Rock Physics and Seismic Signatures of Oil Sands

Dr. Douglas R. Schmitt

Dr. Douglas R. Schmitt
University of Alberta

Monday, November 22nd, 2004 – 10:30 AM MST
Telus Convention Centre


It is well known that the production of conventional light from the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin is declining rapidly. Heavy oils, here taken in the broad sense to include heavy oil and bitumen, are replacing much of this lost production and their combined production already exceeds that of conventional oils.

There are numerous Heavy Oil Plays in Western Canada, an updated and detailed report has recently been published by the National Energy Board of Canada outlining this resource (NEB 2001b) which suggests there is nearly 8 X 109 m3 of in place heavy oils of which upwards of 20% (~1.5 X 109 m3) is recoverable using current technology. There are important Carboniferous and Jurassic plays, but about 70% of the heavy oil is in the Cretaceous age deposits with Lloydminster area of Saskatchewan and Alberta having the largest part of the resource.

Although there are some minor oil sand deposits on Melville Island, the vast bulk of Canada's bitumen lies within sands and carbonates in three areas defined as the Athabasca, the Cold Lake, and the Peace River oil sands. The total area that encloses these deposits is the size of New Brunswick (~60,000 km2). The National Energy Board estimates that there is potentially 400 X 109 m3 bitumen in place of which ~50 X 109 m3 is ultimately recoverable. This is comparable to Saudi Arabia's conventional reserves of 43 X 109 m3 and is many times larger than Alberta's conventional reserves of 0.7 X 109 m3 (DOE 2000).

Despite these large reserves, however, heavy oils are highly viscous and their extraction is more complicated; this will have large implications for the geophysical community as some emphasis will shift away from exploration to development and monitoring issues. This talk attempts to provide some background information on the physical properties and the methods of production of heavy oils in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. Canadian Geoscientists have made early inroads with the use of geophysics in monitoring of such reservoirs and this work is reviewed. Recent research directions are also summarized.


Douglas Schmitt earned degrees in Physics (University of Lethbridge, 1980) and in Geophysics (Seismological Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, M.Sc., 1984; Ph.d., 1987) where he worked in projects on rock mechanics, optical interferometry, and high pressure shock wave mineral physics. He worked as an Exploration Geophysicist for Texaco Canada Resources in Calgary prior to returning to graduate school with emphasis on marine seismic interpretation. His postdoctoral research at Stanford gave him experience on the San Andreas Fault scientific drilling project in 1987-88 and in rock physics/mechanics experimentation with a laboratory study of hydraulic fracturing in hard rock. Since joining the University of Alberta in 1989, he has built up an experimental laboratory that focuses primarily on the integration of rock properties with geophysical observations, a major focus of this research is in issues related to geophysical time lapse investigations particularly in heavy oil reservoirs. His laboratory carries out elastic wave measurements under in situ pressure and temperature conditions and he also operates a field geophysics facility the centre piece of which is a seismic vibrator and relatively large field seismic data acquisition system. He was recently awarded a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair position in Rock Physics. He is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Geophysical Research and is currently collaborating on numerous projects with other Geoscientists as well as with workers in disciplines related to biology, forestry, and engineering.