Two recent government reports -- one of them still secret -- make clear the gravity of our energy situation, and point up the urgency of the search for alternative sources of energy. The reports show that America's domestic petroleum reserves, once thought to be virtually limitless, are in fact dwindling rapidly.
The reports -- one prepared by the General Accounting Office, the other by the Library of Congress -- dramatically demonstrate the need for early and effective programs to develop gasohol, coal, solar heat, wood and bio-mass energy as eventual replacements for petroleum-based fuels and products.
Just as clear is the need to keep the oil companies out of these programs. Big Oil has always placed corporate profits above the national interest. If the oil monopolists are allowed to take control of the alternate-fuel programs, the result is predictable: they'll make sure the competitive fuels don't reach the market before they've drained their oil reserves for top dollar. Then they'll be in a position to gouge consumers in the same manner with the new fuels.
The only way to prevent the nation's continued slavery to the big oil companies is to design the alternate-fuel development programs so that innovation and individual enterprise are rewarded, encouraging real competition among independent entrepreneurs, instead of rigged production by corporate giants.
The GAO report predicts that U.S. production of oil and natural gas, already declining in recent years, will continue to skid through the 1980s. Unless steps are taken to squeeze more oil from Alaska's North Slope and from so-called "heavy oil" deposits deep in the earth, U.S. production will decline to little more than half the 1978 output, the GAO study warns.
The heavy oil reserves are estimated at 125 billion barrels, according to the Library of Congress report prepared for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). But there are problems getting the deeply buried oil up to the earth's surface. For one thing, though the technology is currently available, it is expensive.
Even more serious may be the side effects of the extraction of heavy oil. The techniques for forcing the oil up include the use of chemicals and steam or hot water injection, and the combustion necessary for those methods may cause unacceptable levels of air pollution.
As the still-secret Library of Congress notes, "in California, where most domestic heavy oil is produced, air quality standards are, at present, constraining increased heavy oil production."
As for the Alaskan oil field, the government reports warn that current production in southern Alaska will probably fall to insignificant levels within the next decade. The yield from the North Slope wells around Prudhoe Bay should reach 1.5 million barrels a day in the next couple of years, but output will drop by 1985 and level off to a mere 200,000 barrels a day by the end of the century.
Here too, as in the extraction of heavy oil, energy needs are running head-on into environmental considerations. Current land-use laws have put some of the most promising Artic Ocean Areas off limits for oil exploration.
In the "lower 48" the outlook is even bleaker, the GAO study shows. Both onshore and offshore production is declining overall, while the amount of oil from new wells has "remained constant despite dramatic increase in drilling activity since 1973."
Onshore oil production has fallen 3 percent a year to about six million barrels a day in 1978. Offshore drilling is proving to be far from the bonanza it was once thought to be. Exploratory drilling off Southern California turned up one productive discovery in 12 tries. In the Atlantic, 16 drillings resulted in two discoveries of gas and oil and 14 dry holes. In the eastern Gulf of Mexico, the record was 18 dry holes.
Still another potential source of domestic oil is in the so-called tar sands, but the technology doesn't yet exist for recovering most of the oil. Although Canada is currently extracting 70,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil a day by surface-mining its tar sands, a U.s. U.S. Department Energy spokesman told my reporter Adam Pfeffer that only 10 percent to 20 percent of U.S. tar sands can be surface-mined. The cost would be anywhere from $17 to $25 a barrel -- a bargain by the ever-rising standards of foreign petroleum.
What the gloomy oil picture shows is the absolute necessity for Congress to stop talking and start taking some action to develop alternatives to petroleum. Without prompt and continuing encouragement of other sources of energy, Americans may well wind up looking back on the gas lines and $1-a-gallon prices of 1979 as the "good old days."