Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Disappearing Oil and Gas

Seven years ago, some of the more optimistic voices in the oil industry were trying to persuade the United States that they could find oil and natural gas under every rock. The Department of Energy bought into much of that narrative, issuing exaggerated estimates of fossil fuel stores. But on closer examination, the vast stores of oil and natural gas imagined to be under American soil are slowly disappearing from official estimates. Much of it, it turned out, never existed at all, but was added to estimates for essentially political reasons. Large parts of the oil and gas that are still believed to exist have been found to be inaccessible. Combine these two effects, and some estimates are all but evaporating. A week ago, the estimate of oil production in the Monterey Shale in California was cut by 96 percent, and this is just the latest and most embarrassing in a series of revisions.

Realistically, new oil will not magically appear in places that have already been examined unless there is some kind of breakthrough in geology or extraction technologies. Such advances have been hard to come by, despite the hype that accompanies each new innovation in the field. Some experts now expect U.S. oil production to decline again after next year as most known oil fields are exhausted. With less oil in the ground than the industry had allowed itself to imagine, the United States is not about to become an oil giant again. It will have to look at more practical sources of energy to solve its energy and trade shortfalls.