Elliott Roosevelt Jr., a grandson of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, grins and leans toward visitors in his Dallas office to describe his biggest discovery in 53 years as an oilman.
After nursing a single 10-barrel-a-day well in a desolate stretch of west Texas for two decades, Roosevelt, 76, is embracing a technique he says can liberate a third of the 1.8 billion barrels of petroleum stuck a mile below.
He plans to inject carbon dioxide into limestone, potentially freeing oil and reaping the bounty from a 38-square-mile area drillers abandoned long ago.
Roosevelt’s method, known as carbon dioxide-enhanced oil recovery or CO2 EOR, may speed up America’s resurgence as a fossil-fuel superpower — and do so under a president elected as a green-energy champion.
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With an oil rush endowing North Dakota with the nation’s lowest unemployment rate and shale gas-drilling rigs sprouting from Colorado to Pennsylvania, the U.S. is shedding the energy inferiority complex that has humbled it since lines snaked around gasoline stations 40 years ago.
“Independence day is coming,” says Ed Morse, global head of commodities research at Citigroup in New York.
Morse says the U.S. could stop being a net importer of crude-oil and petroleum products and become a net exporter in about five years. That would trim the $540 billion trade deficit and encourage a foreign policy that promotes democracy instead of protecting oil supplies, he says.
Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of research company IHS and author of “The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World,” says North American production along with stagnating demand will reduce U.S. dependence on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
“The U.S. is now in a position of being envied because of our energy vitality,’’ Yergin says.
The U.S. is swimming in newfound oil. Crude output surged 14.3 percent to an average 6.47 million barrels a day in 2012 from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). This included about 300,000 barrels a day from CO2 EOR.
Last year’s leap of 812,000 barrels a day was the biggest since 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled the first commercial well, in Titusville, Pa.
In the four years since President Obama took office, oil production has soared 29.4 percent. By 2020, U.S. output may surpass that of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top producer, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says.
Drillers say they can hasten America’s petroleum revival with CO2 EOR, a technique first used in the 1970s to refresh flagging wells. Since then, mapping and other technologies for steering carbon dioxide toward productive reservoirs have improved, says Steve Melzer, who has run conferences on the method in Midland, Texas, for 18 years.
The enhancements helped persuade Roosevelt, who aims to be the first person to drill residual oil in a virgin field where there’s no network of existing wells.
Unlike fracking, in which drillers blast water, sand and chemicals into wells to shatter shale and release oil and gas, CO2-enhanced drilling induces a chemical reaction that makes oil less sticky and helps it flow from microscopic pores in the rock.
Carbon dioxide costs about $35 per metric ton in west Texas, and drillers recycle it as many times as possible to dislodge more oil.
Such drilling has the potential to unlock 100 billion barrels of recoverable U.S. reserves, says Vello Kuuskraa, president of Advanced Resources International in Arlington, Va. U.S. reserves total 222.6 billion barrels this year, the EIA says.
Kuuskraa’s big projections come with a large caveat: securing enough carbon dioxide to free the oil.
Expanded CO2 EOR requires new sources of carbon dioxide, which scientists say hastens global warming. In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified CO2 as a pollutant that threatens public health.
Kuuskraa estimates the U.S. may need 33 billion metric tons of the gas for CO2 EOR, while only 3 billion tons are available from such naturally occurring sources as extinct volcanoes.
The rest would come from man-made sources such as power plants that create and capture CO2. Only a handful of these exist.
To get started, Roosevelt is seeking small quantities of CO2 for two years of test drilling beginning in 2014 — and expects full production about two years later. He’s seeking financing to invest $300 million in six years.
He says cash flow would fund subsequent investments, bringing the total cost to $2 billion. He expects a 50-fold return on equity for Roosevelt Resources.
Roosevelt isn’t stopping there. He’s considering a sixfold expansion of his 38-square-mile area and is scouting further in west Texas, declining to say where. “The key is getting CO2,” he says.
Roosevelt says he’s happy to pursue the type of drilling that creates a market-based demand for CO2 to clean up coal and gas plants. At his core, though, he’s a Texas oilman with a fossil-fuel bonanza in his sights.
“We’re not doing this to solve climate change,” Roosevelt says of his carbon dioxide-enhanced drilling plans. “We’re in business to liberate and sell oil.”