Lemuel Gulliver is back! You remember him – he’s the hero of “Gulliver’s Travels,” a satire written by Jonathan Swift, first published in 1726.
Many adventures befall Gulliver, but the one most remembered is that he's captured and pinned down with innumerable strings by the tiny Lilliputians. By their standards, he was a giant, but they tied him down so well that he was helpless.
That, according to those seeking the Republican presidential nomination, is the state of the U.S. energy industry – by energy, they mean oil and gas.
According to Newt Gingrich, who's echoed by frontrunner Mitt Romney and his two rivals, the oil and gas industries have been cruelly tied down by government, which imposes onerous environmental regulations and restricts drilling in the most hopeful parts of our ocean shelves and on federal lands.
If these lands and ocean sites were just opened to drilling, the Republican hopefuls argue, the United States would become the world’s greatest energy producer, as it was in the 1940s and 1950s. Drill, baby, drill and a gigantic cornucopia of energy awaits; energy for the United States and the world.
Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, the take-no-prisoners trade association that represents nearly 500 oil and gas companies, is a vocal advocate of more drilling in more places. He's a Gulliver theorist.
From Republicans and the oil industry, this is a new optimism born of an old idea. The old idea is that if you drill enough holes in enough places, oil will be abundant.
That optimism has existed more in the fringe world of wildcatting than it did in the big oil companies, which knew that there were limited reserves of recoverable oil and gas in the United States. They also knew that once a reserve is in production, you can calculate the point at which it will decline; as has happened with the North Slope of Alaska, where less than half the 2 million barrels a day produced at its peak is flowing today.
Then came the new technologies, largely developed by the despised government. Now in full deployment, these technologies have incontrovertibly changed expectations for natural gas but their impact on oil is debatable.
The first of these is 3-D seismic mapping. Advanced physics enables the companies to determine very accurately how much hydrocarbon a particular formation underground might contain. Gone are the days when the hard-drinking wildcatter followed his gut and mysterious patterns in the tumbleweed.
Next, is the hole itself. At one time, a well was a well – drilled straight down, looking for a pool of oil, a cavern of gas or both. Fracturing – the process in which water, chemicals and other substances are injected down the hole to break up rock in proximity to the hole – has been used to release more of the good stuff. With time fracturing, also called “fracking,” has become more sophisticated.
What has made the euphoria of the politicians and oil lobbyists possible is the miracle of horizontal drilling, which allows as many as eight holes to be spread out for miles from a single shaft. This and better fracking has changed the prospects for gas out of all hope, and has somewhat improved oil expectations.
Much of the enthusiasm for new drilling has come from the success of the new technologies in North Dakota, which has overnight become the the fourth-largest oil-producing state in the Union. But beware. This isn’t Texas circa 1945.
Oil from North Dakota's Bakken Field isn’t cheap. Its “lifting cost” is among the most expensive there is: It costs about $50 a barrel to bring North Dakota oil to the surface, compared with about $15 in Russia and Saudi Arabia. Is it oil or incense?
API’s Gerard told reporters in a telephone conversation, designed to preempt President Obama’s “all of the above” energy recommendations, that technology in its inevitable advance would keep the oil flowing for many generations.
Only the government, in Gerard’s view, stands between the American people and abundant oil.
However, fields that have peaked – like the North Slope and much of Texas, Louisiana and the North Sea – have seen declining production and no technology has been enough to revive them. All the oil has been removed. Gone, baby, gone.
More drilling has already improved domestic oil production. But will unfettered drilling really make a new Saudi Arabia of the. United States? Can the resource base stand the exploitation? Can Gulliver actually stand up?
The next generation of technology won’t put more oil in the ground. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate