I went to an interesting lunchtime talk today by Sergio Kapusta, former chief scientist of Shell. He gave a nice overview of the oil/gas industry and where nanoscience and nanotechnology fit in. Clearly one of the main issues of interest is assessing (and eventually recovering) oil and gas trapped in porous rock, where the hydrocarbons can be trapped due to capillarity and the connectivity of the pores and cracks may be unknown. Nanoparticles can be made with various chemical functionalizations (for example, dangling ligands known to be cleaved if the particle temperature exceeds some threshold) and then injected into a well; the particles can then be sought at another nearby well. The particles act as "reporters". The physics and chemistry of getting hydrocarbons out of these environments is all about the solid/liquid interface at the nanoscale. More active sensor technologies for the aggressive, nasty down-hole environment are always of interest, too.
When asked about R&D spending in the oil industry, he pointed out something rather interesting: R&D is actually cheap compared to the huge capital investments made by the major companies. That means that it's relatively stable even in boom/bust cycles because it's only a minor perturbation on the flow of capital.
Interesting numbers: Total capital in hardware in the field for the petrochemical industry is on the order of $2T, built up over several decades. Typical oil consumption worldwide is around 90M barrels equivalent per day (!). If the supply ranges from 87-93M barrels per day, the price swings from $120 to $40/barrel, respectively. Pretty wild.