Heavy oil is a type of crude that does not flow easily because of its high viscosity and heavy molecular structure. This in turn means it is harder - and thus more expensive - to extract from the reservoir and treat at a refinery.
There are various advanced artificial lift technologies available for countries or companies wishing to extract this resource.
They include the cold heavy oil production with sand (Chops) technique, which uses progressing cavity pump systems to extract the heavy crude, and which is the preferred technology so far in Kuwait. Other technologies include cold primary heavy oil production, cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) and steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD).
Historically, the Middle East has never had to produce heavy oil owing to its vast reserves of more easily recoverable light oil. Today, however, with the oil price hovering above $90 a barrel and states needing to up production capacity to meet growing global demand, there is a greater incentive to develop heavy oil reserves.
In some cases, and Kuwait is arguably one of them, heavy production is a necessity if declines in light oil fields are to be mitigated.
Saudi Arabia too is looking closely at heavy oil. It is planning to produce 900,000 barrels a day of heavy crude from the offshore Manifa field. Oman also has its own heavy oil schemes at Mukhaizna and Qarn Alam.
Downstream, special facilities have to be built to treat the heavy crude, which often has a high sulphur content. Riyadh is building export-oriented heavy oil refineries to treat its Manifa production, while Kuwait may form a joint venture with the US’ ExxonMobil Corporation to build a refinery to treat its heavy oil.