Deeper sea drilling may shrink oil imports

The West could free itself entirely of importing oil from the volatile Middle East if it went after undiscovered offshore reserves, using new deepwater technology.

That's the claim of petroleum geologist Michel T. Halbouty, one of a group of international experts gathered here for the annual Offshore Technology Conference.

Dr. Halbouty said the expertise and equipment now exist to produce oil and gas lying off the world's coastlines and in the hostile Arctic and Antarctic regions.

Figures released at the conference by Dr. Halbouty, who heads his own oil company, show that the Middle East accounts for 393.8 billion barrels of crude oil reserves, or 52.5 percent of the 750 billion-barrel world total of proved crude oil reserves. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as a whole has some 468.8 billion barrels in its reserves, or 62.5 percent of the world total. But Halbouty insists that if the oil industry could be freed from restrictions imposed by the United States and other governments, fast-paced discoveries of new oil fields would prove that ''we don't need OPEC oil.''

Current technology already enables the oil industry to drill in 8,000-foot water, according to Dillard S. Hammett, vice-president of the Dallas-based SEDCO Inc., an offshore drilling company. The challenge now, he says, is to improve the techniques to reduce costs, which run up to $250,000 a day for operating a deepwater drilling rig.

Shell Oil Company is one industry leader clearly convinced that the technology is available for safe deepwater oil and gas production and that the immense investments required for deep offshore production will be repaid. As part of a continuing plan to spend about $1.2 billion per year to find new oil fields, Shell plans to drill five wells off the New England coast in 6,800 feet of water this summer.

Lawrence B. Curtis, vice-president for production engineering services at Conoco Inc., predicts that by 1990 the oil industry will be producing oil and natural gas routinely from giant platforms in 2,500 feet of water, more than double the depth limit for current production. Mr. Curtis and other experts in Houston for the Offshore Technology Conference stress that the chief obstacles to unlocking the world's untapped offshore reserves are political and economic rather than technological.

Improved methods and equipment for locating reserves and producing oil and gas from beneath the world's oceans could lead to drilling wells through three miles of rock underneath two miles of seawater by the turn of the century, according to Curtis, Halbouty, and others. But instead of allowing the oil industry to meet the world's energy needs, governments have held the industry back, Curtis charges. He predicts that this restrictive approach will change. He says a chief constraint is that currently about 80 percent of what consumers pay for petroleum products is skimmed off by government taxes and fees, which affect the industry at every point in its operations, from exploration to final distribution.

Curtis says that whatever money is paid to governments is money that ''does not go into finding and developing additional crude oil reserves.'' He says that for the world to take full advantage of its vast energy resources, ''government attitudes will have to change if they want us to develop these resources.''

One sign of changing government attitudes is that Norway's deputy energy minister, Hans Henrik Ramm, came to Houston this week to report that Norway plans to encourage new exploration and production in the North Sea. He told the conference his country is easing restrictions on the oil industry because of a ''positive experience'' with the industry. He said Norway hopes to increase its petroleum revenues, which now account for 15 percent of the country's annual gross national product.

Some 200 oil industry experts were on hand to explain that new ways are available for finding and producing oil in the North Sea and other hostile environments.

Shell Oil and Exxon Corporation research scientists presented detailed reports on their entirely remote-controlled ''Underwater Manifold Center,'' placed on the floor of the North Sea a year ago. They said the first of nine wells to be drilled from the unmanned seabed platform should begin production within the next two weeks. Although this new unit is operating only 500 feet underwater, its robot-repairable systems for producing oil and gas should operate equally well in far deeper waters, the companies assert.

Conoco executives presented details on another approach to deep offshore drilling. Their first-of-its-kind ''tension leg platform,'' designed to move with the ocean's winds and waves, is scheduled to begin production in the North Sea in the autumn of 1984.

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