Impact of Polymer or Surfactant Flooding on Permafrost Stability

Wang, Dongmei (University of North Dakota) | Namie, Shane (University of North Dakota) | Li, Chunxiao (University of North Dakota)



In this study, conceptual numerical simulation models, with geomechanical properties incorporated, were employed to assess whether polymer flooding or a surfactant EOR process could be viable; with minimal damage to permafrost. These simulations considered the geological subdivisions of permafrost distribution in the subsurface which included: an active layer (seasonally frozen ground); taliks (unfrozen ground between the base of the active layer and permafrost layer and within the permafrost layer); and the unfrozen layer below the permafrost zone. In addition, a major oil zone was included in the model underlying the permafrost section. Significant oil recovery values were predicted, both for injection of polymer solutions and surfactant-polymer solutions and with both horizontal and vertical wells. Surprisingly, addition of surfactant provides lower oil recovery than for polymer flooding alone (under same injection slug size, when all subdivisions were considered in the model). This result appeared to occur because the thermodynamics build into models allows the surfactant formulation to freeze easier than the polymer solution without surfactant. This freezing depletes the surfactant bank, and therefore, lowers oil recovery. On the other hand, this freezing actually promotes growth of the permafrost, whereas, injection of polymer alone causes a mild thawing of the permafrost. One might question whether the thermodynamics built into the simulator are correct, but this result does emphasis that in addition to temperature, the chemistry of the injected formulation may be important in determining the fate of the permafrost. At a certain well distance to permafrost (1,640 ft), horizontal injection wells cause greater thawing of permafrost than vertical wells, when wellbores are close to the taliks. Higher concentration and viscosity of polymer slugs have small potential for thawing permafrost, largely because of the injectivity reduction during polymer flooding (thus allowing slower heat dissipation). Examination of polymer injection as a function of pressure, temperature, and mean stress, suggests that subsidence of permafrost could be negligible. The effects on permafrost subsidence increases modestly as the polymer slug size increases, and decreases modestly as the surfactant-polymer slug size increases. As huge heavy oil reserves exist in Canada and Alaska's North Slope regions, continued resource development in these regions is likely. Therefore, a thorough understanding is required in considering the long-term impact on permafrost stability with the use of modern EOR processes implemented in this unique environment.