Energy talent may take over as oil's era sputters out
Houston — The Texas oil industry is feeling the combined squeeze of a national recession and slumping oil prices. Instead of setting new records, Texas drilling rigs punched 436 fewer holes and bored through 1.5 million fewer feet of rock this past August than a year ago.
''Everything's shut down pretty good, so I'm fortunate to have this job today ,'' said driller Danny Olenick as he eased off his rig's brake to lower a 60,000 -pound string of spinning drill pipe into the ground. But based on his 14 years of hunting for oil, he expects the state's ''stacked'' (idled) drilling rigs and laid-off workers to be back on the job within six months.
''We're going to have to start drilling again pretty soon,'' the mud-splashed driller said as his rig's bit cut through rock 900 feet beneath us and the massive rig shuddered, ''because this country runs on oil, not promises.''
Mack Wallace, one of the three Texas Railroad Commission members responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry here, agrees that the Texas petroleum industry has a busy future. He blames the recession for the current downturn in drilling activity, not on a so-called ''glut'' or lasting oversupply. Once demand picks up again, Mr. Wallace says, Texas activity is certain to rebound quickly because of this state's traditional role as the nation's leading oil and natural gas supplier.
He primarily blames what he considers misguided national energy policies for the oil industry's persistent boom-and-bust cycles. Americans ''would probably be enjoying a reasonably priced energy mix today,'' Wallace says, if national policies had followed Texas state policies of limiting supply to match demand. Instead, US policies beginning with natural gas price controls in 1954 held energy prices artificially low, he explains. Such policies, he says, have resulted in:
* Wasteful use of energy supplies.
* Reduced exploration and production in the United States due to low returns on investment.
* Excessive reliance on imported crude oil.
* Neglect of alternative sources such as coal and synthetic fuels.
Wallace sees Texas playing a major part in correcting the nation's energy problems. ''Texas has the high technology, the energy industry skills,'' he says , ''along with the adventurousness and the courage needed for handling our energy problems.''
This kind of Texas advice on national energy policies is reflected in the reelection campaigns this fall of Gov. William Clements (R) and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D).
Governor Clements recently offered a national energy policy blueprint which charges the Reagan administration with replacing excessive government interference of the past with excessive noninterference. Mr. Clements calls for keeping the Department of Energy to coordinate national policies and to promote alternate fuels.
Senator Bentsen argues, ''The restoration of a stronger energy industry in Texas must be an urgent national priority.'' Noting that Texas wellhead crude oil prices have dropped 10 to 20 percent over the past year, Mr. Bentsen charges that the federal ''windfall profits'' tax on oil ''is stealing funds needed for capital expenditures and drilling exploration.
Christopher Ross, an international oil industry specialist, agrees that Texas oilmen have been hit hard. Mr. Ross, head of the Houston office of the consulting firm Arthur D. Little Inc., advises energy companies to cut costs, ride out the current economic slowdown, and ''actively plan ahead to take advantage of the opportunities of the late '80s, when there will be demand for more energy supplies.''
Mr. Ross says that oil field service companies have been ''whiplashed'' as profit-starved major oil companies have sharply cut back drilling programs. But he notes that ''the recent growth experienced in the oil industry was at a rate which really could not be sustained.''
Ross forecasts another few years of uncertainty affecting every phase of the oil industry, from exploration through refining and distribution. But he says that ''the fundamentals are probably solid'' and that ''there is every reason to believe that we can support more drilling activity.'' Once companies ''sharpen their pencils'' enough to stabilize their ''downstream'' refining and marketing operations, he predicts, ''upstream'' spending on new exploration programs will pick up rapidly.
Forecasts differ about the amount of Texas oil that will ultimately be recovered. In the worst case, future discoveries and full exploitation of current fields may only yield another 30 billion barrels of recoverable oil for Texas. This compares with 45.6 billion produced to date.
But even if unexpected new fields are found and new technology unlocks higher percentages of underground oil, Texas production is almost certain to continue dropping. From the 1972 peak of 1.3 billion barrels, annual production slipped to 898 million barrels last year. Natural gas production is also following a downward curve, pushing Texas to develop its uranium and vast lignite reserves.
But Ross,an Englishman, stresses that Texas has ''a vast accumulation of energy wisdom in Houston'' which ensures this state's energy future. He predicts that Houston will remain the world's energy capital, much as his native London has remained an internatinal financial center.
Far from seeing Texas decline when its oil and natural gas run out, Ross adds , ''After years of being a colonial-type producer of raw materials, Texas is well placed to move up the ladder on the basis of its talents, its history, and its wealth.'' He says that ''as it becomes less dependent for its success on producing raw materials,'' Texas is bound to become increasingly important in providing the services and high technology which the world's energy industries of the future will need.