Clarkson, Dr. Christopher

2017 Winner: Outstanding Achievement In Applied Technology And Innovation Sponsored By SAIT

Building a Better Toolbox in Oil and Gas

In the oil and gas industry, there are two broad classes of reservoirs that contain fossil fuels. In conventional reservoirs, hydrocarbons are relatively easy to recover, and the fluid storage and flow mechanisms are relatively well understood. In unconventional reservoirs, the properties that dictate how fluids are stored and flow are very different from conventional reservoirs. In these reservoirs there is a need to hydraulically fracture the reservoir to produce commercial quantities of oil and gas.

Dr. Christopher Clarkson is a professor in the Department of Geoscience at University of Calgary and Research Chair in Unconventional Gas and Light Oil Research. He is developing methods to better understand the unique properties of unconventional reservoirs, and how they can be more efficiently exploited.

Rate-transient analysis (RTA) is the method used by petroleum engineers to interpret the production behaviour of wells producing oil and gas.

Responding to change

Dr. Clarkson’s work focuses on adapting RTA methods and models that were created for conventional reservoirs and developing them for unconventional reservoirs. These new developments have been critical to the industry as more and more of Alberta’s oil and gas comes from unconventional reservoirs. Clarkson provides the answers to complex questions in an industry that needs new tools to continue to operate effectively.

Clarkson explains that his RTA research helps dictate how many wells are needed, how many hydraulic fractures should be put into the ground as well as crucial predictions for future oil and gas development. Clarkson says, “These techniques are also used for forecasting and determining what the wells will produce in the future. That helps companies determine how much money they need to invest into drilling wells, when they need to invest it, and how to efficiently develop a field.”

Seeing an industry need for new RTA methods, Clarkson has directed his research to allow the very powerful RTA tools to be maximized in the shifting industry.

“The innovation is taking methods for RTA that were developed for conventional reservoirs, where we have a relatively good knowledge of how fluids are stored and flow through conventional reservoirs, and allowing those same methods to work in unconventional reservoirs where we have a much poorer understanding of how fluids flow through the rock,” he explains.

Clarkson adds that his work into the unknown is not without its share of challenges.

“Mathematically, it is a complicated problem when you are taking these unique properties of these (unconventional) reservoirs and incorporating them into analytical methods. When we developed analytical methods for conventional reservoirs, we relied on lots of simplifying assumptions about the reservoir so we could develop analytical solutions to the mathematical models that need to be used.”

To overcome these challenges, Clarkson says he and his team are taking a simple but rigorous approach. “On the one hand, we are facing these difficult and complex mathematical problems, but we also need to keep the tools simple enough that people will use them.”

The Alberta advantage

Clarkson says that working in Alberta has provided a significant advantage to his research. He has found that there is much more publicly-available data which helps significantly in furthering his research. This is coupled with a workforce that exhibits a high level of technically proficiency.

“The level of technical skill here in Alberta is amazing,” Clarkson says. “There’s just a lot of really good people working in this industry, very smart, very connected people that really help drive our research. They are always asking good questions, which causes us to step up and try to come up with answers to those questions. I find it very inspiring to be here in Alberta.”

For Clarkson, his work into rate-transient analysis satisfies his innate curiosity because the work is fundamentally full of different obstacles to overcome.

“Everyday we have new challenges that we come up with, just through our conversations with industry and reading the literature. There is always something new to learn. My intention is to continue to grow our area of research, focusing on new problems that are going to come up.”

Clarkson is also very interested in using this information outside of developing reservoirs. With the simple but rigorous tools they have developed for unconventional reservoirs, there are environmental issues that could be addressed with these same methods and models.

Clarkson is interested in applying these techniques developed for oil and gas to other fluid-based problems, like groundwater flow and contaminant transfer. He says that every day they are broadening the scope of their work.