A realistic view of oil drilling

I’d considered titling this column with the easy and obvious Shakespearean variation "To Drill or Not to Drill." But a quick Google search reveals that more than 23,000 incarnations of that phrase are already in use: the notion of drilling for more domestic petroleum is in the air.

In fact, on July 14, President George W. Bush lifted an 18-year executive ban on offshore drilling, an act that pleased many Americans.

More drilling isn’t necessarily a bad idea — especially if we maintain realistic expectations. My home state is still oil country; evidence of our nation’s petroleum infrastructure is everywhere: refineries, pipelines, fields of oil storage tanks, horsehead pumpjacks, and drilling rigs. Corpus Christi Bay is generously sprinkled with offshore oil and gas structures. More exploration and drilling, onshore and in the Gulf of Mexico, will benefit my part of the country.

Still, oil in Texas isn’t what it was during the black-gold-gusher days depicted in the movie "Giant." Oilfield work used to be a summertime, between-semesters job for me. In south Texas, it was heavy and hot work, but there was plenty of it.

We didn’t know from global warming in those days, and I guess we assumed the oil would flow forever. But about the time I quit doing oilfield work in the early ’70s, the oilfields themselves began to stop working, as well, part of a long national decline in petroleum production.

In fact, the pinnacle of crude oil production in the United States occurred in 1970 at about 9.6 million barrels per day. Then a long, steady decline began and today petroleum production is around five million barrels per day. (By way of comparison, we consume about 21 million barrels per day.)

Even the most extensive exploration and drilling program is unlikely to raise petroleum production back to the 1970 level, at least for any length of time, and energy independence, based on more drilling, is a pipe dream. Ignoring global warming and traffic congestion, it would be nice to imagine that vast reservoirs of petroleum await our discovery, in spite of considerable indication to the contrary. We’ve been tapping the big reservoirs around the world extensively for decades, and common sense suggests that the oil cornucopia of the past can’t last forever.

And if common sense isn’t convincing, we can turn to experts like Matthew Simmons, who argues in "Twilight in the Desert" that the great mother lode of petroleum, the giant reservoirs of Saudi Arabia, are coming to the end of their productive days.

Simmons provides considerable insight into how oil reservoirs work, information that’s instructive for our dilemma in this country. It’s complicated, but the short version is that the seven most productive Saudi reservoirs — which have produced close to 90 percent of Saudi’s oil during the last 50 years– are "mature," which is to say, "worn out." There are fancy ways of extracting some of the remaining oil, but doing so becomes more and more difficult and expensive.

Production is in decline elsewhere, as well, and Simmons argues credibly that the discovery of vast new reservoirs is highly unlikely. In fact, any new production that we might tweeze from our own extremely limited reserves will disappear quietly into the impending gap between diminished oil production and increased demand.

So any new domestic drilling needs to be evaluated against a realistic background understanding that the glory days of plentiful oil are over and that they’re extremely unlikely to return. New drilling will cause some environmental damage — that’s in the nature of oil production and use — but the real damage will occur if the wild goose chase for more oil distracts us from the inescapable fact that oil is a finite commodity and that we’re already behind the curve in finding solutions to its absence.

But I’m not an expert on the subject of oil, so I let a local energy expert take me to lunch. He’s been involved in energy production in this part of Texas for a long time, and he’s in a position to know. Drill? Sure, he says, we need all the energy we can find. But is drilling a solution to our energy dilemma? No way. It’s only a Band-Aid.


(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. . E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu For more news and information visit www.scrippsnews.com.)