National Geographic : 1981 Feb 28
OIL Lifeblood and liability IN 1859, outside Titusville, Pennsylvania, "Colonel" Edwin Drake punched a hole some 70 feet deep, struck oil, and gave birth to America's oil binge. Petroleum quickly became the foremost fuel for lighting and lubrication, the earliest uses for this black milk of the earth that would ultimately nourish the world's largest industry. When the huge Standard Oil Trust monopoly was broken into 34 separate companies in 1911, several of its fragments remained among the world's largest firms. Oil famines frequently threatened the U. S., but always drillers made new strikes, most notably the great fields of east and west Texas. Within a century after the Pennsylvania discovery, oil shouldered aside coal as the leading source of energy. By 1948, almost unnoticed, the United States already had become 1952555861646770737679 From a 1955 peak fewer and fewer wells were drilled in the U. S. as cheaper foreign oil became increasingly available. The Arab oil embargo of 1973, followed by escalating OPEC prices, helped reverse the trend andgave impetus to a surge in domestic drilling last year. a net importer of petroleum. Oil's convenience particularly suited it for use in motor vehicles-a 42-gallon barrel of crude oil packs the same wallop as 5,700 cubic feet of natural gas or about a quarter ton of coal. During the past three decades we tripled our appetite for oil. Its extreme cheapness encouraged wasteful use. In 1980 Americans consumed more than a fourth of the worldwide production of 60 million barrels a day-to propel our cars, trucks, and boats, to heat homes and drive industry, and to provide raw material for petrochemicals. Of this immense flow of oil, nearly nine million barrels a day comes from domestic wells, rankingthe U. S. third, after the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia, among world producers. The remainder must be imported, and the bulk of these imports are controlled by the 13 member nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, who themselves produce half of the world's oil. But our dependence on imports is much less than that of Europe, and it pales beside that of oil-poor Japan, whose industrial economy must be U. S.OIL RESOURCES (estimated recoverable in billions of barrels) Our waning supply of conventional petroleum constitutes only a small fraction of the nation's natural resources containing oil. Other, unconventional sources will provide some of the raw materials for making synthetic fuels for transportation. fed by a mobile pipeline of tankers streaming in at a rate of four a day from foreign sources, located largely in the Persian Gulf. At current production, the U. S. has the equivalent of nine years of oil reserves left. To counter this rate of depletion, we must discover the equivalent of three Prudhoe Bays in this decade alone. Yet most experts fear that few large fields remain to be found. More than 2.5 million wells have been drilled in the U. S.-four times as many as in the rest of the world combined. In 1980 drillers sank a record 60,000 domestic oil and gas wells, a fifth more than in the previous year and most of them deeper and far more costly than ever before. The investment in this urgent search reached 20 billion dollars that year alone. Yet new finds still fall short of the depletion rate. Discoveries of significant offshore fields, dramatic improvements in recovering oil from currently producing wells, rapid development of oil shales and tar sands, and the liquefaction of coal will be needed to halt this ominous decline-unless America learns to live on less. SAUDI ARABIA After a century of exploration, the U. S. has more than half a million producing oil wells. Saudi Arabia has only about 725. Yet on the average, each Saudi well pumps 800 times as much oil as its American counterpart. Altogether, Saudi wells can outproduce U. S. wells by more than a million barrels a day.