about safety and the challenges behind the technology have been considered carefully. Compared with conventional oil, the unconventional oil includes the Canadian tar sands, Venezualan heavy oil and oil shale. I want to talk about my personal opinions about the problems behind tar sands.

Tar sands, also can be called oil sands or bitumious sands, is a typical type of unconvential petroluem deposit. Normally, tar sands include 75% of inorganic stuff, 10% of bitumen, 10% of sands and 5% of water on average.  There are several procedures of processing tar sands into synthetic oil.

  • Firstly, it needs to be heated into bitumen
  • Secondly,taking advantage of the water from river or somewhere else (but normally it uses the water from river near the factory), to seperate the sand grains and bitumen.
  • Thirdly, it is the most difficult process which is people need to inject hydrogen or isolate some kinds of carbon-based elements to transfer it with some special dilument and then transport it , or modified it into light synthetic oil.

It can be seen that compared with conventional oil which is based on the mature-technology , the unconventional takes more time and money to explore and process. What's more, due to some estimation said that the predicted exploration of tar sands should be 2.8million barrels per day; however, the real number is 1.6million. According to EIA (Energy Information Administration) in US, the consumption of liquid fuels in 2030 will be 108million barrels per day in the whole world, but tar sands can not make a such significant contribution even though it can be explored 5million barrels per day in 2030.

To sum up, tar sand's future is not that bright in my opinion...



Tianchi You


Oil&gas engineering


Andrew Strachan's picture

There are obvious safety issues with unconventional crude oil exploitation but I am not sure these are vastly different from conventional oil. If anything, due to the fact that heavy oil needs to be forced out of the ground, the stored energy risk is less and there is more control, so extraction is comparatively safer.

The problems with unconventional crude lie in the intensive amount of energy required to recover compared with conventional. Technology advancements and a gradual increase in demand as conventional reserves decrease should ensure heavy oil is economical in the future, unless we find an alternative....

SanjayVyas's picture

Continuous rise in crude oil prices coupled with growing demand has forced countries to
explore alternative fossil fuel resources such as unconventional crude, shale
gas etc. However these unconventional resources have their own operational and
HSE challenges. Limited information is available on hazards associated with technology
involved in exploration and processing of unconventional oil. Hydraulic
fracturing /shale gas have raised health and safety concerns in many
communities in UK.
As commented by Adejugba Olusola the environmental releases from
unconventional oil relatively higher and have greater carbon foot prints than from
conventional crudes.

Both Industries and Regulators need to work together to ensure that facilities are designed,
constructed and operated to standards that protect people and the environment.
Environmental Agency and HS Executive are working together to regulate
unconventional oil and gas developments-

References -Who is afraid of Unconventional Oil -

faizakhatri's picture

The tar-sand resources have the potential to yield to produce in commercial quantity of oil. Mostly The tar-sand petroleum-extraction technologies now being considered for commercialization including  both ways:

Surface (aboveground) systems 

In situ (underground) procedures. 

 The surface systems  :

Currently the below processes are considered globally: (1) Thermal decomposition processes(retorting),(2) Suspension methods (solvent extraction),(3) Washing techniques (water separation)

Underground bitumen extraction :

Techniques now being field tested are :(1) In situ combustion (2) In situ steam-injection procedures.

Globally  70% of  large quantities of tar sand  can be found  mostly in Canada, lies deep and mostly it’s produced by a damaging strip mining method which included Hot water is added to the result, piped to a plant and then agitated before the oil is skimmed off. The process needs :

Huge amount of water(Oil sands production is both energy and water intensive.)


A lot of space for the waste. (To manage huge waste)


These kind of Oil  production  is expensive, wasteful and environmentally hazardous because it emits GHG gases ,production related emission such as an air pollutant because of Oil Sand processing prior to combustion. In my opinion Unfortunately it carries serious disadvantages as compare to their advantages.



A Comprehensive Guide to the Alberta Oil Sands by:  Michelle Mech May 2011


Faiza khatri 

M.Sc oil and gas engineering

t01sik12's picture

Unconventional crude oil exploration is a  type of petroleum that is produced or obtained through techniques other than traditional oil well extraction. Unconventional oil production is commonly seen as more costly than conventional oil and, in most cases, is much less efficient.

One unconventional method is refining extra-heavy oils and oil sands, which include high levels of heavy metals. These methods have a negative impact is our environment, they are not as good as conventional oil. Most of the materials used in unconventional oil drilling have high amounts of toxic substances, such as sulfur. The areas from where unconventional oils come also are generally more hazardous for workers or personnel.

These kind of Oil  production  is expensive, wasteful and environmentally hazardous because it emits GHG gases ,production related emission such as an air pollutant because of Oil Sand processing prior to combustion. These kind of exploration admits more risk than conventional . Reference 1) 


 Samuel KanuMsc Subsea Engineering    

Alabi Ochu Abdulraheem's picture

Large volume of produced water is generated during heavy oil production. This produced water contains high concentration of inorganic salts, metals hydrocarbons and organic acids (threats) which poses a very high risk because of the consequences of ecological damage if discharged untreated. One way to mitigate against the high risk posed by these large volume of produced water associated with heavy oil production is by volume minimization, underground injection, beneficial reuse, treatment to remove the major threats etc.
Another environmental issue with heavy oil production is the high sulphur content (threat) associated with its production. Sulphur is of a great threat to the environment when released into the atmosphere in gaseous form as it tends to increase the tendency of formation of sour corrosion on exposed metal surfaces. This risk of sulphur production can actually be mitigated during the processing of the heavy oil so that they are obtained and put into other uses.
Finally a very great issue that cannot be neglected is the production of sand along with the heavy oil during its exploitation. The risk here is more of an economical risk which can only be mitigated against by the kind of technology deployed for the heavy oil production.
1) Maurice B. D. and Roman A. B.“Mitigation of Heavy Oil Production Environmental Impact through Large-Scale Slurry Fracture Injection of Wastes” SPE 1996, Norway.
2) Jerry M. N.“Mitigation of Heavy Oil Production Environmental Impact through Large-Scale Slurry Fracture Injection of Wastes” SPE Galveston, Texas, USA. March 2007.

Brenda Amanda's picture

While I agree with the safety and
environmental issues concerning heavy oil extraction raised on this blog, I
would like to argue that the extraction processes continue to be modified to
cater for these concerns.

Some of the worrying issues as
already mentioned include the use of very large volumes of water required for
extraction of deep oil sands and in effect the emissions from the energy sources
used to heat this water, not to mention the possibility of fracturing reservoir
rocks. The associated risks are recognized and a lot of research and developed
is being supported by the Canadian government and companies such as Petrobank

The result of this is that more
efficient and environmentally friendly technologies such as toe-to-heel air
injection and solvent processes such as VAPEX are being developed to allow for
the sustainable and environmentally friendly (as much as can be) extraction of
heavy oils in Canada and other places.



Sineenat Kruennumjai's picture

Topic 58: Discuss the safety and environmental issues of unconventional crude oil exploration

Unconventional crude oil is the oil resources which cannot be directly explored and produced by the conventional processes. Because unconventional crude oil is trapped in sediments rock (shale rocks), so it need some processes to produce its. Hydraulic fracturing is one of the importance techniques for unconventional crude oil exploration and production.   And there are some hazardous associated with this processes. Firstly, hydraulic fracturing can cause a small earthquake because this process associated with high pressure fluid injection. Moreover, chemicals in the fluid injection might pollute ground water, and then create water pollution.  Future more, some toxic gases might release from the processes, and they can damage workers (when they breathe such gases in).   


Posted By
Sineeenat Kruennumjai

Uko Bassey's picture

The excessive demand for crude oil is growing unequivocally with the current estimated reserves and production recovery rate. In order to continuously meet the demand of energy needs and its derivatives, engineers and operators are going the extra mile to mine for both conventional and unconventional oil irrespective of the location and the difficulties posed by the unconventional oil like shale gas, heavy oil, bitumen, sand tar, etc. 

The cost and challenges of recovering unconventional oil reserves are far higher than that of their counterpart oil due to their flow difficulty posed by the high viscosity (API gravity). Irrespective of the challenges production is increasing and newer technologies are evolving periodically with increasing research to aid their production. Different methods of production and processing exist with their corresponding environmental and economic effects. Environmental effects like the high release of green house gases and direct heating of the ecosystem with such methods like in situ combustion are quite predominant. This combustion mostly uses natural gas and fuel to generate steam, but it is becoming more expensive due to short supply. Alternative fuels such as coal, heavy oil, or byproducts of heavy oil upgrading could be used, but simply burning them will release large quantities of CO2, a greenhouse gas. Gasification with CO2 capture and sequestration to minimize greenhouse gases is the next option under consideration by operators and regulators. As mention earlier in this blog, nuclear power has also been proposed, but it is facing societal opposition. Another fuel option is using the unconventional oil itself by injecting air into the reservoir for in situ combustion. After production further challenges are experienced in both transporting and the processing stages before final products. 

There are lots of researches are ongoing sponsored by government, energy companies, educational institutions as well as joint industry projects aiming at generating more efficient, economical, safe and environmental friendly methods of unconventional oil production.


1. BRIAN CLARK, GRAVES GORDON W. etal, 2007. HEAVY OIL, Working Document of the NPC Global Oil and Gas Study. Paper #22 made available on July 18, 2007 [accessed November 18, 2012.]

2. BELLARBY, JONATHAN, 2009. Well completion design.  Amsterdam, Netherlands ;   London : Elsevier.

ROHIT NAIR's picture

As we all know the light crude oil
resources is depleting throughout the world, but the demand for oil and oil
related products is on the rise. This has forced operators worldwide to look
for other oil sources. 40% of total oil reserves of the world are comprised of
heavy oil. But extracting heavy oil and also processing it has always been the
difficulty the operators face during heavy oil extraction. This is because the
viscosity and density of heavy oil is more than the conventional crude oil thus
it does not easily flow through the pipelines. But oil and gas industry is an
ever-growing industry and the development of new technologies has helped
overcome these difficulties. The most important among them is:

Subsea separation units

separator unit

These units help
in processing of the heavy oil at the subsea level and also help in removing sand
and other impurities from the oil mixture thus helping reduce the viscosity,
which leads to smoother flow of hydrocarbons.

Rohit C Nair
Subsea Engineering
Student id- 51231896

Savitha Haneef's picture

I find it disturbing that government is biased towards the oil companies in Fort chip region with no regard to environment and the health of people.The people here is paying a high price by living downstream from the tar sand plants.I dont beleieve in the study suggesting there is no link between cancer and the oil sand exploration.It is certain that something is wrong in the community .The study by CBC shows a steady increse in the number of cancer cases. This calls for more scientific investiagtion into this matter.

It is good that technology is advancing and new experimental methods like toe to heel air injection method, patented by Petrobank Energy and Resources, are being used for the extraction methods.It has shown to produce more resources while crating less environmental footprint. The water used for the process is released to the environment after treating.

Savitha Haneef

MSC Safety & Reliability Engineering

Connie Shellcock's picture

I agree with Savitha’s point above where she
speculates that peoples health have been effected by living in close proximity
to oil sands. In the past, the communities surrounding the tar sands in Alberta
used the Athabasca River as a water source. When the plant was set up, the
community of Fort McKay were given two water tanks to replace the river as a
water source as the river was becoming contaminated with effluent from the
plant. However when these tanks were destroyed the community was forced to use
the river once again. A study involving analysis of metal elements in the hair
of children in Fort McKay suggested that they had abnormally high levels of
lead in their system compared to average. This was thought to be of a direct
result of using resources like water that were being contaminated by the nearby
oil sands plant. This information was taken from 20 years ago but it still goes
to show that communities were directly effected by the proximity and the
behaviour of the plant.
(Moon, Smith
et al. 1986)

1986. Trace metals in scalp hair of children and adults in three Alberta indian
villages. Science of The Total Environment, 54(0), pp. 107-125.


charlesggeorge's picture


 When i gone through some data’s regarding environmental
impact of tar sand i like to explain with an example..As we know oil sands or
tar sand is major deposit of petroleum and it contains mixture of water, sand ,
clay and petroleum. Currently there is need of demand in oil have rapidly
increasing so that oil sand reserves are becoming very interest to the
consumers, but the extraction process of tar sand is inefficient. As we know some
of the biggest reservoirs of crude oil in Canada. Many environmental experts said
that contaminants from these mines (exploration) flow into the river,
directly affecting the Native communities who live downstream. From other
sources it noted that these tar sands are poisoning the fish in the bodies
of water .Further reports with regards to environmental and health
concerns have found higher instances of cancers in this area and the mining
expansion has also caused major negative changes in the lives of those
individuals living in these areas. With respect to environmental and health
problems, the exploration of unconventional crude oil is a big concern.


in Oil and gas Engineering


Oil sand is one of the unconventional oil deposit. When the demand for the oil increase and the supply reduced, people started using unconvenstional oil source. There are many environmental issues associated with this exploration. Large amount of water is used to separate  the oil and sand. Large amount of natural gas is released during the extraction process. Air quality calculated around the oil sand region shows that the amount of hydrogen sulfide are high. Large amount of trees were cut done and top soil, mud, clay, gravels are removed from the site. These all will damange thr ecosystem. Oil sand exploration is destroying the aquatic life and the rate of cancer among the people living near by is increasing. 


Kelvin Arazu's picture

Unconventional oil is extracted using techniques other than the conventional method. This operation is less efficient, high environmental impacts, and less economical.

They are heavy oils of less than 20oAPI gravity therefore producing it provides additional concerns, as there would be need to apply heating to their reservoirs to reduce viscosity so as to produce it at the surface.  Large volume of water is used for producing heavy crude.

The consequence of this operation to health and safety procedure includes:

The discharge of carbon dioxide into the environment as the shale is heated.

Injection of chemicals (surfactant) into the reservoir would lead to the contamination of underground water aquifer.

They contain heavy metal and the injection of water into the reservoir would increase its concentration.

Mitigating the impact of these activities would be, placing plants in key areas to reduce the effective emissions of carbon dioxide. As much asour hearts are in the production of heavy crude to satisfy global energy need, we have to recognize that the laid down safety practise for this technology should be observed by the operators to protect the environment.

ROHIT NAIR's picture

Kelvin I understand your concerns but the recent developments in
technology has helped the operators come up with an improved environmental
friendly solution for the extraction of heavy oil. I would like to state the
example of Grane field in the Norwegian Continental Shelf. It is a heavy oil
field and they are currently employing gas injection for increasing the
reservoir pressure, which does not affect the water aquifer by any chance. They
are producing around 200.000bbl/day from that field alone and in the present
scenario where the energy demand is on the rise and there is shortage in the
conventional oil sources, I think unconventional oil is the way to go. And I would
like to state a point that 40% of worlds total oil reserves is heavy oil.

Rohit C Nair
Subsea Engineering
Student id- 51231896

haroon latif's picture

I agree with Kelvin’s point and many of the other comments in this blog with regards to the environmental impacts and risks associated with the exploration of unconventional crude oil. It seems that ‘heavy’ oil requires greater amounts of energy to extract the oil from the ground than conventional oil due to them being more viscous. One method mentioned briefly in the above comments is by steam injection - which requires much energy and water which is both damaging to the environment from emissions and possible water contamination. 

Compared to conventional (lighter) crude oil exploration, heavy oil exploration seems more demanding both economically and environmentally. Not to mention the extra ‘upgrading’ stage required to convert the heavy oil to a more commercial product. I believe the current inflated price of oil per barrel is subsidising the exploration for heavy oils. Should the global demand for crude oil fall along with its price, then many heavy oil companies may begin to make a loss and move onto alternative sources of oil, such conventional, shale or even synthetic oils. 

Haroon Latif
MSc Oil and Gas Engineering

ROHIT NAIR's picture

On the contrary I believe that heavy oil is the solution for all the
energy needs. You mentioned about the upgrading stages required for the
processing of heavy oil. I would like to tell you about a new technology, the
in-line separation units that can be introduced into any field wit the least
possible downtime and which can process heavy oil at the subsea level itself
thus reducing the need for topside modification and also reducing the cost
incurred by the operators. Also gas injection is being used for increasing the
reservoir pressure to extract the oil. It is estimated that after all the oil
has been extracted this injected gas can be recovered and sold.

Rohit C Nair
Subsea Engineering
Student id- 51231896

haroon latif's picture

Whilst I do agree with you that heavy oil is a valuable part of our energy needs, with reserves of heavy oil estimated to equal conventional oil levels. However I believe a high percentage of these reserves are unrecoverable with the current technology available. And considering the risks already associated with heavy oil exploration (both economic and environmental ones) wouldn’t it be more ideal to concentrate on an alternative source of oil? 

Heavy oil production is economically viable in this economic climate due to the high costs of energy and oil per barrel. The point I was trying to make is that the exploration and processing of heavy oil would not be feasible if the oil price dropped along with the demand of oil.

Haroon Latif
MSc Oil and Gas Engineering

ROHIT NAIR's picture

Innovation is the answer to all problems. The problem with heavy oil
recovery is its viscosity, which is basically due to the sand in the
hydrocarbon mixture. But by using subsea separators you don’t damage the eco
system , you don’t incur additional costs in modifying topside facilities for
heavy oil processing and hence I don’t see any problem in heavy oil exploration. And just to be clear the technology i am talking about is for offshore heavy oil exploraion and not onshore

Rohit C Nair
Subsea Engineering
Student id- 51231896

haroon latif's picture

The method of upgrading the heavy oil may become more feasible with adequate technological advances as you mention, but the same problem will still arise though, energy is needed to reduce the viscosity of the heavy oil via steam or solvent method so it can be extracted. The later will probably pollute the sea’s marine life. 

Also another drawback with heavy oil is, that for every 1 barrel of crude oil produced requires 3 barrels of heavy oil or tar sands approximately. Transport costs will also be greater as well, due to the viscosity of the oil requiring more energy needed to pump the oil through pipes. Therefore the cost/profit margin is fine when it comes to heavy oil production. 

Haroon Latif
MSc Oil and Gas Engineering

ROHIT NAIR's picture

Energy used for separation of sand from the hydrocarbon mixture is
electrical energy supplied to the subsea separator unit via the umbilical. And the
method for extracting is gas injection, which increases the reservoir pressure
for extraction of heavy oil. And for transportation, once the sand and other
impurities are removed from the oil mixture, it has reduced viscosity,
equivalent to that of conventional oil. And about the EOR techniques, are they
not being used in all the mature fields across the world?? So do you intend to
say oil extraction should be stopped?? I’ll like to state that it is estimated
that only 20 % of oil can be extracted without using any EOR techniques.

Rohit C Nair
Subsea Engineering
Student id- 51231896

haroon latif's picture

The point I was trying to make with my argument is techniques to extract heavy oil, such stream injection or any other enhanced recover technique for that matter require more energy usage in comparison to using the same technology on conventional oil extraction. Obviously if oil has a greater API more energy will be required to extract it, i.e. producing more emissions and resulting in higher costs.

I did not say we should stop the exploration of oil, rather we should use Heavy oil as a last resort option instead, when it is more cost effective to extract oil from conventional oil fields for example.

Haroon Latif MSc Oil and Gas Engineering

ROHIT NAIR's picture

Hmm i'll like to learn more about this.. i agree to ur point about the energy required being more for the extraction of heavy oil. but if u see statistically, the 70% of the conventional light crude oil reserves are exploited using EOR techniques which will use the same or even more energy consumption than heavy oil. so whats wrong in exploring heavy ooil resources.??

Rohit C Nair
Subsea Engineering
Student id- 51231896

Thomas Ighodalo's picture

Due to the need to meeting the ever increasing energy demands, the need to resort to heavy oil recovery was thus inevitable due to the quantity of reserves available, which is almost twice the volume of convention crude oil [1]. the safety challenges faced in time past by the extraction of heavy oils are currently being addressed by innovative recovery solutions which leave little footprint on the environment, one of such innovative solutions is highlighted below.

Vapor Extraction (VAPEX)

A non-thermal recovery method that involves injecting vaporized solvents
into heavy oil, VAPEX creates a vapor-chamber that oil flows through
due to gravity drainage. It has the potential to lower greenhouse gas
emissions and significantly reduce water consumption, compared to other
technologies currently in use, and can be used to recover bitumen from
zones too thin for traditional thermal recovery. 








"Everything we hear is an opinion not a fact"

Ber_Mar's picture

My concern about the heavy oil exploration is the earth stability as more and more dense materials are being extracted. While reservoir pressure must be stabilized after decomissioning the search for heavy oil being 40% of the existing oil arround the world might distabilize areas with seismic activity or other tsunamis due to underwater subsedences. I guess that where the two of you come from is right and the discussion is very Valid. Nevertheless i would like to introduce this points, as well as other technologies being used such as ESP, but about that i will talk on another topic not to lose the conversation flow.

Hani Shobaki's picture

There is an estimated 3 trillion barrels of heavy oil that is inaccessible using current technology (1), and as conventional "easy" oil runs out companies are looking to take a larger percentage of this heavy oil reserve. By developing new technology production can be improved, but at what cost?

One of the most novel approaches to heavy oil is through the use of biotechnology (1&2). Using the bacteria's metabolic products to alter the oil's viscosity allow it to flow more effectively. While it is great to have a resource that can literally be grown as needed and is cheap, it is also very important to consider the risks too.

When implementing a biotechnology in the field, the bacteria must be controlled and non-harmful to the environment. As well as safety factors, the financial consequences could severe if a field was to be ruined by ineffective bacteria. Extensive laboratory testing is required, before technologies of this sort should be used in the real world.

1. Al-Sulaimani, H., Joshi, S., Al-Wahaibi, Y., Al-Bahry, S., Elshafie, A., Al- Bemani, A. Microbial biotechnology for enhancing oil recovery: Current developments and future prospects. Applied Biotechnology. Vol.1(2). 2011.
2. Behlulgil, K., Donmez, S., Mehmetoglu, T. Application of Microbial Enhanced oil Recovery Technology to a Turkish Heavy Oil. Applied Microbiological Biotechnology. Vol36. 1992. Pp.833-835.

Edwin Lawrance's picture

The main
unconventional sources of energy are the oil sands, shale gas and shale oil.
Impact of these unconventional sources on the environment is far greater than
the other conventional sources. As stated in the previous posts oil extraction
from oil sands can pollute large quantities of water with lead and sulphur.
This can be followed by soil and air pollution as well. Studies from Fort McMurray, Alta which has
several mines emits pollutants to the atmoshpere equivalent to the pollution
caused by 4800 buses together. Similarly the rivers in the area are affected
with high concentration of arsenic and lead. With the available technology the possible
damage done to the environment by the exploration of unconventional sources
cannot be solved rather can cope up by following the extraction tasks more
efficiently. Chance for improvement in this field is large.

Ike Precious C.'s picture

Good comments have been mentioned earlier but I would like to make a few comments.

It is no longer news that the major unconventional oil focused on in recent years is the Heavy Oil. This is as a result of the huge volume of heavy oil naturally occuring.

Heavy Oil's major challenge, as mentioned earlier is its viscosity, that its resistance to flow easily. 

The viscosity element has led to innovations that need higher temperatures and pressures, (higher than temperatures and pressures of conventional oil exploration and production), which will ease the flow of the oil through the flow lines during production and transportation. The introduction of Higher temperatures and pressures has a high impact on the level of safety because any leakage can result to serious damage and/or fatalities.

Also, Due to the shallow depths at which these heavy oils are discovered, the pressure within the reservoirs are less, hence short-lived after a limited time. This has led to mutiple wells used and injection wells used to inject dilutants to make the oil less dense, flow easily etc.

Another challenge is the volume of water produced after a short while which has rasied questions about the efficiency of artificial lift. 

Some other major challenges faced are: 

1) Emulsion-formation: This may form within pipelines during production. When such lines are clogged, separation of gas/oil/water which in turn could lead to harmful release of such wastes into the sea which in turn leads to harm to the environment.

2) Complexity of Design: Due to the High temperatures and pressures attached to the processing of heavy oil, the risk factor becomes high which in turn will lead to a higher cost of risk-reduction with respect to the risk. 

Thank you

Oghenekevwe Ovbije's picture

In the quest to meet the world energy demand and the present high cost of oil is making the exploration and production of oil and gas go deeper and hence the need to harness the untapped unconventional reserves like heavy oil.

As Oluwatosin has mentioned in an earlier post, reserves of the unconventional crude are much more than the conventional crude available. To harness this form of oil, high level expertise and new technologies are required. The production of unconventional oil can cause a lot of harm/damage to humans and the environment. A few of the problems are:

•Emission of green house gases that pollute the atmosphere
•Excessive use of water
•Heat required to produce heavy oil
•Contamination of water system
•Inappropriate disposal of waste

Abdulazeez Bello's picture

 The risk in the exploitation
of unconventional oil (heavy oil) is much especially as industries know-how is
still at the infancy stage. This heavy oil contains larger carbon footprints
throughout its fuel cycle resulting to increase in green-house gas emission. The
oil is ranked based on how heavy it can be and how low its API gravity can go
making transportation much difficult. 
The method of production can also be challenging as in situ oil sands
production in Canada is causing environmental problems like land- use
It is up to the regulatory bodies and decision makers  like, IEA, API and DNVs to define the agreeable
threshold unless the campaign for global warming not to exceed the 2°C and 450 ppm at atmospheric
concentration by many world governments will just be a mere intention.
In conclusion new policy guidance is needed to drive the heavy oil market and
ensure that climate changes are continuously monitored and the level of
greenhouse gas is checked using less polluting Enhanced Oil Recovery, EOR
methods in the extraction and processing of this oil.

Gordon, D., (2012) ‘Understanding unconventional Oil’ Energy and climate
[Online] Available at
[Accessed on 11 December 2012]



Tony Morgan's picture

Viscosity is the key -
Wish i had found this last month when i was doing my heavy oil project !!!
This looks to be an excellent environmental solution to the issue since this captures most of the product or method concerns of heavy oil exploitation. Surely this is still preferred to fracking ? . we must still do more to balance the environmental side with the energy supply and development strategies for countries and the world as a whole.

For info -
Canada and Venezuala are the key areas of resource although there are many across the globe where Worldwide deposits of heavy hydrocarbons are estimated to total almost 5½ trillion barrels, and four-fifths of these deposits are in the Western Hemisphere. 
This report suggests CANADA may be considered second only to Saudi for oil reserves in this context.

On the environmental side this document really motivates me to make comments about protection of our ecology to ensure its availability for subsequent generations as being essential. Contrasting debate and critical review is necessary and must be supported by both the develops and anti-developers both the ying and yang must be in place for our way of life to thrive and even more critical for its survival-

tony morgan

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