Despite Gulf Oil Corp's announcement last week that it has abandoned the seventh wildcat well in the Baltimore Canyon off the mid-Atlantic coast, government geologists remain optimistic about the prospects for finding significant amounts of oil and gas there.
"It is going to take some more drilling and exploration before we will significantly alter our estimates," says John Lee,a resource evaluation specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
There has been but one potentially major find to date, a natural gas field hit by a Texaco-led consortium, with generally disappointing results else-where as reflected by the drilling companies' guarded statements. The impression is that the Baltimore Canyon area 70 miles east of Atlantic City. N.J., is not another Alaskan North Slope, and is almost dry.
But Lee, though he admits that the survey's estimates are "somewhat tenuous," says that the government expects the companies to find about 870 million barrels of oil and 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the 109 tracts leasted by the Interior Department for $1.1 billion in 1976. That would be the equivalent of about 100 days of United States' oil imports and a little more than half the annual gas consumption.
By comparison, Alaska's North Slope has about 10 billion barrels of oil and about 24 trillion cubic feet of gas.
Asked about the depressing results being read from the oil companies' guarded statements about drilling in the Baltimor Canyon -- many of which indicate noncommercial quantities of oil or gas have been found -- Lee said, "There was drilling in the North Sea for years before they came up with a significant find.
"If they hit a bonanza on the next well, it would change the picture," he added.
Last summer, after Texaco's announcement, Wall Street analysts and the media were boosting speculation that the canyon leases in-four clusters of the mid-Atlantic states held enormous promise.
Since then more wells have been capped, despite some interesting "shows," as traces of hydrocarbons are called by the companies.
Guif Oil's Joe Metula sums up the current situation: "Texaco is the only one with really positive discoveries; all the rest have been dry." The rest includes consortiums led by Shell, Mobil, and Continental Oil Co., along with Exxon and Houston Oil and Minerals.
Asked for the industry consensus, one oilman actively involved in Baltimore Canyon drilling operations said, "Right now it is on the negative side." The reason is that the best prospect, the Baltimore Dome, a geological structure that was thought to be a major trap for gas or oil, was drilled by Mobil and turned up dry.
There is talk elsewhere in the industry that the Baltimore Canyon, the first chunk of U.S. leased Atlantic acreage, could end up like the Gulf of Alaska or the Tanner Banks off California, where little or no oil and gas have been found.
In fact, the most promising new domestic drilling frontier has turned our not to be the Continental Shelf, but the Overthrust belt, a hydrocarbonrich geological structure that winds southward across Wyoming and the Great Plains.
The expectation has been that 40 percent of the oil and gas that remains to be found would be discovered underwater on the Continental Shelf. In fact, the major finds of recent years in the North Sea off England and Norway, and in Mexico's prolific Bay of Campache have been offshore.
Nevertheless, only about 3 percent of the U.S. Continental Shelf has been leased and explored, and there are hundreds of thousands of acres of potentially lucrative drilling areas in the Atlantic. This is part of the reason the oil companies have been so sparing in their stastements about Baltimore Canyon drilling, offering only the minimum information to comply with securities laws and regulations.
"This is partly out of caution at presuming too much before testing and evaluation is complete, and partly for competitive considerations, since another canyon lease sale is scheduled for February," writes Charles Maxwell, a noted oil analyst on Wall Street.
Taking into consideration the companies' guarded disclosures about drilling in the canyon, and the Geological Survey's hesitance to downgrade its projections, what can be said about the next Atlantic lease sale Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus is expected to announce for February?
Arnold Safer, a vice president of Irving Trust, says, "The bidding is sure to be spirited," though it is not likely to come in as high as the $1.1 billion bid for the first Continental Shelf leases. The reason? Safer says, "One (find) out of 10 for raw wildcatting is not bad," adding that the one Texaco find now being ested in a second location is "very, very encouraging."
Still another factor is that, while the companies, aside from the Texaco group, may not have found commercial quantities of oil and gas, the geological data they accumulated from the first leases may buoy their optimism for the next round.
The East Coast, may yet prove to be full of oil and gas, oilmen say, and the companies don't want to be left out.