Drillers have long understood that they leave most of their product in the ground. As oil is pumped, the pressure underground drops and it becomes harder to extract what remains. Typically, only about one-third of the oil in a given location can be economically removed. As a result, many supposedly “depleted” wells actually still contain most of their oil—just waiting for a technology that will make it economical to extract it.
In the early 1970s, drillers in west Texas figured out how to do just that, and the remarkable secret to their success was carbon dioxide. Pumping carbon dioxide into depleted wells not only increases the pressure, it also acts as a solvent, helping to separate oil from the cavities in the rock where it is trapped and the water it is often mixed with. This process enables oil companies to extract as much as another third of a site’s oil—essentially doubling a well’s productivity.
One might think that such a remarkable technology would be an overnight sensation. But in fact, we are nowhere near capitalizing upon EOR’s full potential. Since the 1970s, oil companies have injected about a billion tons of carbon dioxide into “depleted” wells, producing roughly 2.5 billion barrels of oil. About 6 percent of the oil produced in America is now extracted using this technique. We know it works—but it’s still a niche market.
What’s holding us back? A shortage of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide used in EOR operations is predominantly geologic—companies tap into underground deposits and extract CO2 for enhanced oil recovery and other commercial applications. That’s how it’s been done since the 1970s, but two important things have changed in recent years. Climate change has become the preeminent environmental concern, and new studies have shown that there is much more oil reachable through EOR than had been previously understood—so much so that geologic carbon dioxide supplies aren’t nearly sufficient. If we want to get that oil, we’ll have to capture carbon dioxide from industrial sources, such as coal-fired power plants.
Which brings us to the interesting place we find ourselves today: Our nation’s top environmental goal is reducing carbon dioxide emissions. And one of our top energy priorities is maximizing production from domestic oil reserves. Capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and using it for EOR could produce billions of barrels of oil while simultaneously putting billions of tons of carbon dioxide underground forever. Yet policymakers are doing next to nothing to take advantage of this unique opportunity. Instead, Washington is preparing to fight a pitched legal and political battle over proposed EPA power plant regulations that will, even if implemented, make barely a dent in America’s carbon emissions.
Carbon utilization is not receiving nearly the attention it deserves. We should be having a national conversation about enhanced oil recovery; instead, we are obsessed with issues that are almost trivial in comparison. The basic facts of the matter seem clear: Carbon capture and sequestration is probably indispensable to any pragmatic approach to decarbonization, and EOR appears to be the only practical way to underwrite the extensive up-front costs of developing carbon capture and sequestration technologies, infrastructure, and markets.
Using carbon capture and sequestration to enable enhanced oil recovery is the path to keeping coal in our energy economy while simultaneously achieving our environmental goals; without it, we are likely to lose both battles. The choice is between a declining-but-not-disappearing coal industry that can’t invest in innovation and a thriving, productive industry that could develop effective carbon management technologies. EOR could produce tens of billions of barrels of oil in America while sequestering billions of tons of carbon dioxide and driving over $800 billion in investments in decarbonization and energy production technologies. And it would establish a different model for meeting the climate challenge: Make decarbonization technologies affordable and productive rather than trying to make carbon-intensive energy more expensive.
James L. Salmon, Esq.
300 Pike Street
Cincinnati, Ohio 45202
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