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3-D Mapping Project Could Help Find New Oil Fields in California

Iraj Ershaghi, who will lead the Monterey Formation Project, holds a piece of Monterey rock showing the fractures that can contain vast quantities of oil.

Photo by Casey Crafton

An effort to advance the technology of 3-D mapping of geological structures may result in new producing oil fields in California.

The effort is part of an $8.4 million, five-year public/private project to solve the oil-production mysteries of geological structures sometimes called “heartbreak formations.” It will focus on an existing oil field in Santa Barbara County as a test bed for new three-dimensional mapping techniques.

Called the Monterey Formation Project, it is part of a continuing partnership, facilitated by the federal government, between USC engineering faculty and the independent-producer oil industry. USC was one of nine universities selected from 27 applicants to receive a U.S. Department of Energy grant to apply high-technology computer imaging and three-dimensional modeling to oil production.

VENOCO INC., the oil-field operator, will invest $5.1 million in the project, with an additional $3.3 million to come from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Iraj Ershaghi, director of the USC School of Engineering’s petroleum engineering program, will lead the USC effort, budgeted at just over $1 million.

According to Ershaghi, the Venoco oil field produces from the rich Monterey Formation, which runs along the West Coast of North America from Baja California all the way to Alaska, and then across the northern Pacific to Japan.

The wide-ranging formation, containing vast quantities of oil, is composed of a highly fractured rock called chert. “The rock is like a broken piece of glass, and the oil is found only in the fractures,” said Ershaghi. “If you can intersect the fractures, you can make money.”

Some wells in fractured rock produce “several thousand barrels a day” – a gusher more typical of the Middle East than California’s oil formations, he said. The key to successful oil production under such conditions is accurate three-dimensional mapping of fractures.

On the Monterey Formation project, USC will work with Venoco to implement diagnostic procedures to map fracture patterns in the area, developing a mathematical model to determine where to drill. To accomplish this, the partners plan to use a new “cross well seismic” technique that images the Earth between existing wells. A USC-developed method of interpreting the changing patterns of pressure found in existing wells in the formation will contribute some of the information.

Ershaghi’s team of postdoctoral scientists and graduate students will also use traditional seismic techniques. USC and Venoco scientists then will integrate the data utilizing computational tools similar to those used in certain medical imaging systems

The resulting maps and models should help Venoco recover more oil, Ershaghi says. “Because the Monterey Formation is so extensive, finding an effective method of recovering oil from it would have great potential rewards.”

Ershaghi holds USC’s Omar B. Miligan Chair in Petroleum Engineering and directs the Western regional center of the federally funded Petroleum Technology Transfer Council.

3-D Mapping Project Could Help Find New Oil Fields in California

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