A joint Mexican-Canadian research project will address the declining production of oil and gas in Mexico. This project will transfer knowledge and apply methods developed over the last two decades in the Athabasca oil sands of Alberta (Canada) to unlock similar, still untapped oil reserves around the town of Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco. Near Villahermosa, subsurface petroleum “reservoirs” – porous rock layers made of sandstone that function as storage for petroleum – contain high volumes of bitumen, the major component of oil sands, which remains untapped after conventional extraction methods. Bitumen is a type of heavy oil that requires special treatment before it can be pumped to the surface. Simply pumping bitumen like water from the ground is impossible, because bitumen behaves, as does thick syrup stuck between the fibers of your living room carpet or hardened grease on dishes that have been sitting in the sink for too long. To make the bitumen more “movable,” engineers force steam under high pressure through a vertical pipe into the bitumen reservoir. The pressurized steam heats and breaks down the peanut butter-like bitumen into smaller molecules, so it can be pumped as liquid oil to the surface. While the process sounds straightforward it is dependent on knowing where the thickest sandstone layers with most of the bitumen are located. Bitumen reservoirs are complex in shape and composition and finding the biggest sandstone layers is not easy. Similar to a layered cake, the earth below the surface is made of rock “layers” that function as storage for bitumen. While many layers store bitumen, not every layer has the same ability to release bitumen after the steam treatment. Geologists play an important role within this project because they carefully and systematically describe each rock layer in order to locate the thickest sandstone layers. The best layers have the ability transport steam to the bitumen, break it down into oil and move it back to the surface. Once geologists locate the best sandstone reservoirs, they inform engineers at which end of the container the steam needs to be inserted and for how long it needs to pass through the sandstone in order to convert as much bitumen as possible back into liquid oil.
In this project, the joint Mexican-Canadian team will (a) locate the best sandstone reservoirs around Villahermosa, and (b) understand their distribution across the state of Tabasco. Establishing this knowledge is crucial before engineers can decide from which sandstone reservoirs most of the bitumen can be ‘produced’. Additionally, we will develop several state-of-the-art training modules that will train the next generation of petroleum geologists in Mexico. Once successful in Tabasco, the methods and knowledge developed during this project will be applied to other, neighboring Mexican states where they are expected to increase oil and gas production. For Mexico, this collaborative effort with the University of Calgary represents an excellent opportunity to make oil and gas production more profitable and to reverse a trend of declining oil production that has been going on since 2004.