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Enhanced Oil Recovery: Delaying the Catastrophe

Written by Luke Burgess
Posted July 5, 2006 at 8:00AM

Little known fact -- Massive volumes of zero risk, technically recoverable domestic oil resources still remain undeveloped in the United States.

It's true.

Where is this oil? Well, I'll tell ya...but first let's start with a song...

So grab your banjos and sing along...

Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed

A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,

Then one day he was shootin' at some food,

And up through the ground came a bubblin' crude.

Oil that is...black gold...Texas tea.

Gushers, like the one ole' Jed stumbled upon on the Clampett property, do exist -- However, they lay on the more spectacular side of oil field technology. But luckily for the now nouveau riche mountain family, the reservoir found in their backyard contained highly pressurized natural gas deep in the ground. This pressure, when released, causes the crude to rocket to the surface creating an Old Faithful type gusher.

Most of the time, however, oil must be pumped out of reservoirs. This makes crude production more costly and time consuming. Also, once a reservoir has been sucked half dry, it becomes much more expensive, and therefore, less attractive to extract crude.

In the past, when oil was selling for under $20 a barrel, the major oil producers abandoned scores of half full oil reservoirs because production wasn't profitable. The fact is, massive volumes of technically recoverable domestic oil resources still remain undeveloped in the United States.

Get this -- On average, almost two-thirds of the original oil discovered in the U.S. still remains in the ground after conventional recovery operations. And the best part is because these are previously discovered fields, there's exactly 0% exploration risk.

So how much crude are we talking?

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About 200 billion barrels!

At today's prices that's close to $15 Trillion! Take that to the bank!

As you can imagine, with oil prices holding steady above $70 a barrel, there is growing interest in extracting this dormant oil. And that's where enhanced oil recovery techniques come in.

When it comes to enhanced oil recovery operations, there are three major types: thermal recovery, chemical injection, and gas injection. Let me quickly tell you a little about each technique...

Thermal Recovery
Thermal recovery heats the heavy viscous oil in latent fields. The heat thins out the thick crude and improves its ability to flow through pumps.

Chemical Injection
Chemical injection uses long-chained molecules, called polymers, to increase the effectiveness of water-floods. Agents that allow oil to mix with water are also sometimes used to help lower the surface tension that often prevents oil droplets from moving through a reservoir.

Gas Injection
Gas injection uses gases such as natural gas, nitrogen, or carbon dioxide that expand in a reservoir to push additional oil to a production wellbore.

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For decades, oil producers have shied away from enhanced oil recovery techniques because of their relatively high cost and, in some cases, by the unpredictability of their effectiveness. And unless you're trying to run your company into the ground, it's simply moronic to sell a $20 barrel of oil that cost you $30 to produce.

But with oil prices over $70 a barrel and the growing demand oil, enhanced oil recovery methods will be propelled into mainstream use.

In February a series of technical reports was released by the Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy that highlighted the significant potential for enhanced oil recovery technologies.

The reports found that enhanced oil recovery will indeed significantly contribute to the development of the large volume of remaining undeveloped domestic oil resources in the United States.

Ten basin-oriented assessments estimated that 89 billion barrels of additional oil from currently stranded oil resources in ten U.S. regions could be technically recoverable by applying the gas-injection enhanced oil recovery technique using carbon dioxide.

Experts claim that they can increase this potential with further advances in the technology. Some are even claiming that the next generation CO2 technology advances have the potential to increase domestic oil recovery efficiency from about one-third to over 60%.

That's right -- CO2, the same gas that the environmentalists (as well as the self-serving politicians and Hollywood types) are pointing the global warming finger at, can help us extract the oil from inactive reserves. Although, it can be easily argued that the production of more oil would lead to higher CO2 emissions, hence worse for the environment -- A real Catch-CO2.

Nonetheless, the demand for oil isn't going to go away until the global pump has run dry and gas injection, using carbon dioxide, is currently attracting the most new market interest.

Gas injection, using CO2, was first tried in 1972 in Scurry County, Texas, and has been successfully used throughout the Permian Basin of West Texas and eastern New Mexico. The technique is now being pursued in nine states across the country.

Until recently, most of the CO2 used for enhanced oil recovery has come from naturally-occurring reservoirs. But new technologies are being developed to produce carbon dioxide from industrial applications, such as natural gas processing, fertilizer, ethanol, and hydrogen plants in locations where naturally occurring reservoirs are not available.

The Dakota Gasification Company's plant in Beulah, North Dakota is producing CO2 and delivering it via a new 204-mile pipeline to the Weyburn oil field in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Encana (TSX:ECA - NYSE:ECA), the field's operator, is injecting the CO2 to extend the field's productive life. The company expects to add another 25 years to the life of the reserve and as much as 130 million barrels of oil that might otherwise have been abandoned.

Carbon dioxide, as byproduct of new technologies, such as clean coal technology, is also being harvested and used in enhanced oil recovery.

For clean coal companies, it's a win-win situation. Clean coal operators will need to do something with the massive amounts of CO2 produced by their plants. Obviously, due to environmental concerns, they can't simply blow it out the back of the building. But they can store the CO2 and sell it to oil companies looking to employ enhanced oil recovery.

Because of global peak oil production, we've reached the end of the cheap, easy oil rope.

And clearly enhanced oil recovery isn't going to turn that around.

But by using this technology, we will be able to at least delay the end of economical oil as we know it. And hopefully in the meantime create a viable, cost-effective alternative.

We'll be on the lookout for a good enhanced oil recovery play.

So, Y'all come back now, y'hear?

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