The heavy oil deposits of Canada contain an estimated 1.8 trillion barrels of bitumen in place. The Early Cretaceous McMurray Formation in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta contains about 960 billion barrels of bitumen in place and can be developed through surface mining and thermal in situ techniques. This paper examines the key subsurface development challenges associated with commercializing oil sands developments and demonstrates how knowledge of regional reservoir distribution and the use of an integrated technology approach are vital in the identification, selection, and ranking of the highest quality resource opportunities at the exploration scale. The regional geology of the Western Canada Basin and the Athabasca area will be reviewed. At the development stage the conventional approach to evaluate Athabasca oil sands properties requires closely spaced coreholes drilled 100 m to 400 m apart. This approach is being applied to understand reservoir presence and continuity, lithofacies distribution, net-to-gross and bitumen saturation. Fluvial estuarine point bar reservoirs form a large portion of the resource that is amenable to development. Point bar scale, stacking style and preservation potential varies considerably throughout the McMurray resource. Examples will be shown from 3D seismic and corehole data to demonstrate spatial changes in stratigraphic complexity within the McMurray Formation. The importance of detailed reservoir characterization studies and the impact on thermal in situ and mining recovery mechanisms will also be discussed. This paper will demonstrate that an integrated core, well log, and high resolution 2D and 3D seismic strategy with the appropriate sequencing can avoid unnecessary data acquisition and financial pre-investment through removal of non-optimal corehole placement and corehole reduction. This approach allows identification and selective targeting of the highest quality and lowest complexity project-scale resource first with the lowest development uncertainty and greatest economic chance of success.


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