U.S. and global dependence on oil is not showing signs of changing anytime soon.
Despite increasing efforts efforts to conserve and more investment in solar energy and other renewable sources, the global demand for oil is only expected to rise within the foreseeable future.
Population growth in the developing world, industrialization, and urbanization are among the factors driving this growing need.
The U.S. has been able to steadily increase oil output and will need to continue to do so in order to keep pace with global demand.
The most practical approach to maintaining this trend is to rely more on maximizing production from existing resources – enhanced oil recovery (EOR) – than to rely on the discovery of new oil reserves.
U.S. Stake in Increasing Oil Output
The drive for U.S. energy independence tops the national political agenda and is recognized as a central issue affecting national security.
The U.S. has been successful in reducing dependence on foreign imports from the peak in 2007 and within the past year has seen oil production greater than imports for the first time since 1995.
Less reliance on oil-exporting countries such as Venezuela and countries in OPEC make the U.S. more immune to price fluctuations that can be dramatic in these often volatile regions.
Barriers to Finding New Reserves
New reserve discoveries can’t realistically keep pace with growing demand for oil.
There are only so many unexplored areas of the planet and only so many undiscovered oil reserves.
Searches for new reserves are often met with resistance from environmental groups and advocates who oppose exploration of undisturbed natural environments.
Even the discovery of new reserves is not enough to guarantee that new reserves will be fully used.
For example, ABC News reported the discovery of a shale deposit in Utah and Colorado that could contain more oil than the world’s reserves combined.
However, technological and environmental challenges prevent the region from being fully developed.
Increasing Oil Yield in Known Reserves
If the identification of new reserves is not the answer to increasing oil output, another option is to focus on increasing the yield from already-known reserves.
Currently, oil extraction in new oil reserves occurs via natural forces that increase pressure within the well enough to drive oil to the surface.
These forces can include the following:
- Natural water flow
- Natural gas expansion
These approaches are known as primary extraction, and they can lead to recovery of about 10 percent of oil within a given reserve.
But 90 percent of oil in the reserve is left uncollected using these methods.
Clearly, increasing the yield within a given reserve has the potential to substantially increase oil output without requiring exploration for new reserves.
Secondary and Tertiary Extraction
While primary extraction depends on natural forces to increase pressure, secondary and tertiary extraction makes use of innovative approaches to generate pressure and permit oil to flow to the collection point.
Secondary and tertiary extraction – also known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR) – can yield a total of 30 to 60 percent, which is a substantial increase over the 10 percent expected during primary extraction.
The following are examples of EOR techniques.
- Thermal recovery: this method focuses on increasing the temperature within the oil reserve so that the oil becomes less viscous and better able to flow.
- Gas injection and hydraulic fracturing (fracking): these techniques have similar concepts; the difference is that gas injection uses nitrogen gas, carbon dioxide gas, or natural gas, while fracking uses water. After constructing extensive infrastructure to support the oil reserve and permit oil to flow upwards to the surface, gas or water is pumped at high pressure, forcing the oil to flow.
- Plasma Pulse: this method does not require chemicals or gas, but instead generates a pulse to clear away excess sediment from well perforations and cause vibrations throughout the reserve. Oil production is increased due to reduced viscosity, increased permeability, and better ability to flow to the surface for collection.
While oil production is a constant concern as demand increases, the U.S. is currently becoming more self-sufficient.
The country is likely to be able to keep increasing its production not from discoveries of new reserves, which are unpredictable, but from exploration of new technologies to increase yield from existing reserves.