Do Ya Think I’m Waxy? – Handling Expanding Uinta Basin Crude Production

The strange looking yellow and black waxy crudes produced from the Uinta Basin in Utah since the 1950’s resemble shoe polish at room temperature. Because of the complexity of transporting these waxy crudes over long distances, they have traditionally been consumed by close by Salt Lake City refineries. However, just like many other US production basins these days, Uinta production is increasing – up from 53 Mb/d in January 2011 to an estimated 88 Mb/d this month (August 2013 - source Bentek). Continued production expansion depends on finding new refining capacity or routes to distant markets. Today we begin a series on crude from the Uinta Basin.

The Uinta Basin (pronounced you-IN-tah, sometimes spelled Uintah) located about 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City in Northeast Utah, has produced crude oil since the 1950’s. The basin is currently attracting a lot of producer interest with over 650 well starts in 2013 so far. The geology of the basin is complex, with many hydrocarbon-bearing layers stacked on top of each other. Producers are using a combination of conventional vertical drilling (with multi layered fracturing), horizontal drilling and enhanced recovery through water flooding. The map below shows the geographic location of the oil and gas resource areas. Current oil drilling is concentrated in the Altamont-Bluebell Wasatch formation to the north, the Monument Butte Green River formation to the south as well as the Central Basin between them.

Source: EP Energy Investor Presentation (Click to Enlarge)

The crude oil produced from the Uinta Basin is a strange looking waxy material that is either yellow (from the Wasatch formation) or black (from the Green River formation). The picture below is not an advertisement for Yankee Candles – it came from a presentation by Stuart Nance, VP Marketing at Uinta producer Bill Barrett Corporation, and shows what yellow and black waxy crudes look like at room temperature. RBN members might be reminded of Canadian heavy oil bitumen (see It’s a Bitumen Oil – Does it Go Too Far?) but actually the Uinta crudes are quite light compared to their northern cousins from the oil sands. The yellow waxy crude from the Altamont has a typical API gravity of 42 degrees – lighter than US crude benchmark West Texas Intermediate (40 degrees API). The Green River black wax crude is heavier with a lower typical API of 32 degrees. Oil sands bitumen weighs in at a much heavier 10 API gravity. Both yellow and black wax crudes have very low levels of unwanted components such as acid, sulfur and metals. That makes these crudes attractive to refiners because they require less processing to remove those materials. The Uinta crudes are particularly attractive to refiners with Fluid Cat Cracking units (FCC see Complex Refinery 101 - Upgrading) because they have a high gasoil content compared to other sweet crudes. The paraffin wax content of the crudes makes them attractive for the production of lube oils – the stuff you get from Jiffy (among other uses).

Source: Bill Barrett Corporation Presentation (Click to Enlarge)

However, the biggest challenge for Uinta crude producers is that the high paraffin wax content raises the “pour point” of these crudes. Pour point is a fancy refiner’s term for the temperature at which crude flows. As you can tell from the picture above, neither of these crudes is flowing anywhere at room temperature. The pour point for black wax crude is 105 degrees Fahrenheit and for yellow wax it is 120 degrees F. That means you have to heat it up to flow – in much the same way as we have previously discussed for bitumen crudes (see Heat It!). But there is one important difference between these waxy crudes and bitumen, which is that because of their paraffin wax content you can’t make them flow easily by diluting them with lighter hydrocarbons. That rules out the use of diluents such as natural gasoline or condensates like the Canadian’s use in their bitumen, to help waxy crudes flow in pipelines (see Fifty Shades of Eh?).

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