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Investigating the effect of enhanced oil recovery on the noble gas signature of casing gases and produced waters from selected California oil fields

September 25, 2021

In regions where water resources are scarce and in high demand, it is important to safeguard against contamination of groundwater aquifers by oil-field fluids (water, gas, oil). In this context, the geochemical characterisation of these fluids is critical so that anthropogenic contaminants can be readily identified. The first step is characterising pre-development geochemical fluid signatures (i.e., those unmodified by hydrocarbon resource development) and understanding how these signatures may have been perturbed by resource production, particularly in the context of enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques. Here, we present noble gas isotope data in fluids produced from oil wells in several water-stressed regions in California, USA, where EOR is prevalent. In oil-field systems, only casing gases are typically collected and measured for their noble gas compositions, even when oil and/or water phases are present, due to the relative ease of gas analyses. However, this approach relies on a number of assumptions (e.g., equilibrium between phases, water-to-oil ratio (WOR) and gas-to-oil ratio (GOR) in order to reconstruct the multiphase subsurface compositions. Here, we adopt a novel, more rigorous approach, and measure noble gases in both casing gas and produced fluid (oil-water-gas mixtures) samples from the Lost Hills, Fruitvale, North and South Belridge (San Joaquin Basin, SJB) and Orcutt (Santa Maria Basin) Oil Fields. Using this method, we are able to fully characterise the distribution of noble gases within a multiphase hydrocarbon system. We find that measured concentrations in the casing gases agree with those in the gas phase in the produced fluids and thus the two sample types can be used essentially interchangeably.

EOR signatures can readily be identified by their distinct air-derived noble gas elemental ratios (e.g., 20Ne/36Ar), which are elevated compared to pre-development oil-field fluids, and conspicuously trend towards air values with respect to elemental ratios and overall concentrations. We reconstruct reservoir 20Ne/36Ar values using both casing gas and produced fluids and show that noble gas ratios in the reservoir are strongly correlated (r2 = 0.88–0.98) to the amount of water injected within ~500 m of a well. We suggest that the 20Ne/36Ar increase resulting from injection is sensitive to the volume of fluid interacting with the injectate, the effective water-to-oil ratio, and the composition of the injectate. Defining both the pre-development and injection-modified hydrocarbon reservoir compositions are crucial for distinguishing the sources of hydrocarbons observed in proximal groundwaters, and for quantifying the transport mechanisms controlling this occurrence.

Publication Year 2021
Title Investigating the effect of enhanced oil recovery on the noble gas signature of casing gases and produced waters from selected California oil fields
DOI 10.1016/j.chemgeo.2021.120540
Authors R. L. Tyne, P. H. Barry, R. Karolytė, D. J. Bryne, Justin T. Kulongoski, D.J. Hillegonds, C. J. Ballentine
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Chemical Geology
Index ID 70227156
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center