The bitumen of the Lower Cretaceous McMurray Formation in Alberta arguably represents one of the most important hydrocarbon accumulations in the world. In-situ development relies on heat transfer through the reservoir via horizontal steam injection wells placed 4 to 6 m (13–20 ft) above horizontal producers near the base of the sandstone reservoirs. Given this technology, understanding the distribution of the resource is paramount for a successful development program. Sedimentary facies provide a direct control on bitumen distribution and recovery.

Most facies models developed to describe and predict sedimentary units of the McMurray Formation consider fluvial, estuarine, and/or deltaic depositional settings. In-situ development, however, requires a particularly high-resolution sedimentologic interpretation. High-quality three-dimensional seismic reflection data and extensive drill cores from acreage located approximately 50 km (31 mi) south of Fort McMurray provide important insights into the sedimentologic organization of reservoir and nonreservoir deposits in the upper one third (40 m [131 ft]) of the reservoir interval. Geomorphologic characteristics of the strata observed in seismic time slices reveal that a fluvial depositional setting was prevalent. Ichnologic and palynologic data, as well as sedimentary structures suggestive of tidal processes, indicate a marine influence in the upper reaches of a fluvial system characterized by channels that were 390 to 640 m (1280–2100 ft) wide and 28 to 36 m (92–118 ft) deep. The complex stratigraphic architecture consists of a mosaic of large-scale depositional elements, including abandoned channels or oxbow lake fills, point bars associated with lateral accretion, point bars associated with downstream accretion, counter point bars, and sandstone-filled channels. Reservoir deposits are primarily associated with point bars and sandstone-filled channels.

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