Commercial oil recovery by use of steam began in the U. S. in 1960 when Shell achieved success in their first field trial. This first project was located in the Yorba Linda field in Southern California. Since that time, steam injection has grown to play a major role in oil production. In this paper we will trace the history of this growth and will take a look at the future. We will also discuss possibilities for further enhancing production via steam and will consider constraints to that growth.


The early years of steam injection were a time of great experimentation with various types of reservoirs and oils. Many of these trials were successful. One reason for early success was the fact that results of laboratory research and theory were used to guide these field trials.

Steam soak (cyclic steam injection) was widely tested in this period. There are still important steam soak operations in a number of fields where first injection was in the period 1960-1970. Among these are the following (with approximate 1980 steam soak production in parenthesis): Cat Canyon (7,000 B/D), Coalinga (3,500 B/D)Kern River (20,000 BID) McKittrick (5,000 G / D ), Midway- Sunset (45,000 B/D),and Yorba Linda (8,000 B/D). Santa Fe Energy is one of the largest steam soak operators with 20,000 B/D at Midway-Sunset.

Along with the successes in the 1960-1970 period, there were some expensive lessons. One early lesson concerned casing. Heating during steam injection would stress low strength casing beyond its yield point. As the foreshortened casing. cooled this would develop tensile stress in excess of the tensile joint strength. Failure would occur by pin-end jump out. The problem was solved by increasing the strength in tension of the coupling joint.1

During this period the industry learned which types of reservoirs were responsive to steam and which weren't. One type which did not respond was the shallow reservoirs containing extremely viscous oils ( tar sands). Extensive tests were made on U.S. tar sands during this period. Geological studies and extensive core holes were taken in nearly every major tar sand in the U. P. Much research was carried out. Field tests were conducted on tar sands in Missouri, Texas, Wyoming, California , and Utah. Results of many of these have now been published.2,3 These tar sands experiences were nearly always negative. Most U. S. tar sands suffer from either extremely high viscosity or low tar saturation. Many had thief zones. Some were highly fractured.

Would today's higher oil prices make U.S. tar sands viable? We think not. It appears that , in most cases, more injected energy would be required than would be recovered in the tar.

Although there was little success with tar sands, steam was quite successful in. other reservoirs containing oils in the 10'-20' API range. By 1970, oil production via steam has reached a level of over 160,000 E/D, mainly in California. About 130,000 B/D was from steam soak with the remainder from steam drive.

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