On September 5, Chevron and two allied energy firms announced the biggest oil discovery in U.S. territory in years: the 30,000-feet deep “Jack No. 2 Well” located some 175 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. Early estimates suggest the new field may house as much as 3 to 15 billion barrels of oil, equivalent to 10 to 50 percent of America’s proven reserves of 29 billion barrels. Because other energy firms are exploring in adjacent areas of the Gulf, some industry analysts predict a new Golden Age of American oil production. But before we set aside all our anxieties about future energy shortages, there are several aspects of the Chevron discovery that bear closer attention.
First, the Jack No. 2 field sits beneath five and half miles of ocean water plus additional hundreds or thousands of feet of rock and salt, and will require costly and complex technology to develop. Few drilling rigs are now capable of operating under these extraordinary conditions, and it will take several years – and many billions of dollars – before oil can be commercially obtained from the site. During this time, the United States will continue to extract approximately 9 million barrels of oil per day (or 3.3 billion barrels per year) from domestic fields, meaning that in five years’ time, when Jack No. 2 conceivably might come on line, U.S. reserves will have shrunk by 16 billion barrels. So the Chevron discovery – even if it lives up to its full potential – is not really adding to U.S. oil reserves (as many have suggested), it is simply helping to slow the absolute exhaustion of those reserves.
A second point to be considered is that Jack No. 2 occupies a distinctive spot in the Gulf of Mexico. It is not just any spot: it is about as close as you can get to the flight paths of the most destructive hurricanes of the past ten years, including Katrina, Ivan, and Rita. Most of these hurricanes lost some of their vigor as they approached the Gulf coast, but were at full strength when out in open waters, near Jack No. 2. With hurricane frequency and intensity expected to increase in the years ahead – an inevitable consequence of global warming – we should assume that the Chevron facilities will periodically suffer from severe storm damage.
Yes, there is more oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and yes it makes economic sense to produce that oil if prices remain over $50 a barrel. But no one should believe that we are headed for a new era of oil abundance, or that our days of dependence on imports are over. Even if Jack No. 2 possesses all of the oil it is claimed to hold, and even if that oil can be extracted safely, it will neither prevent future scarcities of oil nor eliminate our overbearing dependence on imported petroleum – more and more of which will have to come from the Middle East.
Michael Klare is the author of Blood and Oil and Resource Wars.