Gulf states seek high-tech oil boost

May 12, 2011 at 3:40 PM
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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, May 12 (UPI) -- Persian Gulf oil producers are turning to advanced technology as fields become depleted and extracting the crude becomes more difficult while global demand grows.

Energy industry analysts see a major surge in demand for oil that, even if there are no serious disruptions in supply in the Middle East because of the current political upheavals sweeping the region, will challenge the current supply base to the limit.

Iraq is one of the few places on the planet where there are vast untapped reservoirs of oil -- possibly in excess of 100 million barrels -- while its super fields, those with more than 5 billion barrels of recoverable oil, are only now moving toward full development.

But generally, the big fields in the Middle East are starting to shrink, and new methods of extracting what's left are needed. The more fields are depleted, the more the pressure that drives the oil to the surface is reduced.

So to maintain production levels, the depleting reserves need to be pressurized. This is often done by pumping water or steam into the reservoirs, or injecting gas to push the oil upward.

This is known as secondary recovery. But when that's no longer viable, more advanced methods are needed. These techniques are known collectively as enhanced oil recovery.

Royal Dutch Shell says this currently accounts for around 4 percent of global oil output.

But, the Middle East Economic Digest reports, "with many of the region's oil fields reaching advanced stages of maturity, the use of EOR techniques is becoming more widespread in the Middle East."

The main Saudi fields are some years away from needing EOR, but the state oil giant, Aramco, is planning to start some EOR at the Ghawar field in the Eastern province.

It's the world's largest oil field that produces 5 million barrels per day, more than most oil states' entire daily output and more than 6 percent of the global production total.

Although Aramco releases few details about its major fields, Ghawar is estimated to still contain about 70 billion barrels of recoverable crude.

To ensure that as much of that as possible can be recovered, Aramco is tendering a $100 million carbon dioxide injection plant at Ghawar. The aim is to be able to pump 40 million cubic feet of gas a day.

Saltwater injection is already being increasingly used in other major Saudi fields, including the giant Khurais field near Ghawar.

MEED, a weekly published in the United Arab Emirates, observed, "What is clear from the work currently being carried out is that the kingdom knows that one day it will require everything science can offer to extract its oil."

EOR techniques, it said, "are set to play an increasingly important role in the Middle East in the years ahead as national oil companies look to arrest production declines in mature oil fields …

"High oil prices will be needed to make some schemes viable and the price of some technologies needs to come down to make their application feasible.

"While the oil prices are currently back above $100 a barrel due to political uncertainty in the Middle East, this may not always be the case."

Most of the increase in global demand for oil will come from China, India and other Asian markets, currently the major importers of Middle Eastern crude.

China's demand of 10 million bpd day is already about half that of the United States, the world's leading oil consumer.

But, unlike the United States, where consumption is gradually declining, China's demand is surging. In 2010 Chinese demand for oil went up by 1 million bpd, and that's likely to be the pattern for the next few years.

The bottom line is that at this rate global demand for oil is outstripping production capacity, which will eventually mean a sharp surge in oil prices.

That spells recession.

Scientists are looking at a process known as carbon capture and storage as a way of adding to the efficiency of enhanced oil recovery.

This involves collecting carbon emissions from factories, power plants and other industrial enterprises and storing them to be used in EOR.

"Compressed carbon emissions are a highly effective feedstock for EOR, as it can replace natural gas that is often used in such operations," MEED said.

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