The 'Idle' Oil Field Fallacy
By RED CAVANEY
June 20, 2008; Page A13
A bill introduced in Congress this week would "compel" oil and natural gas companies to produce from federal lands they are leasing. If only it were that easy to find and produce oil. Imagine, an act of Congress that could do what geology could not.
These lawmakers ask why oil and gas companies want more access to federal lands to drill if they aren't using all of the 68 million acres they already have? Anyone with even the most basic understanding of how oil and natural gas are produced – and this should include many members of Congress – knows that claims of "idle" leases are a diversionary feint.
A company bids for and buys a lease because it believes there is a possibility
that it may yield enough oil or natural gas to make the cost of the lease, and the costs of exploration and production, commercially viable. The U.S. government received $3.7 billion from company bids in a single lease sale in March 2008.
However, until the actual exploration is complete, a company does not know whether the lease will be productive. If, through exploration, it finds there is no oil or natural gas underneath a lease – or that there is not enough to justify the tremendous investment required to bring it to the surface – the company cuts its losses by moving on to more promising leases. Yet it continues to pay rent on the lease, atop a leasing bonus fee.
In addition, if the company does not develop the lease within a certain period of time, it must return it to the federal government, forfeiting all its costs
. All during this active exploration and evaluation phase, however, the lease is listed as "nonproducing."
Obviously, companies want to start producing from active fields as soon as possible. However, there are a number of time-consuming steps to be taken before they can do so: Delineation wells must be drilled to size the field, government permits must be obtained, and complex production facilities must be engineered and installed. All this takes considerable time, and during that time, the lease is also listed as "nonproducing."
Because a lease is not producing, critics tag it as "idle" when, in reality, it is typically being actively explored and developed. Multiply these real-world circumstances by hundreds or thousands of leases, and you end up with the seemingly damning but inaccurate figures our critics cite.
Our companies have made tremendous strides in developing cutting-edge exploration technology. But they are not magicians. They cannot produce oil or natural gas where it does not exist. A significant percentage of federal leases simply may not contain oil and natural gas, especially in commercial quantities.
As I've often said, the first step in our business is called "exploration" for a reason. Exploration is time consuming, very costly and involves a great deal of risk. Importantly, you see neither a drop of usable oil nor a cubic foot of natural gas while it is going on. But it is absolutely essential, and there is nothing "idle" about it. Without the exploration that took place years ago, less domestic oil and natural gas would be available today to meet consumer demand.
In reality, a lease is simply a block on a map, with no guarantee that it contains any resources. If all of them did, one could simply pay for the lease, haul in equipment and start pumping oil. But that only happens in fiction.
And it happens in the minds of those who use the undeveloped-lease argument as a smokescreen to mask their intent to keep America's vast energy resources locked up underground, despite increasingly strong consumer demand for oil and natural gas. For exploration to take place, our companies need access to the areas – offshore and onshore – that we know have the potential to produce the oil and natural gas consumers will need, if ours is to remain a viable economy in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
Today's short-term need was yesterday's long-term opportunity. If Congress had acted on that opportunity years ago, America would not be in the energy bind it finds itself in today. Working with industry, Congress now has the opportunity to help secure America's energy future. It should not miss the chance again.
Mr. Cavaney is president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, the trade association that represents America's oil and natural gas industry.