Finding US oil

REMEMBER the rousing calls back in the 1970s for American energy independence? First the Nixon White House - and then the Ford and Carter administrations - sought to develop national political and economic strategies to insulate the United States from any future cutoff of overseas oil supplies, as happened during the embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in 1973.

No one is talking about US energy independence these days, in part because most experts now recognize that imported oil is going to play a major role in total US energy usage right through the end of this century.

That being the case, it seems only reasonable that Americans continue to take all possible practical steps to further their own domestic oil and natural gas exploration and development work - while making an even more concerted effort to ensure energy conservation.

What surely needs to be guarded against during this period of relative worldwide oil glut is a sense of complacency.

Any number of factors could once again cause sharp disruptions in both the distribution and price of oil. One need only consider the possibility that either Iran or Iraq could close off the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes one-sixth of the world's petroleum supplies.

Some analysts also question whether the current round of oil company mergers restricts funds for oil exploration.

The case for intensive US oil exploration is strong. As pointed out in a talk in Boston this week by Jack C. Threet, vice-president of exploration for Shell Oil Company, ''each year the US uses more domestic oil and natural gas than it finds.''

According to Mr. Threet, the US ''will have to find 32 billion barrels of domestic crude oil over the next 10 years, just to replace what we are using.''

The administration, under former Interior Secretary James G. Watt, had given the go-ahead to large-scale leasings of offshore oil areas. By one estimate, 60 percent of future US oil discoveries and 35 percent of future US natural gas discoveries will come from the outer continental shelf of the United States.

Under the new interior secretary, William P. Clark, there appears to be a backing off from the more pell-mell leasing policies of Mr. Watt.

Such a slowdown need not work against exploration. It makes sense to be selective about leasing - seeking to open only those areas with potential reserves, while taking account of environmental concerns. After all, if the general public senses that environmental factors will be well respected by the energy companies, they will be more likely to support leasings. Moreover, the energy companies themselves are increasingly sophisticated in developing better detection methods for locating potential reserves. That adds to the case for a selective - but most definitely continuing - leasing policy.

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