A Michigan company has used the technique to retrieve 1.6 million barrels of oil that, its owner says, would not otherwise have been produced.
Core Energy, based in Traverse City, says it is the only company east of the Mississippi River doing this kind of Enhanced Oil Recovery — with the help of Western Michigan University's Michigan Geological Repository for Research and Education. Around the U.S., about 80 projects reportedly produce 230,000 barrels of oil per day using this technique.
"The potential in Michigan is tens of millions of barrels," said Bob Mannes, president and CEO of Core Energy LLC, and a third-generation Michigan oilman.
"It's a win-win. It's absolutely the right thing to do," Mannes said. "It's the ultimate recycling project because we utilize existing well bores wherever possible."
That said, the company does often drill additional wells, he said. The carbon dioxide Core Energy uses comes from natural gas production from the Antrim Shale in northern Michigan.
A study done by Clean Wisconsin found that crude oil produced from CO2 EOR creates 70 percent less carbon dioxide than conventional crude oil.
There are potentially 800 Michigan oil fields where the technique could be used, William Harrison, professor emeritus of geosciences and director of MGRRE, said. So far, Core Energy has used EOR on seven.
"We think the potential is phenomenal," Harrison said on a recent tour of the repository, which is essentially a library or archives for rocks. It houses 500,000 feet of core samples, as well as an additional 20,000 samples. The facility is also home to the former University of Michigan collections and the Michigan Geological Survey, which was transferred to WMU in 2011, making the MGRRE the primary geological resource in the state.
"That's additional oil that never would have been recovered otherwise," Harrison said.
WMU's research suggests that 180 to 200 million barrels of "stranded" oil in old fields in the state could be recovered through this technology, Harrison said.
MGRRE originally teamed up in 2005 with Core Energy and Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio-based company, in a public-private partnership to study geologic carbon sequestration. The effort, known as the Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, collects data and samples of Michigan's geological formations relevant to CO2 storage, containment and potential for enhanced oil recovery.
The regional partnership is one of seven established by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory to study carbon sequestration as an option for mitigating climate change.
In 2009, they received more than $600,000 in federal funding secured with the assistance of U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph.
Suggesting that energy companies should pay to store carbon dioxide underground hasn't proved terribly popular with the industry, Harrison said.
The big question: Why should we spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get rid of carbon dioxide?
"The cost was phenomenal," said Harrison. "We needed to find some way for it to pay for itself."
Enter the enhanced oil recovery effort.
In a process known as "piggy-backing," after a company such as Core Energy made a profit from the oil, another organization — such as the state or federal government or a nonprofit — potentially could then use the drill and other infrastructure already installed as a carbon dioxide dispersal well, Harrison explained.
"To me, this is an enormously logical and ecologically driven approach," Harrison said.
Mannes said that no federal money has gone toward Core Energy's exploratory efforts. The company also uses 3-D seismic technology in its exploration, which it says allows it to be more accurate when drilling, leading to fewer negative environmental effects.
The partnership with MGRRE has been a tremendous help, he said, calling Harrison's more than three decades of work collecting samples from all over the state "invaluable."
"They're a valuable resource. Their contributions to the state of Michigan go beyond the regional partnership," Mannes said. "Michigan is very fortunate to have that facility in the state.
"We're always looking for ways of further understanding of Michigan geology and MGGRE is the tool to do that in the state of Michigan," he said. "The usefulness of that organization goes far beyond the oil and gas industry."