Steam injection (oil industry)

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Steam is injected into many oil fields where the oil is thicker and heavier than normal crude oil. This sketch illustrates steam flooding.

Steam injection is an increasingly common method of extracting heavy crude oil. It is considered an enhanced oil recovery (EOR) method and is the main type of thermal stimulation of oil reservoirs. There are several different forms of the technology, with the two main ones being Cyclic Steam Stimulation and Steam Flooding. Both are most commonly applied to oil reservoirs, which are relatively shallow and which contain crude oils which are very viscous at the temperature of the native underground formation. Steam injection is widely used in the San Joaquin Valley of California (USA), the Lake Maracaibo area of Venezuela, and the oil sands of northern Alberta (Canada).

Another contributing factor that enhances oil production during steam injection is related to near-wellbore cleanup. In this case, steam reduces the viscosity that ties paraffins and asphaltenes to the rock surfaces while steam distillation of crude oil light ends creates a small solvent bank that can miscibly remove trapped oil.1

Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS)

Bwcyclic stm (dragged).pdf

This method, also known as the Huff and Puff method, consists of 3 stages: injection, soaking, and production. Steam is first injected into a well for a certain amount of time to heat the oil in the surrounding reservoir to a temperature at which it flows. After it is decided enough steam has been injected, the steam is usually left to "soak" for some time after (typically not more than a few days). Then oil is produced out of the same well, at first by natural flow (since the steam injection will have increased the reservoir pressure) and then by artificial lift. Production will decrease as the oil cools down, and once production reaches an economically determined level the steps are repeated again.

The process can be quite effective, especially in the first few cycles. However, it is typically only able to recover approximately 20% of the Original Oil in Place (OOIP), compared to steam assisted gravity drainage, which has been reported to recover over 50% of OOIP. It is quite common for wells to be produced in the cyclic steam manner for a few cycles before being put on a steam flooding regime with other wells.

The mechanism was accidentally discovered by Shell while it was doing a steam flood in Venezuela and one of its steam injectors blew out and ended up producing oil at much higher rates than a conventional production well in a similar environment.

The use of steam injection to recover heavy oil has been in use in the oil fields of California since the 1950s. The Cyclic Steam Stimulation or "huff-and-puff" method has been in use by Imperial Oil at Cold Lake since 1985 and is also used by Canadian Natural Resources at Primrose and Wolf Lake and by Shell Canada at Peace River. In this method, the well is put through cycles of steam injection, soak, and oil production. First, steam is injected into a well at a temperature of 300 to 340 degrees Celsius for a period of weeks to months; then, the well is allowed to sit for days to weeks to allow heat to soak into the formation; and, later, the hot oil is pumped out of the well for a period of weeks or months. Once the production rate falls off, the well is put through another cycle of injection, soak and production. This process is repeated until the cost of injecting steam becomes higher than the money made from producing oil.2 The CSS method has the advantage that recovery factors are around 20 to 25% and the disadvantage that the cost to inject steam is high.

Canadian Natural Resources use "employs cyclic steam or "huff and puff" technology to develop bitumen resources. This technology requires one well bore and the production consists of the injection and production phases. First steam is "injected for several weeks, mobilizing cold bitumen". Then the flow "on the injection well is reversed producing oil through the same injection well bore. The injection and production phases together comprise one cycle. "Steam is re-injected to begin a new cycle when oil production rates fall below a critical threshold due to the cooling of the reservoir."(CNRL 2013)3

High pressure cyclic steam stimulation (HPCSS)

Cogeneration Steam Plant at the Midway-Sunset Oil Field, Kern County, California. This 225-megawatt facility burns local natural gas, generates electricity, and supplies steam for enhanced recovery at this heavy crude oil field. Since the mid-1960s, steam-enhanced recovery has almost tripled the estimated ultimate recovery from this 120 year old oilfield.
Oil wells and steam pipes (silver loop, right center) in the Coalinga Oil Field, California

"Roughly 35 per cent of all in situ production in the Alberta oil sands uses a technique called High Pressure Cyclic Steam Stimulation (HPCSS), which cycles between two phases: first, steam is injected into an underground oilsands deposit to soften the bitumen; then, the resulting hot mixture of bitumen and steam (called a “bitumen emulsion”) is pumped up to the surface. The process is then repeated multiple times."(Severson-Baker 2013)4 An Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) news release explained the difference between high pressure cyclic steam stimulation (HPCSS) and steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). "HPCSS has been used in oil recovery in Alberta for more than 30 years. The method involves injecting high-pressure steam into a reservoir over a prolonged period of time. As heat softens the bitumen and water dilutes and separates the bitumen from the sand, the pressure creates cracks and openings through which the bitumen can flow back into the steam-injector wells. HPCSS differs from steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) operations where steam is injected at lower pressures without fracturing the reservoir and uses gravity drainage as the primary recovery mechanism."(2013 AER)5 Canadian Natural Resources Limited’s (CNRL) Primrose and Wolf Lake in situ oil sands project near Cold Lake, Alberta in the Clearwater Formation, operated by CNRL subsidiary Horizon Oil Sands, use the high pressure cyclic steam stimulation (HPCSS).(2013 AER)

Primrose thermal in situ oilsands project

Canadian Natural Resources Limited's one of the largest independent crude oil and natural gas producers in the world, with its head office in Calgary, with operations are focused in Western Canadian Sedimentary basin,(CNRL & 2012 1) the North Sea and offshoreWest Africa. CNRL"s Primrose field produced to "99,000 barrels per day"(CNRL & 2012 1) Synthetic Crude Oil (SCO) in 2012, c.100,000 to 107,000 barrels per day in 2013(Healing 2013) and expects to "add value for decades."6notes 1 Canadian Natural uses the Kirby South Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) extraction(CNRL & 2012 1) method including both the cyclicalnotes 2 and steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technologies the Primrose and Wolf Lake - Thermal In Situ located approximately 55 km north of Bonnyville.(CNRL 2013)3 The Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s "operations use an “in situ” or underground extraction technology called cyclic steam stimulation, which involves injecting thousands of gallons of superhot, high-pressure steam into deep underground reservoirs. This heats and liquefies the hard bitumen and creates cracks through which the bitumen flows and is then pumped to the surface.(Pullman and Lukacs 2013)7(Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) 2009)8

Steam Flooding

In a steam flood, sometimes known as a steam drive, some wells are used as steam injection wells and other wells are used for oil production. Two mechanisms are at work to improve the amount of oil recovered. The first is to heat the oil to higher temperatures and to thereby decrease its viscosity so that it more easily flows through the formation toward the producing wells. A second mechanism is the physical displacement employing in a manner similar to water flooding, in which oil is meant to be pushed to the production wells. While more steam is needed for this method than for the cyclic method, it is typically more effective at recovering a larger portion of the oil.

A form of steam flooding that has become popular in the Alberta oil sands is steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), in which two horizontal wells are drilled, one a few meters above the other, and steam is injected into the upper one. The intent is to reduce the viscosity of the bitumen to the point where gravity will pull it down into the producing well.

In 2011 Laricina Energy combined solvent injection with steam injection in a process called solvent cyclic steam-assisted gravity drainage (SC-SAGD).(Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) 2009)8 Laricina claims that combining solvents with steam reduces the overall steam oil ratio for recovery by 30%.


  1. ^ Canadian Natural Resources Limited is an oil and gas exploration, development and production company centered in Calgary, Alberta. Operations are focused in Western Canadian Sedimentary basin, the North Sea and offshore West Africa. It ranks number 251 on the Forbes Global 2000 list for 2009.(Forbes 2009)
  2. ^ The Primrose project uses "CSS or cyclic steam stimulation, also called "huff and puff," where steam is injected under pressure into the formation to melt the heavy, sticky oil, then shut off while the warmed oil is pumped out. Then the process is repeated."(Healing 2013)


  1. ^ steamflood. Oilfield Glossary. Schlumberger Limited. 
  2. ^ Butler, Roger (1991). Thermal Recovery of Oil and Bitumen. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. p. 104. 
  3. ^ a b "Cyclic Steam Stimulation". Thermal in situ oil sands. CNRL. 2013. 
  4. ^ Chris Severson-Baker (29 July 2013). "Cold Lake bitumen blowout first test for new energy regulator". 
  5. ^ "Alberta Energy Regulator orders enhanced monitoring and further steaming restrictions at Primrose and Wolf Lake projects due to bitumen emulsion releases". AER. 18 July 2013. 
  6. ^ (PDF) 20th Annual Report: the Premium Value Defined Growth Independent (Report). CNRL. 2012. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
  7. ^ Emma Pullman; Martin Lukacs (19 July 2013). "Nobody understands’ spills at Alberta oil sands operation: Oil spills at an oil sands operation in Cold Lake, Alberta have been going on for weeks with no end in sight, according to a government scientist". Toronto, ON: The Toronto Star. 
  8. ^ a b Solvents in situ: the Hybrid Car of the Oil Sands (Report). Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). 2009. "Oil sands operators are exploring the use solvents with steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) to help loosen and extract bitumen. Laricina Energy CEO Glen Schmidt likens the technology to a hybrid car"

Further reading

  • Butler, Roger M. (1997). Thermal Recovery of Oil and Bitumen. ISBN 0-9682563-0-9. 

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