The argument over oil company profits shows no sign of ending. Are they outrageously high, about average for all industries or (as Mobil claims) not high enough? Without getting mired in the debate, there is cause for suspicion that something's not quite right about an industry whose principal assets has recently quintrupled in value and which can still claim that without every penny of the resulting revenue there will not be enough to finance further exploration and production;.
What does the oil industry do with all that money? In particular, why has it spent so small a fraction of its wealth on research and development? The answers bear directly on the government's energy plans, and on the potential for adequate energy supplies in the years ahead.
The accompanying table summarizes information from a recent Business Week survey of all industrial spending on R&D. It shows that spending as both a percent of sales and a percent of profits. The 10 industries covered all involve high technology and are among the country's largest. Their average R&D spending in 1978, before the recent wave of oil price increases, was 3.5 percent of sales and 62.1 percent of profits. The comparable figures for the oil industry are .4 percent and 8.6 percent - about 800 percent lower. The full survey covered 30 industrial sectors - including tires, appliances, farm machinery, building materials, leisure time, paper, apparel and tobacco. Business Week's composite for all 30 shows R&D to be 1.9 percent of sales and 34.4 percent of profits. Whether compared with its sophisticated counterparts, or the entire spectrum of U.S. industry, oil company spending on R&D is so low that it practically falls off-scale.
Why? Part of the reason is that the oil industry spends vast amounts on exploration, most of which is not counted in this measure of R&D. Another part is that the oil companies are so rich that these small percentages hide large numbers of dollars. But neither explanation accounts for the huge discrepancy in a field literally bursting with vitally important research opportunities: tertiary oil recovery methods, procedures for the production of the country's huge unconventional gas resources (including geopressurized methane, gas in tight sands and deep gas), techniques for burning or recycling used lubricant and motor oil, solar technologies, magnetohydrodynamics for the clean burning of coal, synthetic fuel technologies (those now available are pre-World War II vintage), energy-efficiency improvements for furnaces and engines, etc. These are only a few examples arbitrarily chosen from a long list of possibilities.
Yet the record of the past 15 years reveals few important discoveries made by the energy conglomerates. There have been modest improvements in production and refinery techniques, and advances in seismic prospecting and offshore drilling processes. There has been progress in other areas as well, but only the invention of the zeolite catalyst (which vastly increases the yield of gasoline when crude oil is cracked or broken down), stands out as a truly fundamental advance. Other major sectors - electronics, computers, aerospace, for example - are virtually unrecognizable when compared with the state of the art 15 years ago.
Economic survival or competitive advantage is the primary motive for most R&D spending. Judging from their record, the oil companies don't feel the pressure. This is true despite the fact that domestic oil and gas reserves have fallen steeply and steadily since 1970, even though there was an even sharper increase in the number of wells drilled in the same period. The hitch is that, like it or not, the oil companies are not just oil companies: They are this country's energy companies. They own and can control the production of large portions of the country's coal, gas and uranium resources. Except for the federal government, which will spend about $3.5 billion on energy R&D this year, only they have the steady economic and technical base to undertake the large-scale and long-range research programs that are needed.
Scientific and technical excellence have long been this country's strong suit, and the energy field offers an almost unparelleled opportunity to get the good of it. The problem is how to bring the oil giants into the effort. CAPTION: Chart, no caption