In marketing, an existing customer is considered far more valuable than a new prospect. That’s because it costs a lot of money to get a new customer, while an existing customer is already there, a proven commodity, someone with money who likes your product enough to have actually purchased it before. Businesses depend upon their existing customer base for most of their revenue, and spend a lot of money cultivating that base.

An increasing number of people now believe that the same approach should be applied to oil production. Instead of spending billions of dollars trying to uncover new sources of oil, they propose spending a fraction of that money on new technologies to better extract the oil that has already been found. Some have characterized it as simply squeezing more juice from the same orange. This isn’t a minor thing. In some cases, over 75% of the discovered oil ends up remaining in the ground, even decades after pumping has begun.

The issue is especially significant when it comes to “stripper wells”, little wells that may produce only a few barrels of oil a day. They’re small individual producers, but there are hundreds of thousands of them located all over the country, generating nearly 15% of the nation’s domestic oil production. These scattered little wells don’t have the large scale equipment and technologies necessary for the most efficient extraction, yet they still represent a major oil resource. So, armed with a variety of new technologies, a few companies have begun to tackle the problem of improving the efficiency and productivity of these existing wells.

One of the brightest stars on the horizon is a California company called Am Oil Resources & Technology, Inc., (AMOR.OB), which has exclusive rights to several new low-cost portable thermal extraction technologies for recovering crude oil that would otherwise remain in the ground. They’re just getting started, but are already targeting some 480,000 domestic wells, with the potential for many more international wells.

Other companies have also focused more on general cost effectiveness and productivity:

Raytheon Co.’s (NYSE:RTN) technology relies on microwaves to generate underground heat and melt a waxy substance in the shale called kerogen so it can be converted into oil. Oil shale reserves are scattered across U.S. in Colorado, Utah and southwest Wyoming, an area estimated to contain as much as 1.8 trillion barrels of oil trapped in shale. This technology can also be used for extracting oil from tar sands in Canada, and for extracting heavy oils.

Three of the world’s largest oil companies, ChevronTexaco (NYSE:CVX), Total (NYSE:TOT) and Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB), have also showed their interest by forming a joint initiative for research and development of thermal simulation technology to improve recovery efficiencies in heavy oil reservoirs. ChevronTexaco and Total’s expertise in the research and deployment of reservoir simulation and heavy oil production technology, coupled with Schlumberger expertise in development of industry-leading commercial simulation technology, will likely lead to increased efficiency when developing and producing in heavy oil regions.

In the end, even a minor increase in productivity of small wells could result in millions of barrels of oil each year, and all from wells that we have already discovered within our borders.