'On Dangerous Ground' in More Ways Than One

Abstract: The petroleum industry can take it when it comes to corporation bashing from Hollywood, but the U.S. Senate also can take it when it comes to ordering a much-maligned offshore resources inventory.

Analysis: The motion picture "On Deadly Ground" was aired in prime time last Monday.

You may remember the flick. Released in 1994, it stars martial arts maven-turned-actor Steven Seagal, who single-handedly sabotages an oil company headed up by a scene-gnashingly evil Michael Caine, kills at least 20 bad guys, and saves Alaska--presumably all the way from the North Slope to Juneau--from the clutches of the Caine character's evil corporation, hell-bent on polluting everything in sight to get more filthy lucre.

This is a bit oversimplified, of course. But the movie's last five minutes have Seagal telling a town meeting of Native Americans that a vast conspiracy among Big Oil companies has them doing everything in their power to keep The People hooked on petroleum products. Instead, Seagal points out that conservation, wholesale adoption of renewable energy sources, a new type of carburetor that delivers 90 mpg, and even a new fuel "that can be made from water" would rid the world of the petroleum menace in no time and bring back pure air, clean water, and greener forests forever.

Predictably, the petroleum industry generally ignored the film. There was a rumor at the time, however, that Seagal's company went to several oil companies and drilling contractors seeking permission to film some scenes aboard an actual offshore rig or production facility. Apparently all said no after reviewing the script.

This may border on the paranoid, but it's interesting that the network aired the film only two days after the U.S. Senate defeated a proposed amendment to that body's version of Energy Bill legislation. The amendment would have denied the creation of a comprehensive inventory of offshore petroleum and other resources that lie beneath the entire U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). The Interior Dept. would handle the job. The inventory--gained via seismic, geological, and other means--would cover the shelf off both the East and West Coasts, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida and even off those areas on Alaska's OCS not currently open to the drill.

Democratic Party presidential hopeful Bob Graham (D-Florida) proposed the amendment to strike the inventory, with the backing of California Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, among others. Even Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-North Carolina) apparently opposes the inventory. Nevertheless, the attempt was defeated by a 10-vote margin. Close, but no cigar.

Similar language in the House of Representatives version was removed last April with little fanfare. That, it perhaps should be pointed out, was before Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in recent congressional hearings fleshed out the reality of a blooming natural gas crisis. But pundits now give the OCS inventory a decent chance of surviving in the final energy bill, which could come out of conference committee later this summer or early in the fall for vote in Congress and, with ultimate presentation for President Bush's signature.

In any event, the inventory probably would be handled by the Dept. of the Interior's U.S. Geological Survey, armed with existing 2-D and 3-D seismic data obtained from oil companies, as well as with more from brand-new 3-D surveys which, incidentally, would give geophysical contractors and analysts some much-needed new work. The Energy Dept.'s Minerals Management Service also probably will figure somewhere in the setup. But as a result, the volumes of data on proved oil and gas reserves beneath the shelf would be augmented with estimates of both probable and potential reserves determined by using the inventory's seismic and geological data, well logs, and other corroborating information.

The outcome would be a much more precise account of domestic offshore resources. Also, it would highlight those OCS areas that show the most potential. However, since shelf area resources off Texas and Louisiana are the most well-defined to date, the areas with the highest potential doubtless would be located off coastal states that have been under both federal and state drilling moratoria since the early 1980s (i.e., those facing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and Florida's Gulf Coast). Alaska's entire OCS area, and perhaps even waters off Hawaii, also could be included.

The logic behind the inventory is not difficult to fathom. The Senate version specifically states that it wouldn't affect existing drilling moratoria. It wouldn't have to, since most of the moratoria will end in 10 years or so, anyway. Its protractors say, however, that at a time replete with fears of world terrorism, having a better handle on potential domestic offshore resources is in the national interest, as well as being simply a good idea. As Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), chairman of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told reporters recently, the inventory would ensure that the government would be aware of "an ultimate, ultimate reserve" in the event of a national emergency.

Nevertheless, many Members of Congress from coastal states, as well as the environmental lobby, say the inventory doesn't pass the sniff test. They mistrust the idea totally, calling it benign in appearance but cloaking a prelude to removing the moratoria sooner or not renewing them when they lapse. Proponents pooh-pooh that idea.

"Why would we want to stick our head in the sand and say we know there's oil there, we know there's gas there, but we don't want to use the most modern techniques to tell America what's there?" Domenici asked reporters in a June interview. Other pro-inventory legislators voiced similar comments.

It's certainly no secret that the petroleum industry has always favored exploration of the entire U.S. OCS. The industry lobbies mightily for it these days in Washington, DC. But anti-industry groups and the environmental movement also lobby Congress and attempt to exert influence across the whole spectrum of American life--including even the motion picture industry. If overall scores between the pro-drilling and the anti-drilling lobbies existed, the "antis" would be way ahead.

But an inventory of offshore resources, petroleum and otherwise, done soon and not 10 years hence, would establish a definite order of importance for those OCS areas not yet developed. And if new technology could improve on such an inventory a few years from now, so much the better. Knowing the extent of our offshore oil and gas potential ought to be better than not knowing about it or even worse, ignoring it.

No doubt, there will be renewed opposition to the inventory during mark-up of the energy bill, and many U.S. citizens will continue to take fictional accounts like Seagal's "On Deadly Ground" as closely resembling reality. Meanwhile, some will consider drilling off California or Washington State or off the Carolinas or in the extreme eastern Gulf to be harmful to the tourist industry, while others will deem it dangerous to the environment.

However, it remains to be seen whether Americans in Congress or Americans in their home towns will continue to be so selective about where to drill if natural gas and electric power prices continue to climb, are sustained at those levels, and begin to make greater inroads on citizens' disposable income needed to buy essential things like food, gasoline--or even movie tickets.