Over a Barrel 

Paltry new oil finds off Virginia's coast will do almost nothing to end future supply crises.


The bumper stickers end with the phrase, “pay less.” Now that our Republican-led state government and Democrat-led federal government have agreed to open the doors to offshore drilling, will we Virginians actually pay less?

Not by a long shot, for reasons far greater than the oil we may find off our coast. First, consider the likely dividend: at least 130 million barrels. This sounds enormous when I look at my garden shed and think, “Yeah, I could horde a stack of those barrels and still get out my lawn mower.”

When I pull back a little more, to consider America's daily 20-million-barrel thirst for crude, Virginia's potential oilfields become small change, roughly equal to what the United States imports every two weeks. It's also puny by historical standards of the supergiant fields found from 1900 to 1960, as is most of the other crude we're likely to find offshore. Compare these figures with those of a single Saudi field dating from 1948, Al-Ghawar. It produces five million barrels every day.

Once our nation, like the Persian Gulf, had so much crude we never could have imagined the situation we'll face soon. America's oil production peaked in 1970, following a mathematical model proposed by geologist M. King Hubbert in the 1950s. Hubbert was ridiculed in a time when oil was thought to be infinite, at least for all practical purposes of human extraction.

Hubbert got it right, and now his later predictions of global depletion may be coming to pass. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects 2010 global demand at 85.5 million barrels per day. Meanwhile, production won't grow much, according to most independent analysts. Demand, nowadays led by Asia, continues to grow while supply holds steady partly by manipulation, partly by the lack of new discoveries big enough to offset declines elsewhere. 

Hubbert's prediction that world supplies would peak and decline in the 1980s or '90s proved premature: New finds in the North Sea and North Slope of Alaska delayed our day of reckoning. Wells in the North Sea and the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico are aging out today and new oilfields just aren't filling the gap. I laughed when a fellow watcher of energy supplies explained how, during an exuberant talk by a scientist, audience members pointed out to him that his own figures for a major deep-sea Atlantic oilfield would provide a thirsty world with exactly three months of oil. The scientist was shocked because he actually didn't know how much oil humanity consumes on a daily basis.

There's a wild theory called abiotic oil, often popular with climate-change skeptics and with about as much scientific evidence to back it up. Proponents claim that oil gets continually produced by geological activity deep in the earth's mantle and not by ancient marine organisms decaying into fossil fuels. If these cornucopians are correct, however, why aren't old wells in Texas and California topping themselves off again?

Dates for a tipping point when supply will no longer meet demand vary wildly because many oil producing countries simply provide figures on reserves that aren't verified independently. 2020 seems a reasonable year for us to consider, though Exxon-Mobil and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries place the date for peak oil decades into the future.

Others in the scientific community claim we're already past peak. One report, commissioned and then kept quiet by the Bush administration, projects a peak in global petroleum output before 2020 and regional wars over oil supplies a likely outcome. Acting on the Hirsch Report, the Army Corps of Engineers issued an ancillary document with implications — many of them dire — for U.S. military facilities overseas.

Yet as our government quietly lays plans, the public still imagines Jed Clampett shooting at some food, striking it rich with a single bullet, then selling his farm to move to California. This faith in the drill-now idea helps to explain why illusions of easy crude are again on the lips of pundits and stuck to bumpers.

Except for new finds likely in the deserts of western Iraq and perhaps beneath the melting Arctic ice cap, there probably are no more Al-Ghawars to be exploited. Oil shale requires more water than western states have to spare, and even if Iraqi and polar oil comes online in a decade or two, the hour is late. Kuwait and Yemen have announced that their oil supplies are past the midpoint, and Mexico's major field, Cantarell, is in steady decline. Iran's, Venezuela's and Russia's fields are thought to be past their prime as well, which leaves Saudi Arabia, the big dog with huge fields at least half a century old. There's no reason to think the Saudis are going to tell the world: “We're past peak, so make electric cars.”

The next act in that drama would be a civil war on the Arabian Peninsula. It may occur anyway; Al-Ghawar has been injected regularly with up to seven million gallons of saltwater every day to keep the pressure up in its wells. When that field goes into a decline the Saudis cannot conceal, our Oil Age will be in a new, and final, act.

Finding oil off our state's coast will be more about spurious claims of energy independence, jobs for domestic oil companies and revenues for state coffers. These are not bad outcomes, but the numbers show that paltry new finds will do almost nothing to end future supply crises.

Perhaps we'll find enough relatively clean natural gas there to make the ventures pay off, so both Gov. Bob McDonnell and President Barack Obama can pat themselves on the back. I just hope our governor, like our president, will recall promises to develop new sources of clean energy. We'll sorely need wind, solar, nuclear and even dirty coal as the reality of dwindling global oil enters the daily worry list.

Energy issues dwarf what can be printed on bumper stickers or in newspaper columns, but I'm game to see what's out there. So, oilmen, give it a go. Let's drill now in as environmentally sensitive a way as we can, so we won't be stupid enough to waste time on it when the oil really begins to drip dry. By then, one hopes that we'll have developed enough renewable forms of power to get us to whatever lies beyond the bottom of Virginia's, and the planet's, barrel. S

Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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