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The heavy oil deposits of Canada are a large resource with an estimated 1.7×1012 barrels of bitumen in place. The Lower Cretaceous McMurray Formation in the Athabasca area of northern Alberta contains about 900×109 barrels of bitumen in place. This resource can be developed through surface mining and thermal in situ techniques. This paper examines the size of this resource in a global context and highlights its position relative to the North American market. The regional geology of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin and the Athabasca area will also be reviewed. Understanding the regional reservoir distribution of the McMurray Formation is critical to understanding oil sands opportunities. Fluvial estuarine point bar reservoirs are a large portion of the resource that can be developed. Examples will be shown from the type outcrop location, where the stratigraphy can be organized into a hierarchy that subdivides channel-fills into bedsets, storeys, bars and barsets. Inclined heterolithic strata (IHS) surfaces can be identified. Considerable resource delineation drilling has occurred in the basin. The regulator for the Athabasca area specifies minimum drilling densities before project approvals are granted. Regional 2D seismic lines and project-specific 3D and 4D seismic datasets have also been acquired, to reduce the reservoir uncertainty and improve resource definition in this complex depositional environment. These techniques provide a unique opportunity to analyse a complex depositional system with abundant well and core control, outcrop data and seismic information.

To determine preliminary deposition environments, software techniques have been successfully used to interpret large datasets quickly. Laser imaging of mine faces has also been used to record stratigraphy and determine the mined volume of ore. The importance of detailed reservoir characterization studies and their impact on thermal in situ recovery mechanisms will also be discussed. Understanding reservoir facies distributions and lateral relationships affects any recovery process, but has an even greater significance in a heavy oil reservoir.

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