Offshore drilling and production operations can result in spills or leaks of hydrocarbons into seabed sediments, which can potentially contaminate these sediments with oil. If this oil trapped later migrates to the water surface it has the potential for negative environmental impacts. For proper contingency planning and to avoid larger consequences in the environment, it is essential to understand mechanisms and rates for hydrocarbon migration from oil containing sediments to the water surface as well as how much will remain trapped in the sediments. It is believed that the amount of oil transported out of the sediment can be affected by tidal pumping, a common form of Subterranean Ground Water Discharge (SGD). However, we could find no study investigating the phenomenon of fluid flow in subsea sediments saturated with oil and the effects of tidal pumping.

This study presents an experimental investigation of tidal pumping to determine if it is a possible mechanism to describe the appearance of an oil on the ocean surface above a sediment bed containing oil. An experimental apparatus was constructed of clear PVC pipe allowing for oil migration to be monitored as it flowed out of a sand pack containing oil, while tidal pressure oscillations were applied in three different manners.

The effect of tidal pumping was simulated via compression of air above the water (which simulated the increasing static head from tidal exchange). Experimental results show that sustained oil release occurred from all tests, and tests with oscillating pressure produced for longer periods of time. Furthermore, the experimental results showed that the oil migration rate was affected by grain size, oil saturation, and oscillation wave type. In the static experiments, a linear relationship between grain size and permeability was observed, as is well-known in fluid flow in porous medium. However, the oil recovery does not show a linear relationship with viscosity, as the oil recovery only changed by 50% for a nearly 400% variation in viscosity. In all oscillating experiments the rate and ultimate recovery was less than the comparable static experiments. This leads to the preliminary conclusion that with an oscillating pressure on top of a sand pack, movement of a non-replenishing source of oil is suppressed by pressure oscillation.

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