Every day the United States goes through another 20 million barrels of oil. Finding enough crude to supply the country's oil habit is difficult because much of the oil that's easy to get to is gone. Now companies are extracting oil in places that are expensive to drill and raise concerns about safety and the environment. BP's disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the most obvious example.
Out on the rolling prairies of North Dakota — and just about everywhere else — oil doesn't bubble up out of the ground anymore. You have to go in and force it out.
North Dakota Oil Boom
Jim Brown knows the difficulties of modern-day drilling; he's senior vice president of Denver-based Whiting Petroleum. His company plans to drill more than 383 wells as part of the surge in oil drilling in western North Dakota.
The crude is locked away in a layer of sediment 2 miles underground. Not only did his crew drill down that far; they took a sharp turn and drilled another 2 miles horizontally through the sediment. Now they'll use a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing to create a series of small cracks underground to free the oil.
"This total job, we'll pump about 40,000 barrels of fluid and about 4 million pounds of sand in this well," Brown says, standing near his company’s Hagey 12-13H well outside Stanley, N.D.
Brown says fracturing the sediment will boost oil production about tenfold for the first month the well is operating.
"I've been in this business for over 35 years and we are doing something here today that we did not have the technology to do seven years ago," he says.
Hydraulic fracturing — or frac'ing — also is used for natural gas, and it's controversial. The fluid is mostly water, but it also contains about one-half percent chemicals. Despite industry assurances, environmental groups worry frac'ing is polluting groundwater, and they want more regulation. Some even want an outright ban. But without this technology, the boom in North Dakota wouldn't be happening.
Oil: Beyond NASA
New technology has changed oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico too. As seen in the wake of BP's blown-out well in the Gulf, companies have sophisticated technology like remote-controlled submarines. That means they can explore for oil in places humans can't even go. Sometimes the projects resemble a space mission.
"The space program and the offshore industry have long shared technologies and learned from each other," says Tyler Priest, clinical assistant professor and director of global studies at the University of Houston.
In 1996 NASA launched a probe to Mars, and that same year Shell launched a drilling platform in 3,000 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico. "The difference being that Shell's platform cost more than three times as much as NASA's Mars Pathfinder, and arguably involved more sophisticated technology and more sophisticated remote engineering," Priest says.
Now companies are drilling in 10,000 feet of water. The cost creates a new floor for the price of oil — meaning don't expect $2-per-gallon gasoline to return anytime soon.
Still, the technology that makes this possible is impressive, but the developments are weighted heavily to the production side of the business.
"The concern we have is that the technology to contain and then clean up a spill has not kept pace with the increased technology to drill for oil," says Sarah Chasis, senior attorney and director of the National Resources Defense Council’s Ocean Initiative. Chasis says the federal government needs to figure out the best way to respond to a low-probability, high-cost event like the Gulf spill.
Former Shell Oil President John Hofmeister prefers to focus on the low-probability side of that equation — and he thinks companies should brag more about their history. "The fact that you can count on one hand the kind of blowouts that have occurred in the face of these tens of thousands of wells is a pretty remarkable testimony to the safety and the risk management that the companies provide," Hofmeister says.
Hofmeister has started a nonprofit group to prompt more discussion about energy policy and the oil industry. He says it's time the public had a better understanding of what it takes to provide those 20 million barrels of oil Americans use every day.