The Ripon Forum

Volume 0, No. 0

Nov - Dec 2008 Issue

How Technology has Advanced the Drilling Debate

By on December 1, 2015


The birthright of all Americans is our public lands and our federal offshore areas, which contain vast amounts of oil and natural gas. Many people are surprised by just how much oil and natural gas we, the people own. Yet, what surprises them even more is how much of it has been locked up by federal law, especially at a time when our nation is paying billions of dollars weekly to foreign suppliers for the energy it needs to stay prosperous and strong.

Jack Gerard

Polls show increasing support for developing these supplies. That may be why, before the election, Congress let lapse long-standing requirements – the so-called “moratoria” on leasing – that had prevented access to most of the oil and natural gas off our coasts for over 25 years. The congressional leadership didn’t try to extend the moratoria because they didn’t have the votes. However, the decision to let the bans expire may be tactical. Some in Congress say they’ll try to re-impose them next year.

Americans are on record favoring drilling by big margins, but anti-drilling advocates still feel they can convince Congress to bring back the roadblocks to offshore development. Some may claim there’s not enough oil and natural gas offshore to matter. Others will contend there’s more than enough oil and natural gas where companies do have access if they would only produce it. Neither argument is correct.

Crude oil prices hit record highs earlier this year, and companies have been investing more and drilling more. Nevertheless, thanks to the decline in production from existing wells, our domestic output continues to slide, and nearly two out of every three barrels of oil consumed are imported. It’s obvious we need to develop our most promising oil and natural gas resources, much of which petroleum geologists agree is in federal areas. There’s enough oil and natural gas now locked up there to meet a substantial part of our requirements for decades to come, while also reducing reliance on foreign supplies, creating thousands of U.S. jobs, and delivering additional billions of dollars annually to government coffers in taxes, royalties and other payments.

But anti-drilling proponents won’t easily bow to such facts and common sense. Most likely, they’ll also try a different line of argument that’s worked before. They’ll claim drilling will destroy the environment.

This allegation was used to help justify the drilling moratoria when first imposed years ago and has been used to stop oil and natural gas development in northern Alaska and elsewhere. But, if judged by the facts – by how oil and natural gas are actually produced today – it’s just as spurious a claim as the others.

Oil and natural gas development in the United States is the safest and most environmentally responsible anywhere in the world. The industry employs the most advanced technology and best-trained workers. It proceeds under the closest scrutiny, complying with some of the most comprehensive and stringent regulations to lower emissions, safely dispose of wastes and protect wildlife.

The multiple permits, environmental studies and other government review required for oil and natural gas development in federal areas ensure nothing is done without carefully considering and mitigating risks. The permit review process is thorough and includes input from a wide range of stakeholders. It often results in site-specific requirements, such as monitoring wells remotely to reduce traffic that might disturb wildlife or ensuring no threatened species are nearby when an offshore platform is removed.

Technology is a critical factor in the high level of environmental performance that our oil and natural gas companies demonstrate every day. Sound waves reflected off the underground geology and transformed via computer into 3-D or even 4-D time-lapse visualizations provide engineers with a better idea of what oil and natural gas might be there before drilling begins. This decreases the amount of drilling necessary and reduces the number of dry holes.

Intelligent directional drilling, smaller well sites, ice roads (in Alaska), and zero-waste-discharge technology also reduce how much land is affected by oil and natural gas development. Companies can drill to a target the size of a walk-in closet located more than five miles from the drilling site and a mile or more below the surface – and modify direction as drilling is proceeding based on information fed from sensors on drill bits.

The Alpine oil field west of Kuparuk, Alaska – the largest onshore field discovered in North America in the past 20 years – shows how these technologies come together to keep the environmental footprint small. The land over the producing formations extends outward to about 40,000 acres, yet the actual surface development, including two drill sites, manned camp facilities and a jet-serving airstrip, covers only 97 acres.

8Some of the industry’s most advanced technology is offshore, including the deepwater platforms that are engineering achievements as breathtaking and technologically ambitious for their time as any of the ancient wonders of the world. The industry has drilled wells in 10,000 feet of water, the equivalent of standing 18 Washington Monuments on top of one another. Computers monitor production units 24-7. Subsurface valve shutoff devices automatically stop the flow of oil when unusual events are detected, keeping oil out of the water.

Some of the industry’s most advanced technology is offshore, including the deep water platforms that are engineering achievements as breathtaking and technologically ambitious for their time as ant of the ancient wonders of the world.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, about 150 times as much oil oozes from the ocean floor naturally in U.S. marine waters than the tiny amount spilled from offshore production platforms. The water is so clean around platforms off the coast of California that mussels attached to them are harvested and served at some of the country’s finest seafood restaurants.

And offshore technology is as rugged as it is sophisticated. The U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) says that during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita the performance of offshore facilities was “remarkable,” with “no accounts of environmental consequences resulting from spills from OCS facilities.” As for this year’s Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, MMS says there were “no reports of oil released in the Gulf of Mexico federal waters impacting the shoreline or affecting birds and wildlife.”

America is fortunate to be rich in energy resources, much of them located under federal lands and waters. The recoverable oil from federal areas could produce enough gasoline for more than 60 million cars and fuel oil for 3.2 million households for 60 years. The natural gas could meet the needs of 60 million households (the number of current users) for 160 years.

This oil and natural gas is not a complete energy solution. More alternatives, which oil and natural gas companies are investing in and developing, and more conservation are needed, too.

But every serious energy projection shows continuing strong demand for oil and natural gas far into our future, and we’re fortunate to have our own substantial supplies and the ability to develop them without significant harm to the environment.

This energy truly does belong to all of the American people, who increasingly believe it should be developed to help address the nation’s energy challenges. Their instincts on this are absolutely right.


Jack Gerard is the President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

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