London — Britain's North Sea oil reserves may be more than twice the minimum government estimate of 18 billion barrels, according to Oxford University geologist David Whitbread.
And, says Energy Secretary David Howell, the current level of exploration and appraisal drilling on Britain's continental shelf is more than 50 percent higher than a year ago.
Against a backdrop of prevailing economic gloom in this country, the oil industry's optimism ran like a bright thread through a recent conference on offshore oil organized by the Financial Times newspaper here.
The cause of the optimism, paradoxically, lies in a painful fact: World oil prices have increased since the beginning of 1979 by more than 100 percent.
But as the price rises, so does the determination to squeeze every available drop from under the seabed -- by maximizing recovery from existing fields and by finding the new ones. The result: Marginal fields once shunned as too small or too inaccessible are suddenly back in favor.
Now, says Dr. Whitbread, accumulations of 20 to 50 million barrels of recoverable oil "are receiving close attention," while "only eight years ago some companies would not consider accumulations of less than 500 million barrels."
Also being scrutinized are several methods for enhancing the amount of oil recovered. Crude oil -- sludgy, cold, and squashed into tiny pockets in porous rock -- needs to be urged to flow.
According to Dr. G. Rowan, manager of advanced recovery technology for British Petroleum, scientists are after the cheapest and most effective recovery process. They are looking at everything from bacterial cultures to pressurized soda water -- as well as at more conventional techniques using steam or pressurized gas. The more they develop the technology, the more the marginal field becomes the productive one.
It all adds up to some significant new mapping of North Sea possibilities. Most promising of the continental shelf areas, says Dr. Whitbread, are the Barents Sea (if Russia and Norway can agree on who controls it), the West Shetland basin, the Porcupine Bank west of Ireland, and the western approaches to the English Channel.
Similar recalculations could affect estimates in other new areas like Mexico, Dr. Whitbread told the Monitor. But more mature areas, such as the Middle East, are, he feels, probably pretty well plotted already.
Offshore oil production, which began in shallow water off Louisiana and Venezuela in the 1940s, has recently come of age. Dr. Whitbread jokes about his work as "a bit of geomystery." But he notes, more seriously, that the science of sedimentology has made great advances over the past 30 years. And he explains that the "several-fold" improvements in gathering and using seismic reflection data have provided a much clearer understanding of undersea geology. With these tools, he feels confident in revising the predictions upward.
Dr. Whitbread admits that his is not the only view. "As you know, if you put two geologists in a room you've got three opinions," he says.
But observers agree that the general thrust of future exploration will be toward deeper water areas (2,000 to 5,000 feet), using tethered-leg platforms, submarine-like seabed buildings with up to 50 people living in them, or even tunnels running out from shore to manmade caverns carved out beneath the sea floor.
It will not be cheap: $:10 million ($23 million) per well may be a minimum. So far about $:21 billion (about $48 billion) has been invested in the development of Britain's oil and gas resources, says Mr. Howell.
And major oil companies, whose profits reportedly can exceed the gross national product of the world's smaller nations, are quite willing to put in more. This, even though the day rate for hiring one of the 47 rigs that are drilling this summer in the North Sea has leapt from $22,000 to over $60,000 in one year.
But one oil company executive noted privately that energy from oil was still only 1/100th the cost of energy from alternative sources -- and would prove a bargain even if the price went to $150 a barrel.
Such figures make Britons wince. They already pay more than $3 for a gallon of gasoline. But Mr. Howell insists on charging full market price for British oil. "We cannot sell ourselves energy on the cheap," he says. "If we try to have 'welfare oil' for ourselves, we are cheating ourselves and undermining the incentives to conserve and develop alternatives," he concludes.