No longer seen as a strategic asset, domestic oil industry is moving abroad

July 19, 1992|By New York Times News Service

The latest statistics on the American oil industry make it sound as though the oil patch has discovered time travel. Oil imports are at their highest levels since 1978 and domestic production has fallen to where it was back in 1961, the American Petroleum Institute said last week.

And the number of oil and gas drilling rigs at work in the country recently hit a low not seen since records began to be kept 50 years ago.

As for the future of the U.S.-based oil industry, it appears to be somewhere abroad, where companies are drilling with a vengeance.

The institute, in releasing the dismal figures for the first half of 1992, pointed out that along with disappearing domestic oil there is a disappearing domestic oil industry.

In the last 10 years, jobs related to drilling have been cut almost in half. Refinery employment is also falling, and companies are cutting jobs at their headquarters.

In just three days earlier this month, Amoco said it would eliminate 8,500 jobs, or 15.7 percent of its total; Mobil said it would cut 2,000 and Unocal, 1,000.

"All of a sudden, you've had a change in psychology, particularly of the major companies," said James Schlesinger, secretary of energy in the the Carter administration and now with Shearson Lehman Hutton. "They say, 'The American oil province is never going to recover; let's put our money overseas and stop fooling ourselves.' It's almost an infectious decision."

That seems to beg the question: Does the United States really need much of a domestic oil industry anyway?

Mr. Schlesinger and others say that in a really free world market, the most attractive geological targets will be drilled first, and right now those are abroad.

During the cold war, international tensions made oil a strategic asset and provided a rationale for Washington to encourage domestic drilling even if it was uneconomical. But that logic is fading.

At the same time, new clean-air rules are making it harder to refine oil here, and exporting countries are building their own refineries. So while drilling and refining were once a big part of the American economy, for better or for worse, the country will probably have to learn to get along without it, unless government policy shifts again.

Such a change, of course, would take money, in the form of higher prices or tax subsidies to stimulate production and return the industry to the way it was in the early 1980s. But there is little likelihood that strong action will come from Washington.

The National Energy Strategy, which has passed the House and Senate in different forms and is likely to be signed by the president before Election Day, provides nearly nothing for the domestic oil industry.

Although it gives a tax break for independent companies, the strategy continues to keep drilling rigs out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the industry believes is the country's best prospect for oil. And it extends moratoriums on offshore drilling.

Some in Washington, though, say the government should be trying harder to save the industry, which was mostly invented here.

"It's very disturbing," Linda G. Stuntz, the acting deputy secretary of energy, said of the decline in the American industry. The government has allowed other industries to fade away, she said, "and now we're trying desperately to get something back, like high-definition television or flat-panel displays."

But many economists say that the government should not help the industry here if the prospects for finding oil look better abroad, and if the country is committed to free trade.

If capital is moving abroad, "all that says is that comparative advantage is changing," said Robert E. Lipsey, an economist at the National Bureau of Economic Research, in New York. "About two-thirds of all the wells ever drilled for oil and gas were drilled in the United States, and these days the grass looks greener elsewhere."

All the signs point toward a continuing contraction in oil:

* The count of drilling rigs looking for oil and gas hit 596 last month, down from a peak of 4,530 at the end of 1981, according to Baker Hughes, a machinery company that keeps track of such things. John Lichtblau, director of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, predicted the decline would accelerate at the end of this year, when tax incentives on some natural gas drilling expire.

* Last year exploration and development in the United States by a group of 30 large oil and gas companies tracked by Arthur Andersen & Co. fell by 4 percent. Their investment abroad increased by 27 percent and their total capital expenditures were more than 50 percent higher abroad than in this country. As recently as 1987, their domestic spending exceeded their foreign expenditures.

* In the first half of 1992, the shift to foreign investment appears to have accelerated. Companies made deep cuts in their North American exploration and production budgets, according to a study by Salomon Brothers, and spending abroad rose.

These trends have conspired to increase imports, which, according to the most recent industry figures, have reached 7.355 million barrels a day, the highest since December 1978, and 52 percent of the amount run through domestic refineries. Domestic production was 7.21 million barrels.

Many politicians and others argue that it is unhealthy for the country to import so much oil, and that this could be fatal in time of war. But the end of the cold war and the end of the Soviet threat to the Middle East, which has two-thirds of the world's known oil reserves, has muted those arguments.

Economists in general say investing in drilling abroad is fine for now because it means the oil industry is globalizing as the auto and steel industries have done.

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