STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Every day, the U.S. goes through 20 million barrels of oil. Supporting that habit is getting harder and harder. Much of the oil that's easy to get is gone. Now, companies are extracting oil in places that are not only expensive to drill, but pose big safety and environmental risks. One recent example: BP's disastrous experience in the Gulf of Mexico.
INSKEEP: Companies are going to other extremes, as we're going to hear today. This afternoon on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we visit the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. This morning, NPR's Jeff Brady reports from the booming oil fields of North Dakota.��
JEFF BRADY: Out here on the prairie, and just about everywhere else, oil doesn't bubble up out of the ground anymore. No, you have to go in and force it out. Jim Brown knows that; he's senior vice president of Whiting Petroleum.
Mr. JIM BROWN (Whiting Petroleum): Gentlemen, how's it going?
Unidentified Man #1: Good, how are you?
Unidentified Man #2: How are you?
Mr. BROWN: Great. So where are we?
BRADY: Brown is checking on one of 400 wells his company is drilling near Stanley, North Dakota. The crude is locked away in a layer of sediment two miles underground. Not only did the crew drill down that far, they took a sharp turn and drilled another two miles horizontally through the sediment.
Now they'll use a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing to create a series of small cracks underground, to free the oil.
(Soundbite of engines)
Nearby, a half-dozen big trucks with pumps are lined up outside.
Mr. BROWN: This total job - we'll pump about 40,000 barrels of fluid, and about 4 million pounds of sand in this well.
BRADY: Brown says fracturing the sediment will boost oil production about tenfold for the first month the well is operating. It's noisy here, so we jump in Brown's truck.
(Soundbite of vehicle door closing)
Mr. BROWN: Well, I think this is extreme, but it's also pretty much fun. I mean, I've been in this business for over 35 years, and we are doing something here today that we did not have the technology to do seven years ago.
BRADY: Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, also is used for natural gas, and it's controversial right now. The fluid is mostly water, but also contains about a half-percent chemicals.
Despite industry assurances, environmental groups worry fracking is polluting ground water. They want more regulation. Some even want an outright ban. But without this technology, the boom in North Dakota wouldn't be happening.�
New technology has changed oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, too. As we've seen in the wake of BP's blown-out well in the Gulf, companies have sophisticated technology, like remote-controlled submarines. That means they can explore for oil in places humans can't even go. Sometimes, the projects resemble a space mission.
Mr. TYLER PRIEST (University of Houston): And the space program and the offshore industry have long shared technologies and learned from each other.
BRADY: Tyler Priest is a business historian at the University of Houston. He says in 1996, NASA launched a probe to Mars and that same year, Shell launched a drilling platform in 3,000 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. PRIEST: The difference being that Shell's platform cost more than three times as much as NASA's Mars Pathfinder - and arguably involved more sophisticated technology and more sophisticated remote engineering.
BRADY: Now, companies are drilling in 10,000 feet of water. The cost of this creates a new floor for the price of oil, so don't expect two-dollar-a-gallon gasoline to return anytime soon.
Still, the technology that makes this possible is impressive, but the developments are weighted heavily to the production side of the business. Sarah Chasis is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Ms. SARAH CHASIS (Natural Resources Defense Council): The concern we have is that the technology to contain and then clean up a spill has not kept pace with the increased technology to drill for oil.
BRADY: Chasis says the government needs to figure out what's the best way to respond to a low-probability, high-cost event like BP's oil spill in the Gulf.�
Former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister prefers to focus on the low-probability side of that equation, and he thinks companies should brag more about their history.
Mr. JOHN HOFMEISTER (Former Shell Oil President): The fact that you can count on one hand the kind of blowouts that have occurred in the face of these tens of thousands of wells is a pretty remarkable testimony to the safety and the risk management that the companies provide.
BRADY: Hofmeister has started a non-profit group to prompt more discussion about energy policy and the oil industry. He says it's time the public has a better understanding of what it takes to provide the 20 million barrels of oil Americans use every day.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.�
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