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Dr. Roger M. Butler
One would be pretty hard-pressed to find anyone in Canada's unconventional oil business who would not admit that without the contributions of Dr. Roger M. Butler, in situ bitumen production in this country would not be where it is today.
Considered the father of steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), Butler-while employed with Imperial Oil in the 1970s-first developed the concept of using horizontal pairs of wells and injected steam to develop certain deposits of bitumen considered too deep for mining. His conceptualization and refinement of SAGD technology paved the way for scores of in situ projects currently under development that will push Canada's bitumen production to more than three million barrels per day within the next decade.
"Roger's invention of the SAGD concept stands with Karl Clark's invention of the hot water process as the critical technical innovations that have allowed the [oilsands] of Alberta to emerge as a key energy source for the world, on the scale of Saudi Arabia," writes Doug Lillico, manager of heavy oil and oilsands, for the Alberta Research Council. "Without SAGD, much of the explosive growth currently being experienced in Alberta's energy sector would not be occurring."
Born in 1927 in Ilford, England, Butler graduated with a PhD in chemical engineering from London's Imperial College in 1951 and almost immediately emigrated to Canada, where he took a chemical engineering teaching post at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.
In 1955, he joined Imperial Oil, and worked for the company for the next 27 years, along the way developing not just the SAGD technology that has become so important to the Canadian unconventional oil industry, but also a related technology, called VAPEX, which uses vapourized solvents instead of steam to recover heavy oil and bitumen.
He left Imperial Oil in 1983 to become director of technical programs for the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority (now known as the Alberta Energy Research Institute) until he accepted the Endowed Chair of Petroleum Engineering at the University of Calgary, which he occupied until the end of 1995.
In 1996, Butler founded GravDrain Inc., a research and consulting company for the heavy oil industry, and was its president until he passed away in May 2005.