‘Subway’ could tap in situ oilsands’ potential

CALGARY – A Calgary company is proposing a unique tunnelling method for extracting in situ oilsands that could allow production of bitumen thought to be inaccessible with current technology.

Osum Oilsands Corp. — the name is an an acronym for “oilsands underground mining” — is proposing a network of tunnels to develop its Saleski project to develop the Grosmont carbonate midway between Fort McMurray and Peace River.

Unlike conventional oilsands, where bitumen is encased in between molecules of water and grains of sand, Grosmont hosts some 320 billion barrels of oilsands resource encased in limestone, according to the Energy Resources Conservation Board, almost double the oilsand reserves considered recoverable with existing technology.

“When you’re talking about the Grosmont, it’s pretty easy to get into some very big numbers,” Jen Russel-Houston, the privately held company’s geosciences manager, told a meeting of the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists on Tuesday.

The first Grosmont wells were drilled in 1949 and efforts to extract the oil have been ongoing ever since. But Russel-Houston said the time and technology are ripe to revisit the carbonates.

“The world is ready to come back to Grosmont,” she said in an interview.

Although the resource potential of oilsands carbonates has been common knowledge for decades, getting the oil out of the ground has proven to be a much bigger challenge.

Osum is one of series of companies looking to develop new technology they hope will allow commercial production. If they’re successful, it has the potential to vault Alberta past Saudi Arabia for the world’s largest reserves.

In a method more akin to underground coal mining than the trucks and shovels used today, Osum is proposing to construct a series of mine shafts to drill up into the Grosmont deposit and inject steam from below the surface in a typical thermal well design. The produced oil would then be piped to surface through a network of underground processing facilities.

But Russel-Houston is quick to dispel the coal mine analogy, suggesting Osum’s technique will minimize surface disruption and benefit the environment.

“It’s more like a subway, and that’s how we think of it.”

Underground mining in the oilsands isn’t new. A report for the Petroleum Technology Association concluded underground mining is feasible for getting at inaccessible deposits.

“Underground mining could prove to be an effective method to extract oilsands in carbonate deposits that give poor in situ performance or oilsands that lack the critical level of confinement necessary for in situ extraction,” wrote report author Clayton Deutsch, an engineering professor at the University of Alberta.

Soheil Asgarpour, technology association president, said innovation will continue to be essential for future development of Alberta’s oilsands.

“There are huge, huge, resources sitting there with no way to produce them,” he said.

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