The primary mechanism behind increased efficiencies in the oil and gas industry has been a reduction in spending. Cuts to capex and opex along with optimized drilling, completion and production methods have resulted in operators finding value in this lower-for-longer price environment.

But while companies look for ways to do things better more cheaply, they could run the risk of missing out on longer term prizes by lessening their focus on research of production technologies. Researchers at organizations like the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, the University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) and the Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute at the University of Wyoming have said that during the current economic downturn companies are more reluctant to spend money on research into technologies that may not pay off immediately, particularly in the area of EOR. CO2 EOR could add as much as $20/bbl to production costs and brings with it oil production carried out over a longer period of time rather than the near-immediate results of hydraulic fracturing.

But for companies willing to make such an investment, the long-term payout could be substantial, particularly in the Bakken, where the U.S. Department of Energy estimates there may be as much as 137 Bbbl of oil recoverable by CO2 EOR. In fact, the Bakken is one of the sites of research into CO2 EOR in tight oil that is bearing fruit.

The EERC recently initiated Phase 2 of a study of potential CO2 EOR methods in the Bakken with a CO2 injection field test into an unstimulated vertical well in a shale reservoir. The EERC said results of the tests are likely to be made public later this year. Those findings could prove to be a significant step to unlocking the sizeable reserves tucked into tight rocks in the Bakken.

Another example of emerging technologies in CO2 EOR is occurring at Battelle, which, in a partnership with Core Energy, is using fiber optics to monitor injection efficiency and seismic activity at CO2 injection sites in Michigan. The project is part of the ongoing research at the Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership.

“Innovations that are going on are pretty phenomenal,” said Steve Melzer, founder of Melzer Consulting, a CO2EOR consulting firm. “Every month we wake up in a new world. You wake up to new things you didn’t think you could do.”

Companies pride themselves on innovation, and the mother of innovation is research. Continuing to fund research, even in EOR, could result in a production windfall, particularly when prices recover. But funding research into something such as EOR is a significant gamble: Technologies may not pay off, and ones that do may not pay off for several years. As researchers at Kansas University’s Tertiary Oil Recovery Project (TORP) explained, that’s the cost of admission.

“Unfortunately, the price of our commodity is constrained, and some of the things don’t get adopted for a long time because the price isn’t right,” said Mark Ballard, TORP field liaison engineer. “It can take a while. Ten years is probably too soon for something that’s going to [be adopted]. The nature of research is, if we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.”

Brian Walzel’s Completions & Production column originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of E&P.