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Smugness May Cost Even More in Next Oil Crisis

April 13, 1985

Your editorial (March 1), "Glut Is a Four-Letter Word," on the so-called oil "glut" provided some thoughtful and constructive observations. Many Americans have become smug about energy, even though we still spend about a billion dollars a week to import nearly 30% of our oil. Our smugness may cost even more during the next crisis.

However, an important element of this problem was conspicuous in its absence: the need for more oil and gas exploration and production right here in the United States.

By 1995, production at the huge Prudhoe Bay field is expected to fall from the current 1.5 million barrels of oil per day to between 250,000 and 750,000 barrels. This loss equals 3 to 6 times as much oil as America lost in 1979, following the Iranian revolution. To compensate, we would have to increase imports 22% to 35% above present levels, which last year cost us an amount equal to the combined 1982 net asset value of General Motors, Lockheed Aircraft and Coca-Cola. Other fields are also being depleted.

America will have to find about 32 billion barrels of new oil reserve during the next 10 years, just to keep domestic production at current levels. An excellent beginning has been made off the California coast, where the Point Arguello fields have combined reserves totaling about 1 billion barrels of oil, plus associated natural gas.

By the mid-1990s, these fields could supply enough oil to power 10 million cars or meet one-fourth of California's total oil needs (at 1982 consumption rates) and enough natural gas to heat 365,000 Rocky Mountain homes every year that production remains at these levels. If all the energy were used for domestic heating, it would be enough for about 7 million homes a year--or all the occupied residences in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, North and South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

There are billions of barrels of oil on the outer continental shelf waiting to be found. Unfortunately, we have let the supposed glut and misinformation about environmental impacts convince us that we should close vast areas to exploration and production. By continuing the four-year ban on leasing off California, we have rendered unavailable an estimated 850 million barrels of oil--more than twice as much as we have stored in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the Santa Barbara blowout in 1969 remains the only one, in the course of drilling over 30,000 wells in state and federal waters, that ever resulted in significant amounts of oil reaching shore. In the 14-year period 1971-1984 (after new blowout prevention requirements went into effect), a total of only 791 barrels were lost due to blowouts, out of over 4.7 billion barrels produced. By comparison, natural seeps along the California coast discharge 18,000 to 277,000 barrels of oil every year, according to the California State Lands Commission. And the tanker Alvenus lost more than 35,000 barrels when it went aground off Louisiana in 1984.

Similarly, claims that a single offshore platform could produce as much pollution as 1,000 cars obscure the fact that we are talking about a maximum of only 55 to 60 platforms in both state and federal waters off California, by the mid-1990s. All these platforms, taken together, will cause less than 0.3% of the pollution emitted by California's 18.8 million cars, trucks and buses in 1984.

In announcing the draft proposed outer shelf oil and gas leasing program recently, Secretary of the Interior Don Hodel stressed the need for the nation to have "an effective offshore leasing program to help move us closer toward energy independence and improve our energy and natural security."

It is time energy policy pronouncements by our news media and politicians begin to recognize these facts and the truth about the offshore leasing program's excellent environmental record.


Washington, D.C.

Griles is deputy assistant secretary of the Interior for land and minerals management.

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