Zeroing in on East Coast oil

Maybe the fish know where the great oil and natural gas bonanzas are off the East Coast -- but they are not talking. So the oil industry has spent $1.7 billion and drilled 23 wells to find out. And now it thinks it is beginning to home-in on possible sites of commercially producible hydrocarbons.

At least three oil companies -- Texaco, Tenneco, and Exxon -- remain active participants in the oil search. They have narrowed their drilling to two leases , clustered around Texaco's initial discovery of gas, found in August 1978.

Although Texaco's discovery was considered "encouraging" at the time, subsequent efforts to pin down the exact location and size of the field have been unsuccessful. A second well was unsuccessful; a third found a fairly large quantity of natural gas, but a fourth well drilled recently by Texaco one mile from the original discovery uncovered no signs of gas.

Still, Texaco said it has "little doubt that a significant accumulation of natural gas lies under part of this block."

The drilling by Texaco and Exxon is taking place on the northeast corner of the leased area, about 100 miles from Atlantic City, N.J.

Efforts by other oil companies to find oil closer to shore has so far resulted in "dry holes." A lot of time and money has been spent, resulting in the drilling of 18 dry holes. Only three discoveries have been made, but the industry and the government has yet to give up on the area.

The US Geological Survey (USGS), says Jim Parrish, a member of the service's marine division, "has not given up on the area at all.

"We feel there is still the chance of significant potential for the mid-Atlantic area. In any frontier area, there is a significant amount of drilling until the first discovery is made," he says.

Harry Martin, division manager of the Gulf-Atlantic area for Exxon, USA, notes that "although the drilling to date has been a disappointment, we haven't given up on the area as a potential producer. We plan to fully evaluate our leases."

Even Mobil Oil, one of the highest bidders for leases in 1976 when leases were first auctioned off, but which has drilled three dry holes, says through a spokesman: "We are watching what happens. We are disappointed, but we have not given up entirely."

Aside from Texaco, the only other oil company to find any oil or gas to date has been Tenneco. According to George Jackson, a Tenneco executive, more drilling is needed to determine if the discovery of both oil and gas on the block adjacent to Texaco's gas find is commercial. The company is now in the process of drilling a third well on the lease to determine if its discovery can be produced comemrcially.

Most of the drilling so far has taken place on the western rim of the continental shelf. However, the USGS, in a recent report, suggested that more oil and gas could be found farther east, out on the shelf itself. This area is tentatively scheduled to be auctioned for drilling in December 1981.

According to USGS'S director, Dr. H. William Menard, the estimates for this area range from a low of 360 million barrels to a high of 7.3 billion barrels of oil and from a low of 1.9 trillion cubic feet of gas to a high of 28.5 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Dr. Menard is optimistic about the area. He points out that a USGS Test well discovered that part of a great fossil reef about 100 million to 140 million years oil cuts through the area. This same reef also is found in the Gulf of Mexico, and off Mexico where oil has recently been discovered.

The reef, he notes, is 20,000 feet thick and 15 miles wide, bordered by thick layers of what he terms "promising source rock." However, only by drilling will the oil companies actually discover if it contains oil or gas.

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