Abstract

The principal controls on the fluid properties of biodegraded oil systems have been determined by a combination of petroleum geochemistry, numerical modeling of oil biodegradation in reservoirs, and analysis of oil property data sets from a variety of geological settings. Petroleum biodegradation proceeds under anaerobic conditions in any reservoir that has a water leg and has not been heated to temperatures more than 80°C. In most reservoirs with low concentrations of aqueous sulfate, methanogenic degradation is a primary mechanism of petroleum degradation, whereas in waters containing abundant sulfate, sulfate reduction and sulfide production may dominate. Net degradation of petroleum fractions in reservoirs is primarily controlled by the reservoir temperature, the chemical compounds being degraded, and relationships between the oil-water contact (OWC) area and oil volume. The relative volumes of water leg to oil leg, prior level of oil biodegradation, and reservoir water salinity act as second-order controls on the process. Typically, degradation fluxes (kilograms of petroleum destroyed per square meter of oil-water contact area per year or kg petroleum m−2 OWC yr−1) for fresh petroleum in clastic reservoirs are in the range of 10−3–10−4 kg petroleum m−2 OWC yr−1 and increase with decreasing reservoir temperature, from zero near 80°C, to a maximum flux at the OWC of less than 10−3 kg petroleum m−2 OWC yr−1 at a temperature less than 40°C. At very low reservoir temperatures and with severely degraded oils, such as are seen in the near-surface Canadian tar sands at the present day, the net degradation fluxes are much less than maximum values. Nutrient supply from the aquifer and adjacent shales, mostly buffered by mineral dissolution, probably provides the ultimate control on the range of degradation flux values.

Oil compositional gradients and resulting oil viscosity variations are common on both reservoir thickness and field scales in biodegraded oil reservoirs and are a defining characteristic of heavy oil fields produced by crude-oil biodegradation. Continuous vertical gradients in the oil columns document episodic degradation for many millions of years, suggesting that the time scales of oil-field degradation and petroleum charging are similar. The flux-temperature relationship we have derived, coupled with typical reservoir charge histories, defines the range of variation of fluid properties seen in many biodegraded oil provinces and identifies oil charge, mixing of biodegraded and fresh oils, and reservoir-temperature history as the primary controls on fluid properties. These flux-temperature relationships are easily integrated into prospect charge modeling procedures; sensitivity analyses show that the limiting factor in fluid property predictions, using even this first-level approach, are ultimately constrained by the accuracy of current oil-charge modeling estimates. The absence today of any functional geochemical proxies for assessing oil-residence time in oil fields and the substantial uncertainty in petroleum-charging times estimated by forward basin modeling is a major obstacle to more accurate fluid-property predictions that needs to be addressed.

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