The extraction of petroleum is the process by which usable petroleum is extracted and removed from the earth.
Locating the oil field
Geologists use seismic surveys to search for geological structures that may form oil reservoirs. The “classic” method includes making an underground explosion nearby and observing the seismic response that provides information about the geological structures under the ground. However, “passive” methods that extract information from naturally-occurring seismic waves are also known.
Other instruments such as gravimeters and magnetometers are also sometimes used in the search for petroleum. Extracting crude oil normally starts with drilling wells into the underground reservoir. When an oil well has been tapped, a geologist (known on the rig as the “mudlogger”) will note its presence. Such a “mudlogger” is known to be sitting on the rig. Historically, in the USA, some oil fields existed where the oil rose naturally to the surface, but most of these fields have long since been used up, except in certain places in Alaska. Often many wells (called multilateral wells) are drilled into the same reservoir, to ensure that the extraction rate will be economically viable. Also, some wells (secondary wells) may be used to pump water, steam, acids or various gas mixtures into the reservoir to raise or maintain the reservoir pressure, and so maintain an economic extraction rate.
The oil well is created by drilling a long hole into the earth with an oil rig. A steel pipe (casing) is placed in the hole, to provide structural integrity to the newly drilled well bore. Holes are then made in the base of the well to enable oil to pass into the bore.Finally a collection of valves called a “Christmas Tree” is fitted to the top, the valves regulate pressures and control flow.
Oil extraction and recovery
During the primary recovery stage, reservoir drive comes from a number of natural mechanisms. These include: natural water displacing oil downward into the well, expansion of the natural gas at the top of the reservoir, expansion of gas initially dissolved in the crude oil, and gravity drainage resulting from the movement of oil within the reservoir from the upper to the lower parts where the wells are located. Recovery factor during the primary recovery stage is typically 5-15%.
While the underground pressure in the oil reservoir is sufficient to force the oil to the surface, all that is necessary is to place a complex arrangement of valves (theChristmas tree) on the well head to connect the well to a pipeline network for storage and processing. Sometimes pumps, such as beam pumps and electrical submersible pumps (ESPs), are used to bring the oil to the surface; these are known as artificial lift mechanisms.
Over the lifetime of the well the pressure will fall, and at some point there will be insufficient underground pressure to force the oil to the surface. After natural reservoir drive diminishes, secondary recovery methods are applied. They rely on the supply of external energy into the reservoir in the form of injecting fluids to increase reservoir pressure, hence replacing or increasing the natural reservoir drive with an artificial drive. Secondary recovery techniques increase the reservoir’s pressure by water injection, natural gas reinjection and gas lift, which injects air, carbon dioxide or some other gas into the bottom of an active well, reducing the overall density of fluid in the wellbore. Typical recovery factor from water-flood operations is about 30%, depending on the properties of oil and the characteristics of the reservoir rock. On average, the recovery factor after primary and secondary oil recovery operations is between 35 and 45%.
Enhanced, or Tertiary oil recovery methods increase the mobility of the oil in order to increase extraction.
Thermally enhanced oil recovery methods (TEOR) are tertiary recovery techniques that heat the oil, thus reducing its viscosity and making it easier to extract. Steam injection is the most common form of TEOR, and is often done with acogeneration plant. In this type of cogeneration plant, a gas turbine is used to generate electricity and the waste heat is used to produce steam, which is then injected into the reservoir. This form of recovery is used extensively to increase oil extraction in the San Joaquin Valley, which has very heavy oil, yet accounts for 10% of the United States’ oil extraction.Fire flooding (In-situ burning) is another form of TEOR, but instead of steam, some of the oil is burned to heat the surrounding oil.
Occasionally, surfactants (detergents) are injected to alter the surface tension between the water and oil in the reservoir, mobilizing oil which would otherwise remain in the reservoir as residual oil.
Another method to reduce viscosity is carbon dioxide flooding.
Tertiary recovery allows another 5% to 15% of the reservoir’s oil to be recovered. In some California heavy oil fields, steam injection has doubled or even tripled the oil reserves and ultimate oil recovery. For example, see Midway-Sunset Oil Field, California’s largest oilfield.
Tertiary recovery begins when secondary oil recovery isn’t enough to continue adequate extraction, but only when the oil can still be extracted profitably. This depends on the cost of the extraction method and the current price of crude oil. When prices are high, previously unprofitable wells are brought back into use and when they are low, extraction is curtailed.
Microbial treatments is another tertiary recovery method. Special blends of the microbes are used to treat and break down the hydrocarbon chain in oil thus making the oil easy to recover as well as being more economic versus other conventional methods. In some states, such as Texas, there are tax incentives for using these microbes in what is called a secondary tertiary recovery. Very few companies supply these, however companies like Bio Tech, Inc. have proven very successful in waterfloods across Texas.
Recovery rates and factors
The amount of oil that is recoverable is determined by a number of factors including the permeability of the rocks, the strength of natural drives (the gas present, pressure from adjacent water or gravity), and the viscosity of the oil. When the reservoir rocks are “tight” such as shale, oil generally cannot flow through but when they are permeable such as in sandstone, oil flows freely. The flow of oil is often helped by natural pressures surrounding the reservoir rocks including natural gas that may be dissolved in the oil (see Gas oil ratio), natural gas present above the oil, water below the oil and the strength of gravity. Oils tend to span a large range of viscosity from liquids as light as gasoline to heavy as tar. The lightest forms tend to result in higher extraction rates.
Petroleum engineering is the discipline responsible for evaluating which well locations and recovery mechanisms are appropriate for a reservoir and for estimating recovery rates and oil reserves prior to actual extraction.
Estimated ultimate recovery
Although ultimate recovery of a well cannot be known with certainty until the well ceases production, petroleum engineers will often estimate an estimated ultimate recovery (EUR) based on decline rate projections years into the future. Various models, mathematical techniques and approximations are used.
Shale gas EUR is difficult to predict and it is possible to choose recovery methods that tend to underestimate decline of the well beyond that which is reasonable.