Steam Chambers and Oil Leaks

A major issue for producers of Alberta heavy oil relates to one of the foundational technologies for producing the viscous fluid, which is using steam to extract the oil. This is a multidimensional problem. First the production of steam requires a source of water and access to subsurface and surface waters is being carefully monitored and throttled by the Provincial Government of Alberta. Another consideration is that using steam to produce heavy oil is energy intensive, and that contributes to the premise that heavy oil is dirty oil. More pressing recently are the mechanics of how steam is used to produce heavy oil.

Steam has a dual role. The most obvious is that the heat substantially lowers the viscosity of heavy and ultra-heavy oil. For example, the viscosity of McMurray Formation “oil” can be similar to that of smooth peanut butter. Think about that: oil producers need to move a fluid similar to peanut butter through the very small pore throats in the reservoir sandstone. When heated by steam, however, the viscosity becomes so low that it is similar to that of water. This brings us to the second role of steam, which is that a steam chamber must be allowed to develop. A steam chamber is a heated zone of the reservoir that is in part occupied by steam. The chamber not only heats the rock and oil, but it also expands the reservoir, due to steam pressure. This is important, as the dilation of the reservoir expands pore throats and fractures, improving the overall permeability within the steam chamber: this allows oil to flow even better. And therein is the problem. The expansion of the rock and fractures in some cases leads to steam and oil leaving the reservoir and migrating into rock formations above the resource. In extreme cases, the steam can arrive at the surface. This happened near the Ells River in the Athabasca area and the steam release was explosive, producing a large crater in the process.

A current example of resource escaping the oil reservoir due to steam drive is the CNRL Primrose leak. See:

In this case, it is still a little unclear how the oil made it to surface. But, there are only two feasible explanations. One is that the oil escaped upwards through fractures that were dilated by the steam pressure. Another is that the steam chamber intersected an older and forgotten well bore drilled by another oil company in decades past. The difference is not trivial, because the presence of fractures suggests that the whole play area cannot be developed with the steam pressures used prior to the leak. Lower steam pressures can be used but oil recovery is reduced. It is also fair to say that if one does not know where all of the previous boreholes are, you are left with a similar problem.

Objectively speaking, Alberta literally has a trillion of barrels of oil that, under the present technology absolutely require steam to be removed from the Earth. That is a century’s worth of oil production. So, you can see the problem, the steam is heavily linked to Alberta’s economic well being.

What would you do?

30 thoughts on “Steam Chambers and Oil Leaks”

  1. Since steam in very useful with extracting heavy oil and help the recovery process immensely, it would difficult to exclude it from the recovery process. As to prevent water contamination and having oil to reach the surface from fracing it is ideal to stop the steaming the rock to a heavy extent. Neither option of stopping or continuing on with the chance of contamination is ideal, but I personally believe that steaming is an amazing innovation to stop all together. I believe that to continue heavy steaming with uncertainty with fracturing seal rock or abandoned boreholes is a foolish idea. It if is a possibility that the oil can escape by way of abandoned boreholes, then possibly a form of traps set in place to catch the oil in those areas could prevent contamination via borehole. This oil could also possibly be captured and utilized. As of oil escaping by fractured rocks, it is probably very difficult to find areas where these rocks might fracture. If seal rocks are possibly viewed as weak or easily fractured compared to reservoir rock then I would believe that it would be best to steam at only a minor level.

  2. I would continue producing the oil sands in Alberta. The oil there is too vital a resource to ‘waste’ and leave it alone. After all, large portions of the province and even the country are employed by work in the oil sands. It should not be forgotten that Canada would probably not be as prosperous of a country without the oil sands.

    But, there is a need for more regulations. CNRL is, like all companies, being driven by profit (referring to the links). One of the problems lies in the rapid injection of steam, allowing for perhaps an over-pressuring/over-expansion of the rocks. It appears that there is a lose of control over the formation when this occurs, which by some might be considered as careless when considering the possible end results. I think the AER was right in stopping the production of this project. Companies need to put more resources into understanding the geology and any geologic weaknesses that might potentially cause leaking of the hydrocarbons. My suggestion is that if weaknesses are found then drilling should not go forward. Also, steaming projections should be set so that they inject minimal pressure on the reservoirs, pressure should be monitored at all times by companies and the AER.

  3. The heavy and ultra-heavy oil of Fort McMurray is vital to our economy and to meet the international demand but, perhaps, to ensure our environment is also prioritized, the integrity of the seal and overlying formations should be explored and modelled further.
    I think there should be greater seismic and geophysical exploration of overlying formations before pressurized steam injection. If existing fractures are a possible cause to the CNRL leak, then they were/are likely detectable by seismic imaging.
    The dominant focus in oil exploration is reservoir quality, but I believe it would be a mistake not to further test the critical strength of the sealing formation to minimize the risk of over-pressuring unintentional seal fracing.

  4. I agree that this type of production cannot be stopped. Although this is a terrible thing to happen to the environment and the oil industry as a whole, I feel that when compared to an open pit mine operation this is still a better choice. As conventional resources deplete, the unconventional become more feasible and new practices need to be implemented to keep this type of malpractice from reoccurring. If the Alberta government can introduce well data laws similar to that of core accessibility (where anyone can view it), I feel that companies would be more transparent about their operations and practices

  5. You would think profit loss would be enough motivation to better understand these reservoirs before over-steaming them. The Globe and Mail article claims they’ve lost 12,000 barrels at least. While I understand that CNRL’s immediate concern is to get back to work in the area I’m confused as to why they aren’t more concerned about investigating the initial cause. You would think it would be in their best interest to have more proof that it was just faulty wellbores rather than some problem with a fractured trap seeing as they intend to continue work in the area, but there doesn’t seem to be much to back up that statement.

    If it were me, I would want more evidence as to the cause of the leak, especially if this is a process that companies intend to use going forward (and it sounds as though it is!).

  6. The use of steam in oil production in western Canada is absolutely integral. Without it, as posted in the blog, huge reserves of oil would be left unrecoverable. With this in mind is also important to understand the ramifications that it brings with its use, as seen here the result can be environmentally damaging.

    I feel that a better understanding of the overall geology of the rock and past production history is vital. With this knowledge they would be prepared and better able to source this leak or possibly avoid it all together. If I were CNRL I would not try to proceed with continued steam injection until the cause had been found. This site has experience four leaks in the past and now another one is happening, at this point the site is a hazard and the source of this leak, needs to be conclusively identified. A proper study of the geologic nature of the overlying rock needs to be conducted as well information regarding all the well bores in the area needs to be accessed so this issue can be better understood and resolved.

  7. For now steam injection (both gravity assisted and cyclic) are the only methods that are able to get oil at an economical level. There may be some environmental issues at hand, but with the bad reputation that the oil companies have had since they started pulling black gold from the ground, their work towards greener and more eco friendly solutions are evident (even if they still prefer money over trees). With such a bad reputation already, they know that any kind of spill or miss hap would mean disaster to their reputation (and if they don’t have the cash to their business). So environmentally friendly acts are important for the image of a company. For example Exxon Mobil partnering with Stanford University on its Global Climate and Energy Project. The rate of technological advances is increasing with each year, sometime in the future there will be some idea that will be more cost effective, more environmentally friendly, and better at extracting oil faster. But for now we are left with steam. It may use a lot of water, but the withdrawal rate of oil sands projects is less than one per cent of the long-term average annual flow of the Athabasca River. It only seems like they are using a lot of water compared to everything else because of the amount used in one place. Then around 80% (not great, but not terrible) of that water can be recycled. So the advances in technology as well as the pressure of the oil company by environmentalists will drive steam injection to use less water, be less likely to spill into other formations, and less likely to fracture formations around it, or it will drive the companies to other methods. So keep on injecting those reservoirs of oil sand, just remember not to get your heads to high in the sky because it can be a long way down if you mess up.

  8. I agree with the responses in that a thorough understanding of the geology is needed, along with a better idea of the yield strength of all the formations that could potentially be affected due to overpressure- a contingency plan would not be a bad idea either. Obviously we can’t just stop using steam at the moment due to the absence of a better (or not an exceedingly expensive) solution.The initial steam pressure should be low, and the response of the reservoir should be quantified as much as possible. A minimum pressure should be established for recovery even if not all the resource is tapped. When the recovery becomes too low, then increase the pressure again if it seems ok to do so. This may at least minimize an oil or gas leak if a portion or a majority of it has already been recovered, rather than a large spill due to rapid over pressuring. I could be dead wrong, but it sort of makes sense? I’m not sure there’s really much more that can be done since I’m sure most companies try to cover all the bases as best they can. Alternatively, I would suggest to the government or whomever to invest heavily in researching a better process or modification so that events like these don’t happen again.

  9. There are two aspects we need to consider here. First of all is it possible to stop production? The knee jerk reaction is no, absolutely not. I am inclined to agree with this. However the use of hydrocarbons as an almost exclusive source for Alberta’s energy (quick google says 81% between natural gas and coal) seems foolhardy. Now granted this is not directly related to oil production however I believe it can be used as an analogy. This constant reliance on one source for energy, cosmetics, materials make me uncomfortable for where the future may lie. This however does not mean we should not utilize a resource we are completely adapted to using. I would liken not using Albertas fossil fuels to sitting in a room with a Cornucopia and starving to death.

    Aspect two is the environmental impact of the fracturing the subsurface, introducing foreign substances to the subsurface and the general mismanagement of this resource. I believe maintaining production is necessary, however as Earth Scientists we have two responsibilities. One, to pillage the earth for her resources (yes pillage). The second is to understand how the aforementioned pillaging affects the systems we are interacting with. The above case here is a failure of our second duty. Personally the idea of a previous well intersecting the steam chamber seems foolish. Therefore the fault falls not with a clerk who mismanaged some paperwork but with a team of Geologists (Earth Scientists) who pushed the system they were interacting with too far. Therefore I would propose CNRL geologists devoting resources to maintain their duties as stewards of the land as well as their employers bottom line.

    1. I would think that the (CNRL) geologists want to be good stewards. But, the aims of business include lowering production costs and increasing production rates. It is not easy for geoscientists and engineers to balance those aims with excessive caution. Really, this is where the government plays it’s role as defining good practice. This is a failure of oversight as much as anything.

  10. The heavy and ultra-heavy oil production by applying steam injection has been proved to be doable in western canadian sedimentary basin. Personally, I think it’s a great technology advance in this field. However, as it is bringing profits to our economics, it is common to have problems along with it. New innovations always come with controversies. Steaming, may have not been developed as mature as people expect it to,it cannot be denied due to several accidents. What we need to do is to perfect it, try to control it to certain extent, so the leakage through fractures may be trivial. Or maybe we can come out with some ways to cement the overlying rock unit, make compartments and so on.
    I think the leakage through an intersecting, previous borehole can be completely avoided by a building a well-developed management system. This should be the government’s job, and I believe it can be done quite well.

    1. That is true, but some well-bores from many decades ago are abandoned and forgotten. Difficult to plan for that.

  11. Oil is very important for nowadays life. Oil can produce the energy. Everything we do has the relationship with energy. In nowadays, using steam to extract the oil is the easiest way to get heavy oil form the stones, and will cost less, although it is really bad for environment. Steam is a wasting of fresh water and Leaking can course the groundwater pollution. Fresh water is very important for people too, and most of the water we use is from the groundwater. If we pollute the groundwater too much, we will lack the fresh water for using. But the leaking is hard to prevent. We cannot stop producing heavy oil, but we need to face up to the problems that coursing by the producing. Fix the problems that happened in time, don’t leave them behind. The bad effects will not stop by themselves, and they will grow bigger and bigger along with time. Because we don’t have better way to produce the heavy oil and stop the pollution, we need to fix the problems immediately. And we also need to go ahead to find the better way for producing heavy oil.

  12. Late to the discussion here, I think that although the environmental impacts of the leaks are terrible there really isn’t many other options to get the oil out of the ground. These articles do not cover the fact that many companies recycle the water they use and try to reduce the amount of fresh water wasted. As well they could put in place a desalinization plant so that less fresh water is used. Currently the other options in Canada to get to oil are fracking or tailings ponds, we also can find many examples of leaks or environmental problems with these methods as well. SAGD is the least intrusive and environmentally damaging method of the three. Until a better way to extract the oil comes about there really isn’t any other option to extracting it.

  13. Steam injection has a major role in heavy oil production. However, environmental effect could be much greater than any one could ever imagine. Even though the possibility is low, when it should happen, the company would face an obligation to spend tremendous amount of money to regain stability of the affected area and not to mention lose the money it invested on the project. Rather, companies better have well thought plans as to how safely manage their steam operation minimizing any effect to the surroundings, and to mitigate problems if they confront any. Analysing Geophysical data and any drilling history must be included in their initial oil production until we come up with better technologies to take care of these problems.

  14. I believe Mike Hudema is correct in saying that while the investigations are ongoing, CNRL should not be allowed to re-steam areas known to have been effected by these leaks. It would obviously cost a lot to do more geophysical and geological studying of the overlying formations, but the AER needs to send a clear message that “this is the cost of doing business”. Accountability is key here and these old abandoned well bores need to be answered for, however the investigations into the wells would also cost the taxpayers. I think the governments only role should be to define good practice. The cost of study and investigation should be pushed onto CNRL and not us, the taxpayers.

  15. I would continue production in Alberta, it is important to our economy, and vital to our way of life. That being said, great care should be taken when exploiting our resources. In this case, I would continue stop production within the basin until there is a really good idea why the steam made it to the surface. From there, a decision may be made to either continue production, at the same or reduced rate as before, or to halt production within the basin altogether.

  16. Whenever I hear about this type of issue my first thought is the repercussions in the agriculture industry. It just wouldn’t be economically feasible to stop using steam for the production of oil out of the oil sands at this point in time. Halting production would cause oil and gas prices in Western Canada to increase, which would put huge pressure on farmers. As it is, diesel prices are high enough and grain prices are low enough that it is getting difficult to make a profit. If farmers stop making profit, they stop producing, which would lead to food shortages worldwide. I’m not saying this would happen overnight but it would be inevitable. By allowing steam processes to be used to produce the oil sands, it would delay the price jump and give scientists time to come up with safer ways of mobilizing the oil or time to come up with an alternative to oil and gas altogether (not saying that’s the optimal option seeing as I plan on working in the oil and gas industry). So, although there are negative environmental impacts to using steam, it is a process that will keep the market steady for the time being. I’m sure that scientists working on innovations in the energy sector would prefer to have that hundred extra years to come up with better solutions to the world’s energy/pollution problem than to not have that time.

  17. A better understanding of the area being developed, other than just focusing on the reservoir and getting the resource out, is required. Although there is some difficulty in detecting old well bores and fractures, it can be done using techniques such as geophysics. Oil companies using steam should be required to have a base understanding of the area to assess any risks that using steam may bring up before using steam to extract oil. It is clear that when these risks are ignored, as they have been in the past, they can have great consequence, as pointed out in examples such as Ells River, Athabasca. However, there is another external problem, in that Oil Companies can experience disasters such as these and yet still come out profitable overall. I believe that using steam to extract oil can be done in an environmentally and economically friendly way, but only if restrictions are placed upon the companies using these technologies, and that they are enforced.

  18. “Objectively speaking, Alberta literally has a trillion of barrels of oil that, under the present technology absolutely require steam to be removed from the Earth.”

    I think that is it right there. While CNRL’s gaffe is perhaps the result of carelessness the fact remains, even in ideal situations steam is not a perfect method of extraction. A quick google search came up with Toe to Heel Air Injection (THAI). This method, explained in greater detail here (, involves injecting air into the toe (bottom) of the well and setting the hydrocarbons on fire. This will reduce the viscosity and upgrade some of the heavy oil in the reservoir. They estimate burning 10% of the oil in the reservoir in order to recover 70-80%, while saving half of the carbon emissions associated with production (vs steam methods). While this, to me, seems too good to be true I think current steam technology is by no means the ultimate method of heavy oil extraction. I do think, for the time being, it is necessary and should be practiced, but in some cases with greater care. However the fact remains, it is currently our best option.

  19. Heavy oil obviously plays an important role in Alberta’s present and future economy. Even though present day technology exists to extract the oil the methods are not perfect. However, to stop producing heavy oil would make no sense as Alberta’s future depends on heavy oil. Being satisfied with the current procedures extracting heavy oil is not good enough. Research into more efficient and environmentally friendly extraction methods will benefit Alberta’s reputation on a global scale and will also help preserve the environment.

  20. Sorry for being late to the discussion. Oil production is a vital economical aspect for Alberta and Canada as a whole. Therefore, to say that we should stop it is not a viable option. Oil is a world commodity and there will always be a demand. Even if we are not the one producing, someone else eventually will, and they will not likely have such a stable government and/or high environmental standard like what we have here. It is, then, only logical that we do not waste the resources we have. Adding to what I said, having a stable government allow us to make policies and regulations that at least mitigate some damage. While I was interning in Calgary, I had the chance to learn that the regulations we have here are much more extensive and sophisticated than anything we have in Asia.

    That being said, oil companies are there to make profits, and so there will also be problems. However, unlike some developing countries, we have the power to enforce, regulate and punish them. We must learn from our mistakes. The government must adapt and learn how to balance their oversight between environmental health and economical goal. The comments above so far have all pointed out what the government could do to improve their understanding of the risks of steam injection. In the end, technology will advance each year, and it will only be a matter of time before the process of oil extraction becomes more efficient and environmental friendly.

  21. It is important to note that the economy of Alberta and to a large extent Canada is majorly based on Oil and Gas production. During the recession, it was the economy of Alberta that sustained Canada has a nation. It is also important to note that the days of conventional plays with considerably lower risk is long gone. Therefore as a nation, we are left with no choice but to rely on unconventional Hydrocarbon resource develop (at least before greener sources become economical). This said, our lack of choices does not relieve us of our responsibility as environmental stewards. Profit oriented companies, if not mandated by government bodies, will opt for the cheapest and fastest oil recovery process. Yes, steam is essential in this process but there is a threshold for every material including rocks. If leakage to the surface is caused by steam chamber expansion (most probable in my opinion), the rate of production should not surpass rock strength threshold. Yes, less profit will be made but we preserve the earth that sustains our existence. On the optimistic side, if leakage is due to abandoned holes, an extensive search program should be undertake to find them. The value of the resource, the cost of clean up, and the cost to future generation greatly outweighs the cost of searching for these holes.

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  23. Why would they (the regulators) not allow CNRL to drill in a location at low enough steam pressures? I know right now they havent probably figured out what caused the contamination, but one of the most intellectual assumptions is over pressure of the reservoir to the overlying formations. the other assumption (which is the borehole intersections) just shows the complacency of both sides; AER for maybe having missed double checking one of their regulations and inspections (even the greenpeace campaigner admitted there are loopholes in their understanding of tar sand extraction techonologies) and CNRL for maybe not being aware of the risks of high pressure cyclic steam stimulations. This company has to produce oil somehow to keep the cash flowing for themselves even just a little. thats why they want to drill so bad despite the mess they made (although is it entirely their fault?).

    In terms of adjusting steam in cyclic steam stimulation, I think its exponentially going to hurt the economy as we decrease the application of steam. Yes, it’s safe and all, but lessening steam applications would only give us so little as we decrease the number of steam cycles, hence the term cyclic steam. CSS well life cycles have around ten steam injections (if im not mistaken) and span to about 12 to 15 years (the latter steam injections in the latter years give us more production = longer well life cycles = more money = more reasons to invest on this method. and were just gonna get rid of that?!). if we decrease the steam, would the method still provide a good investment?

    I say, we dont need to come up with new regulations in terms of steam applications (not yet or not immediately at least). Just be more meticulous about it. Inhibiting steam applications is totally going to hurt the economy of this province and the country. CNRL is begging for this application of lower pressure cyclic steam close to the leakage, just so it could have a little bit of food on its plate to eat (phew, i feel that these guys are dealing with a lot of lawsuits right now). Imagine if all companies using cyclic steam are begging for a little bit of food on their plates. yikes.

    What has to happen immediately though is the AER (also CNRL; they should feel guilty somehow) finding out what caused this mess. for now, let CNRL drill in the adjacent area (with just applying lower pressure steam). I know all this may sound stupid and easy to say, but there it is, in my opinion.

  24. I’m wondering if anyone has considered the fact that this site is located on the Cold Lake air weapons range as a possible link to oil reaching the surface. I understand that the target formation is quite deep but somehow a fracture has made it to the surface. If the reservoir is already stressed due to steam dilation, perhaps dropping large bombs too close could cause further fracturing. I don’t want to blame the military for this leak, I know they take great care in ensuring proper safety distances and are quite environmentally conscious. Perhaps a closer relationship is needed between oil companies and the military to mitigate future problems. Cold Lakes’ heavy oil is an important resource for the Alberta economy and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Nor do I think the Air Force will quit using the weapons range, as these are the two largest components of Cold Lakes’ economy. I’m not sure if it is even possible for this to be a link, but feel we need to study all potential causes in order to find a safe way to extract the oil while causing minimal impact on the environment.

  25. That’s a sticky situation.
    I have 2 thoughts, the first depends on the depth of the play if it is relatively shallow perhaps the pressure is too high and a slower pace of recovery is required. I was reading an AMA from a fracer ( and the sand used in fracing is to hold open the new permiability ( a proppant), could larger synthetic proppants be used to increase flow here in order to use lower heat and pressure?

    My second thought is, shouldn’t there be a record of all the wells drilled held by the government to share? It’s in our best interest to share this data.

  26. Although the premise is not necessarily correct the ‘dirty oil’ name really hurts the oil sands industry. Steam leading to further leaks and contamination just continue to tarnish the industry which further hurts prices and future investment in pipelines etc.
    Unfortunately many processes that are being done to reuse steam water, minimize environmental impact are not either:
    a) where they need to be to make a big impact
    b) Cost effective
    As the industry and economy stand continuing to improve these methods is key, but until that point is reached we must continue with the current methods of steam production to support the economy. To abandon the project would be fool-hearty both from an economic and political point of view. The Government must instead pay close attention to protecting the environment until better technology is in place.

  27. Since the heavy oil is so vital to Alberta’s economics, I think we should continue producing oil using fracking and steaming technology. But we can minimize the risk by carefully monitor and control the heavy oil producing.
    First, the water resource problem do exist, it is hard to monitor where the dirty water goes. But some companies like Suncor has reduced their water usage by recycling the injection water and steam, I think this helps to reduce the impact on environment.
    Second, I think the government should play an important role in monitoring subsurface geology and keep tracking oil companies’ oil production process, I think with everything been carefully monitored, we could minimize the risk of oil leaking and water contaminate.
    Over all, the better knowledge we have about subsurface geology, the lower environment risk we will have. And government should continue supporting the heavy oil recovery technology. Without a better alternative energy been found, all we could do is to improve present technology.

  28. Well I guess I will be the odd man out and say that these operations in questionable areas must be stopped or at least regulated much much more. Until companies can prove they know what will happen when they use these steam techniques they will have to do more research on them to improve them or find another way all together. Our oil industry already has a bad environmental reputation with mining operations, leaking tailing ponds and pipeline leaks. Oil companies are exactly that, companies. They do not care about the environment, despite what their message is, their only goal is profit. The government needs to put its foot down and stop potentially environmentally harmful practices. Im not saying stop all steaming operations, Im saying these types of wells must be studied thoroughly and if they are steamed, taken slowly and carefully. Limitations and regulations might hurt the economy but their is plenty of oil in the subsurface and no matter the regulations, companies will go out of their way to get it. In my opinion this is the only way to keep the environment in areas where steam is used in good condition. In reality, the Alberta government will keep sweeping it under the rug.

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