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The Schoonebeek oilfield, straddling the Dutch-German border, began production in January 2011. Production will grow to around 20,000 barrels a day as more wells start up and more facilities are commissioned.

Sticking point

Worker at the Schoonebeek plant

Advanced technology and human resourcefulness have helped bring Schoonebeek back on-stream

Over nearly 50 years, the Schoonebeek field produced around 250 million barrels of oil. But in 1996 the field’s operator Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM) – a 50:50 joint venture between Shell and ExxonMobil – shut down production because it was no longer producing enough oil to cover operating costs.

The abandoned field still held some 750 million barrels of oil. But the remaining oil –would have to wait for the right combination of technologies to make it worth pursuing. At room temperature, this oil has the consistency of treacle and does not easily flow.

An easy way out

In late 2007, NAM and its partner Energie Beheer Nederland believed they had put together a plan with the right technological combination to resume oil production. NAM is injecting steam into the reservoir through new wells drilled horizontally in the oil-bearing layer of rock.

The steam releases heat when it condenses to water, thinning the oil so it can move more readily to horizontal production wells running alongside. High-capacity pumps bring the oil-and-water mixture to the surface. In total 73 wells will have been drilled from 18 surface locations.

Doing more with less

NAM made best use of new infrastructure – and reused current infrastructure – to help manage the impact of its operations.

Water for the steam production must be purified, to avoid any scale from contaminants building up in the equipment. Between 6 and 10 million litres every day will come from a newly built sewage-treatment plant.

Before the steam is injected underground, it will also drive turbines to generate as much as 120 megawatts of power in tandem with gas turbines. Only about 10% of the power will be used for Schoonebeek operations – the rest will be fed into the public electricity grid. The steam-and-power plant will be partly fuelled with gas produced along with the oil.

A disused 17-kilometre gas pipeline has been converted to carry waste water from the process to depleted gas fields for permanent storage.

NAM will use another existing pipeline to help deliver the oil to a refinery across the German border nearby.