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An oil field will usually have sufficient pressure to push the oil up wells when it first comes on stream. But gradually the pressure drops. Eventually, engineers may have to pump water or inject natural gas into the field to maintain production. This helps increase recovery, yet still leaves around two-thirds of the oil in the ground.

Injecting chemicals, gas or steam into a field – a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR) – can make the oil flow more easily to producing wells and so boost recovery. EOR could help to unlock as much as 300 billion more barrels of oil – equal to 10 years’ production at today’s levels – according to the International Energy Agency.

Currently EOR only accounts for 4% of global oil production. The reason is cost.

“Each reservoir requires a tailor-made approach to enhanced oil recovery,” says Gerald Schotman, Shell’s Chief Technology Officer. “Our extensive experience helps us to apply the best techniques to improve oil production and recovery at an acceptable cost.”

Shell and EOR

Worker at Harweel project

Gas injection is boosting oil recovery at Harweel, Oman

Shell first used steam injection in the 1930s, in California, USA. Since then, we have carried out numerous steam-injection projects. We have also set up pilot and commercial EOR projects based on the injection of CO2, natural gas and chemicals.

Shell is using EOR to boost production in 11 projects across the world, including in Oman, the USA and the Netherlands through our joint ventures with Petroleum Development Oman, Aera Energy and Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij. We are planning at least 25 more EOR projects, including some for offshore fields in Malaysia.

EOR projects have advantages over new field-development projects: for example, usually the pipelines and roads needed to produce and transport the oil are already in place. In addition, there are no exploration costs because the oil’s location is known.

However, one disadvantage of some EOR techniques is that they require a lot of energy – to turn water into steam, for example. But we are finding ways to improve their energy efficiency. At the Qarn Alam and Amal fields in Oman, for example, 80% of the steam needed for EOR projects there comes from the waste heat of local power stations. And at Amal we also have a large pilot project to boil water with sunlight for the same purpose.

Advanced technology

Drilling well at Champion West, Brunei.

Champion West off the coast of Brunei was the first field to use Smart Fields® technology from the start

Shell continues to invest in and develop new ways to flush out more oil. This includes improving existing EOR techniques and developing new ones, as well as enhancing technologies which support the process.

For example, we have developed Smart Fields® technology, an advanced system that allows us to manage real-time information from sensors in the fields. These feed, for example, continuous temperature and pressure readings into a central database to create an up-to-the-minute model of the field. Engineers can make rapid adjustments to extract oil more effectively according to conditions, or react immediately to any sign of problems.

With partners we are developing advanced Smart Fields® technologies, which will include improved sensors such as fibre-optic technology for more detailed readings.

Some EOR techniques are energy-intensive, but we are finding ways to reduce the amount of energy we use. At Qarn Alam and Amal in Oman, for example, 80% of the steam needed for our projects comes from waste heat from local power stations. As another energy-saving approach, in Amal we are testing solar power to produce the steam.