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Now That the Calls for Offshore Oil Drilling Have Quieted, Just What Resources Lie in American Waters?.

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Mechanical Engineering 131(06), 52-53 (Jun 01, 2009) (2 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2009-JUN-6

Abstract

This article explores oil production options in the American waters. Survey shows that there is significant oil production in the waters of the North Sea and the Bight of Bonny in Nigeria, as well as the Gulf of Mexico. However, the figure published for proved reserves is generally far lower than what geologists believe is available. Proved reserves are restricted to oil and gas that can be commercially recovered from known fields using existing methods under prevailing government regulations. The Minerals Management Service tries to estimate the amount of recoverable energy found in the wind, waves, and tides. The Department of the Interior report makes use of data from the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which has estimated the wind resource both on land and at sea, as well as other recent studies. The Department of the Interior's report suggests that the biggest offshore energy source is wind, not oil. It remains to be seen whether calls to exploit that resource will be catchy.

Article

" Drill, baby, drill."

Those three words have entered a kind of political graveyard, where campaign catchphrases go to die. There they lie, next to "Where's the beef?" and ''I'm madly for Adlai." Future generations may well scratch their heads in confusion.

Yet, for a brief, shining moment "last summer and fall, the fate of the 2008 election in the United States seemed to hang on offshore energy resource policy. Prompted by unprecedented petroleum prices, many U.S. voters were taken with the idea that the country could be energyindependent if it exploited the resources just off its coasts. According to a Rasmussen Reports poll fromJune 2008, some two-thirds of voters supported opening up to oil production the coasts of California, Florida, and other states where it is now prohibited.

The precipitous drop in petroleum prices due to the global economic crisis reduced the immediate pressure to find new sources of energy. But the question remains: If the United States fully exploited the resources of its outer continent shelf, how much new energy would it have at its disposal? Is it enough to make much of an impact on energy supplies and prices?

In spite of the fact that the politicians most closely associated with the call to "drill, baby, drill" lost the election in November, the new administration is working to answer the question of what energy lies ?ffshore. In a quickly assembled report released in April, the Department of the Interior details what we know-and what we don'tabout the resources to be found on the outer continental shelf, a region beginning three miles off the coastline and extending at least 200 miles to the edge of what the United States claims as its exclusive economic zone.

The department's Minerals Management Service, in collaboration with the United States Geological Survey, prepared the report on 45 days' notice based on currently available information.

The results might make advocates of offshore oil exploration rethink their assumptions. For instance, at current oil prices, the amount of economically recoverable oil along the Atlantic coast would provide a mere four months supply. Indeed, according to the report, the most promising offshore energy resource may be not involve drilling at all.

Today, there is significant oil production in the waters of the North Sea and the Bight of Bonny in Nigeria, as well as the Gulf of Mexico.

Of the nearly 1.7 billion barrels produced in the United States each year, more than 460 million barrels are brought in via offshore production platforms, according to the Energy Information Administration. These areas also account for about 20 percent of the proved oil reserves in the U.S.

But for technical reasons peculiar to the petroleum industry, the figure published for proved reserves is generally far lower than what geologists believe is available. Proved reserves are restricted to oil and gas that can be commercially recovered from known fields using existing methods under prevailing government regulations. That means, for example, the proven reserves don't include oil from areas currently off limits to exploration or fields that are geologically suggested but as yet undiscovered.

In an era where the prospect cif an oil production peak is being seriously considered, having a good handle on just how much petroleum is left is critical knowledge for decision makers. As detailed in the April report, the Minerals Management Service has a great deal of information on that. The MMS is the agency charged with administering the oil leases in federal waters and collecting the royalties from production companies. As part of its operations, the service has collected about 1.75 million linemiles of two-dimensional seismic data, almost 300,000 square miles of three-dimensional data, and information from 42,400 wells drilled off the coast. This huge database has enabled the service to make a fairly detailed assessment of what ought to be discovered in the four main offshore regions: the outer continental shelves off the Atlantic, Pacific, Alaskan, and Gulf coasts.

Based on this data, the MMS estimates that the total oil endowment in these offshore regions is 115 billion barrels, and the total quantity of natural gas is some 634 trillion cubic feet (both numbers have an error range of 35 percent). The estimate, however, includes the 14 billion barrels of oil and 154 trillion cubic feet of gas that Oil: 12.0 B barrels Gas: 19.9 T cu. feet Wind: 2,765 TWh/yr have already been produced over the past 100 years.

The vast majority of offshore oil and gas production to date has been in the Gulf of Mexico, and there's not much in the report that suggests that the situation would change if restrictions were removed. Among the existing proven and ultimately technically recoverable oil reserves, nearly 60 percent is in the Gulf Another quarter is in the waters off of Alaska, a region that might be hard to develop but could provide more than 15 billion barrels if prices returned to the level of last summer.

Indeed, the amount of potentially retrievable oil in Alaska is closely correlated to the price it can fetch. When the price rises from $60 a barrel to $160, the estimated recoverable volumes of oil go up by less than 30 percent in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf areas; in the waters of Alaska, however, that price bump increases the economically viable resource by 247 percent. That's still a fraction of the oil that's technically recoverable-a sign that no matter how much oil is off the coast of Alaska, it's going to be arduous to recover.

But oil and gas are not the only form of energy that can be recovered off the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts.

The report also tries to estimate the amount of recoverable energy found in the wind, waves, and tides. Although the MMS is most readily identified with offshore petroleum leases, it is also the agency charged with regulating and leasing sites to developers of ocean-based wind turbines. As of January, the MMS had received applications for wind turbines at four sites off the coast of New Jersey and another off the coast of Delaware. (The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead agency for regulating hydro kinetic resources, such as wave and tidal power.)

In many ways, wind power is best utilized offshore. For one thing, the wind resource found at sea is steadier and more powerful than what is generally available on land. Also, the lack of private property owners in the ocean removes some of the expense and legal hurdles. And since many of the nation's largest cities are located on the coast, power generated on the continental shelf would travel much shorter distances to potential customers than that coming from wind farms on the Great Plains.

That said, ocean-based wind power is technically challenging. The infrastructure to support large towers ris- ing from the ocean floor is incredibly expensive, and the corrosive nature of salt water may reduce the lifetime of key components. As well, maintaining such large machines out at sea could be a daunting task.

The size of the resource may well make the expense worthwhile. The Department of the Interior report makes use of data from the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which has estimated the wind resource both on land and at sea, as well as other recent studies. For the areas off the coast of the continental U.S., the potential annual energy production is a staggering 6,110 terawatt-hours, and that even factors in a 35 percent capacity factor for wind turbines. To put that in perspective, that's roughly equivalent on a joule-to-joule basis to double domestic oil production or 50 percent more than all the electricity generated in the U.S. each year.

Interestingly, the offshore region that has the most oil and gas-the Gulf of Mexico-is the worst for wind, with only a few percent of the total wind potential. The North Atlantic, conversely, seems to be the Persian Gulf of wind. The report cites one study that estimated the annual potential wind power production for the coast between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras (taking into account such factors as shipping lanes, military restrictions and major bird flyways). A full build out in that area, which would entail more than 166,000 turbines spread over 50,000 square miles, would generate 1,000 terawatt hours each year. What's more, the coast north cif Cape Cod has even better wind.

The Department of the Interior's report suggests that the biggest offshore energy source is wind, not oil. It remains to be seen whether calls to exploit that resource will be catchy.

Where to find it

The 200-page report, "Survey of Available Data on DeS Resources and Identification of Data Gaps"· [DeS Report MMS 2009-015) is available online at www.doi.gov/ocs/.

Copyright © 2009 by ASME
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