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High Prices, Demand Lead to New Oil Extraction Techniques

Technology and high gasoline prices are helping to coax hard-to-extract oil from California's oil fields. Production at some of the state's older oil fields is expected to dry up in about 25 years, but Chevron says new ways to pump thick crude from the ground could more than double their life expectancy. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.

Oil fields outside Bakersfield, California, produce nearly 170 million barrels per year - about 80 percent of the state's oil supply. Production at most of these wells has been declining for 25 years. But continuing demand and increasingly high gasoline prices have producers looking for new ways to squeeze every drop.

Chevron petroleum engineer Paul Harness says the latest techniques use soundwaves to pinpoint hidden oil deposits. "The 3-D model tells us what we should expect to get from that well. Our production information tells us what it's actually making. If there's a large enough gap, we know exactly what well to work on."

But what they are finding several hundred meters below ground is heavy crude, so thick it takes steam to reduce its viscosity. Chevron engineer Jeff Hatlen says it would have been too expensive to pump the oil out just a few years ago.

"[By diverting the water] just outside of the oil, we can draw down the water and remove its ability to move into the oil column," explained Hatlen.

He says the technique could more than double the life expectancy of California's oil fields, some of which are expected to dry up in 25 years. "It's really about applying technology, benefiting from price environments to allow us to sustain development," he added. "I suspect we're going to hit recoveries that I couldn't have imagined 5, 10 years ago."

Chevron says the same technology has been used at some of its overseas oilfields to boost production capacity as much as tenfold.