Elliott Roosevelt Jr., a grandson of U.S. 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 valued at about $58 billion in early April—more than the gross domestic product of Bulgaria—and reaping this 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.
With an oil rush endowing North Dakota with the nation’s lowest unemployment 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 Inc. 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, meaning that it would sell abroad more crude oil and products than it would buy. 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 Englewood, Colo.-based 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.
“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% to an average of 6.47 million barrels a day in 2012 from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. 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 Barack Obama defeated John McCain and his drill-baby-drill backers and succeeded oilman George W. Bush in the White House, oil production has soared 29.4%.
Meantime, the Earth is hotter now than during three-quarters of the 11,300 years since the most recent ice age, according to researchers at Harvard and Oregon State universities. By 2020, U.S. oil output may surpass that of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top producer, the Paris-based International Energy Agency says.
Drillers say they can hasten America’s petroleum revival with CO2 EOR, a technique first used in the 1970s to refresh flagging wells.
In the mid-1990s, Hess Corp. and Occidental Petroleum Corp. began using carbon dioxide in so-called residual oil zones, areas previously rejected because the petroleum was mixed with too much water.
Since then, mapping and other technologies for steering CO2 toward productive reservoirs have improved, says Steve Melzer, who has run CO2 EOR conferences in Midland, Texas, for 18 years. The enhancements helped convince Roosevelt, who aims to be the first person to drill residual oil in a virgin field where there’s no network of existing wells.
Roosevelt’s claim that roughly 1.8 billion barrels are trapped below his parcel is accurate, says Melzer, whose consulting firm studied and verified it. Ryder Scott Co., a Houston firm that oil companies hire to independently evaluate petroleum reserves data they file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, estimates Roosevelt has a 90% probability of recovering 437 million barrels or more, spokesman Mike Wysatta says.