A petroleum reservoir, or oil and gas reservoir, is a subsurface pool of hydrocarbons contained in porous or fractured rock formations. The naturally occurring hydrocarbons, such as crude oil or natural gas, are trapped by overlying rock formations with lower permeability. Reservoirs are found using hydrocarbon exploration methods.


Crude oil found in oil reservoirs formed in the Earth's crust from the remains of living things. Crude oil is properly known as petroleum, and is used as fossil fuel. Evidence indicates that millions of years of heat and pressure changed the remains of microscopic plant and animal into oil and natural gas.

Roy Nurmi, an interpretation adviser for Schlumberger, described the process as follows: "Plankton and algae, proteins and the life that's floating in the sea, as it dies, falls to the bottom, and these organisms are going to be the source of our oil and gas. When they're buried with the accumulating sediment and reach an adequate temperature, something above 50 to 70 °C they start to cook. This transformation, this change, changes them into the liquid hydrocarbons that move and migrate, will become our oil and gas reservoir."[1]

In addition to the aquatic environment, which is usually a sea, but might also be a river, lake, coral reef or algal mat, the formation of an oil or gas reservoir also requires a sedimentary basin that passes through four steps: deep burial under sand and mud, pressure cooking, hydrocarbon migration from the source to the reservoir rock, and trapping by impermeable rock. Timing is also an important consideration; it is suggested that the Ohio River Valley could have had as much oil as the Middle East at one time, but that it escaped due to a lack of traps.[2] The North Sea, on the other hand, endured millions of years of sea level changes that successfully resulted in the formation of more than 150 oilfields.[3]

Although the process is generally the same, various environmental factors lead to the creation of a wide variety of reservoirs. Reservoirs exist anywhere from the land surface to 30,000 ft (9,000 m) below the surface and are a variety of shapes, sizes and ages.[4]


The traps required in the last step of the reservoir formation process have been classified by petroleum geologists into two types: structural and stratigraphic. A reservoir can be formed by one kind of trap or a combination of both.

Structural traps

Fold (structural) trap
Fault (structural) trap

Structural traps are formed by a deformation in the rock layer that contains the hydrocarbons. Domes, anticlines, and folds are common structures. Fault-related features also may be classified as structural traps if closure is ‎present. Structural traps are the easiest to locate by surface and subsurface geological and geophysical studies. They are the most numerous among traps[citation needed] and have received a greater amount of attention in the search for oil than all other types of traps.

An example of this kind of trap starts when salt is deposited by shallow seas. Later, a sinking seafloor deposits organic-rich shale over the salt, which is in turn covered with layers of sandstone and shale. Deeply buried salt tends to rise unevenly in swells or salt domes, and any oil generated within the sediments is trapped where the sandstones are pushed up over or adjacent to the salt dome.[5]

Stratigraphic traps

Stratigraphic traps are formed when other beds seal a reservoir bed or when the permeability changes (facies change) within the reservoir bed itself. Stratigraphic traps can form against either younger or older time surfaces.

Estimating reserves

After the discovery of a reservoir, a petroleum engineer will seek to build a better picture of the accumulation. In a simple text book example of a uniform reservoir, the first stage is to conduct a seismic survey to determine the possible size of the trap. Appraisal wells can be used to determine the location of oil-water contact and with it, the height of the oil bearing sands. Often coupled with seismic data, it is possible to estimate the volume of oil bearing reservoir.

The next step is to use information from appraisal wells to estimate the porosity of the rock. The porosity, or the percentage of the total volume that contains fluids rather than solid rock, is 20-35% or less. It can give information on the actual capacity. Laboratory testing can determine the characteristics of the reservoir fluids, particularly the expansion factor of the oil, or how much the oil expands when brought from high pressure, high temperature of the reservoir to "stock tank" at the surface.

With such information, it is possible to estimate how many "stock tank" barrels of oil are located in the reservoir. Such oil is called the stock tank oil initially in place (STOIIP). As a result of studying things such as the permeability of the rock (how easily fluids can flow through the rock) and possible drive mechanisms, it is possible to estimate the recovery factor, or what proportion of oil in place can be reasonably expected to be produced. The recovery factor is commonly 30-35%, giving a value for the recoverable reserves.

The difficulty is that reservoirs are not uniform. They have variable porosities and permeabilities and may be compartmentalised, with fractures and faults breaking them up and complicating fluid flow. For this reason, computer modeling of economically viable reservoirs is often carried out. Geologists[6][7], geophysicists and reservoir engineers work together to build a model which allows simulation of the flow of fluids in the reservoir, leading to an improved estimate of reserves.


To obtain the contents of the oil reservoir, it is usually necessary to drill into the Earth's crust, although surface oil seeps exist in some parts of the world, such as the La Brea tar pits in California, and numerous seeps in Trinidad.

Drive mechanisms

A virgin reservoir may be under sufficient pressure to push hydrocarbons to surface. As the fluids are produced, the pressure will often decline, and production will falter. The reservoir may respond to the withdrawal of fluid in a way that tends to maintain the pressure. Artificial drive methods may be necessary.

Solution gas drive

This mechanism (also known as depletion drive) depends on the associated gas of the oil. The virgin reservoir may be entirely liquid, but will be expected to have gaseous hydrocarbons in solution due to the pressure. As the reservoir depletes, the pressure falls below the bubble point, and the gas comes out of solution to form a gas cap at the top. This gas cap pushes down on the liquid helping to maintain pressure.

Gas cap drive

In reservoirs already having a gas cap (the virgin pressure is already below bubble point), the gas cap expands with the depletion of the reservoir, pushing down on the liquid sections applying extra pressure.

Aquifer (water) drive

Below the hydrocarbons may be a ground water aquifer. Water, as with all liquids, is compressible to a small degree. As the hydrocarbons are depleted, the reduction in pressure in the reservoir causes the water to expand slightly. Although this expansion is minute, if the aquifer is large enough, this will translate into a large increase in volume, which will push up on the hydrocarbons, maintaining pressure.

Water and gas injection

If the natural drives are insufficient, as they very often are, then the pressure can be artificially maintained by injecting water into the aquifer or gas into the gas cap.

See also

Notes and references

  1. "The Making of Oil: Birth of a Reservoir". Schlumberger Excellence in Educational Development. Archived from the original on November 20, 2005. http://web.archive.org/web/20051120073151/http://www.seed.slb.com/en/scictr/watch/makingoi/birth/index.htm. Retrieved January 30, 2006.
  2. "What is a Reservoir?". Schlumberger Excellence in Educational Development. Archived from the original on April 27, 2006. http://web.archive.org/web/20060427134445/http://www.seed.slb.com/en/scictr/watch/makingoi/birth/birth.htm. Retrieved January 30, 2006.
  3. "Rise and Fall of the North Sea". Schlumberger Excellence in Educational Development. Archived from the original on November 22, 2005. http://web.archive.org/web/20051122232002/http://www.seed.slb.com/en/scictr/watch/makingoi/birth/nsea.htm. Retrieved January 30, 2006.
  4. "What is a Reservoir? - What are some characteristics?". Schlumberger Excellence in Educational Development. http://www.seed.slb.com/en/scictr/watch/makingoi/birth/char.htm. Retrieved January 30, 2006.[dead link]
  5. "Evolution of the Reservoir". Schlumberger Excellence in Educational Development. Archived from the original on August 25, 2005. http://web.archive.org/web/20050825075629/http://www.seed.slb.com/en/scictr/watch/makingoi/birth/res.htm. Retrieved January 30, 2006.
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