In Mideast Desert, a Risky, Costly Hunt for Heavy Crude

As easy oil supplies dwindle, project launched along Saudi-Kuwaiti border
By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff
Posted May 24, 2011 10:10 AM CDT
A derek pumps in an oil field January 15, 2003 near the Saudi Arabian border in Kuwait.   (Getty Images)

(Newser) – Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have embarked on a risky, expensive hunt for heavy crude—and that might be a bad sign for global oil supplies. For decades these countries have fueled the world with its easy-to-drill light oil supply, but now those reserves are drying up, one Middle East energy analyst explains to the Wall Street Journal. “The easy oil is coming to an end,” he says. So the countries have resorted to a bold experiment: mining their shared Wafra oil field for its previously unattainable heavy crude supply, estimated at 25 billion barrels.

Getting it has required the use of an expensive experimental technique, in which 600-degree steam is pumped into the ground in an attempt to heat the oil, which can be as thick as molasses, to make it thin enough to surface. The Saudis have tapped Chevron for the job—it has some experience with heavy crude, but it’s never tried anything this complex. To create the steam, it needs water and energy: With no nearby freshwater sources, contaminant-filled underground water must be boiled; natural gas must be shipped thousands of miles. Early results from the four-year, $340 million test have been promising, which bodes well for future heavy crude exploration: In November, the wells were producing 1,500 barrels daily, seven times more than they produced pre-test.

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