Awash in Oil

There's plenty of cheap oil, says the
U.S. Geological Survey

The debate over this summer's skyrocketing gasoline prices-an issue that has drawn the ire of both U.S. presidential candidates, Congress and the Federal Trade Commission-obscures what may be a larger truth: there's gobs of oil out there.

 In June, after a five-year study, the U.S. Geological Survey raised its previous estimate of the world's crude oil reserves by 20 percent, to a total of 649 billion barrels. The USGS team believes the largest reserves of undiscovered oil lie in existing fields in the Middle East, the northeast Greenland Shelf, the western Siberian and Caspian areas, and the Niger and Congo delta areas of Africa. Significant new reserves were found in northeast Greenland and offshore Suriname, both of which have no history of production. "What we did is look into the future and predict how much will be discovered in the next 30 years based on the geology of how it gets trapped," explains Suzanne D. Weedman, program coordinator of the USGS World Petroleum Assessment 2000. "We also believe that the [oil] reserve numbers are going to increase."

 Besides relying on geological surveys, the USGS also based its numbers on changes in drilling technology that are making it easier to find new supplies and to squeeze more oil out of existing fields. Petroleum companies are flushing out oil with pressurized water and carbon dioxide and using improved robot technology to construct offshore drilling rigs in up to 3,500 feet of water. They are also conducting three-dimensional seismic imaging of underground and underwater fields.

 The idea of an expanding "reserve growth" of undiscovered oil isn't shared by everyone. Colin J. Campbell, an oil industry analyst based in Ireland, believes the USGS estimates are overly optimistic. "It's only the low end of this scale that has any practical meaning; the other end of the scale is a very bad estimate," argues Campbell, who warned of an impending crunch, based on projections of current production and reserves, in an article in Scientific American ["The End of Cheap Oil," March 1998]. Weedman says the USGS report is documented with 32,000 pages of data. "We've looked at all the information," she states, "and tried to predict on the basis of science and not on past [oil] production."

--Eric Niiler

ERIC NIILER, a journalist based in San Diego, described the vanishing biodiversity on Guadalupe Island in the August issue.