Phoebe McMellon, Elsevier

Since the oil price shock of 2014, prices have never fully recovered, fluctuating between $40/bbl and $50/bbl. The dramatic drop had numerous knock-on effects for the industry; one major impact has been to bring to a halt almost all EOR operations as companies look for less expensive and less complex options.

However, with experts estimating that about 1 trillion barrels are still able to be recovered through EOR techniques, and with an average recovery rate of 40% for conventional oil, there is a veritable bonanza on offer for companies that are willing to invest. For many operators increasing recovery rates is a strategic imperative. Even at current prices the figures mentioned would represent about $40 trillion in sales, while a rise in prices back to their to 2013 levels could be worth over $100 trillion.

So, are we set to see a return of EOR? A recent surge in innovation regarding technology and data for EOR would indicate we are. As a result, from a purely technical perspective EOR has never been more lucrative, and greater collaboration between geoscientists could accelerate this progress further. While oil prices will still need time to recover, by tackling the challenges around lack of research cohesion, EOR researchers can make sure they are ready when the time comes.

In It For The Long Haul

When oil companies abandoned EOR projects, they instead opted to pursue new horizontal wells in prime locations to minimize any delay in recouping the cost of investment. While this is unsurprising—such projects have timeframes of between three and five years compared to ones of 20 to 30 years for EOR projects—companies cannot afford to ignore EOR when considering their long-term strategy.

The world is rapidly approaching the point where the potential for recovery from known resources exceeds the opportunity from new discoveries, and EOR offers companies the best chance to maximize the productivity and profitability of their brownfield sites. Low prices have driven much of the market toward short-term options, but those with ready capital and patience can achieve superior long-term returns by buying properties at substantial discounts now and prepping EOR projects for when oil prices bounce back.

Innovations In EOR

These kinds of investments in EOR have also become more viable due to the surge in new solutions available on the market. These include a range of polymers, surfactants, gels and co-solvents. For example, in the case of surfactants, more have been brought onto the market in just the last 10 years than in the 40 years preceding it. This is not surprising when you consider surfactants have the potential to raise recovery rates of the original oil in place to between 20% and 30%, compared to alternative options such as CO2 injections or polymer flooding.

Meanwhile, other options—such as low salinity waterfloods (often called “smart water”), delayed action particles or new direct thermal recovery methods—offer solutions to a range of niche problems, allowing companies to tailor their EOR strategy to their needs. Companies can choose between techniques which come at extremely low cost if needed, or opt for a more “high risk, high reward” strategy depending on the situation. Further, the rate of innovation shows no sign of slowing, with promising research being conducted into cutting edge solutions such as nanoparticles, as well as more prosaic studies into the utility of carbonated water.

Bringing It All Together

All of this means that there is no lack of inventiveness around EOR. However, due to the fact that much of the research is being conducted in isolation, possible synergies between existing solutions are still being missed. Researchers working in different areas—thermal, miscible gas, chemical and microbial—are not collaborating or communicating with each other well enough. As geoscientists increasingly start to rely on huge volumes of unstructured data or sensor data, the problem of siloed information and handling the Big Data “deluge” is only getting more pronounced.  

To solve these problems, find innovative combinations of existing techniques and better disseminate cross-disciplinary knowledge.  Researchers need access to digital solutions which hold the most up to date research and data.

In addition, as the number of data sources proliferates, these solutions must be able to overcome interoperability issues across everything from journal articles and maps to seismic profiles and photographs.

While the ongoing slump in oil prices means we’re unlikely to see EOR form the majority section of oil companies’ portfolios in the near term. Solving these issues and giving researchers the right digital solutions and platforms would go a long way to increasing its viability for those looking to invest. With deregulation on the agenda in many countries and increased recoverability rates from new innovations already available, we may start to see more EOR projects getting the greenlight in the near future, ready to take their share of the 1-trillion-barrel prize.

Phoebe McMellon is director of oil and gas strategy and marketing for Elsevier’s R&D Solutions.