by Randy Udall

I've been visiting drilling rigs lately. For an environmentalist, this is an education. Rugged tattooed men, macho death-rattling diesel pickups and in-your-face bumper stickers, including this gem: EARTH FIRST! WE'LL DRILL THE OTHER PLANETS LATER.

There are only 250 rigs searching for oil in America. In a country with 200 million automobiles, that doesn't sound like much. The paucity of rigs is telling. Although the U.S. remains one of the world's largest oil producers, the continent's best prospects were found long ago. Thirty American states produce oil and every one is past its production peak. Oklahoma peaked in 1927, Texas in 1972, Colorado in 1957. It's enough to make you wonder about petroleum prospects on other planets.

Last year, the domestic production of the nation's top 20 oil producers, including Exxon, Chevron, and Texaco, went down 14% even as oil prices tripled. There have been some exciting new finds in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, but the rest of the country has been scavenged. Is it any wonder the industry wants to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

As Congress prepares to debate ANWR while simultaneously wrapping its mind around the notion that Muslim nations control 75% of the world's remaining oil, a requiem seems appropriate for another national treasure just sixty miles away.

Prudhoe Bay is dying. For the past twenty years, about one in ten gallons of gasoline you pumped into your car came from this enormous oil field on Alaska's North Slope.

It was the largest oil field ever found in North America. In 1967, a mile below the frozen tundra, British Petroleum discovered a 500-foot thick sandstone reservoir brimming with oil. By 1980, Prudhoe was producing 1.5 million barrels per day, quelling the oil crises of the '70s. It was Prudhoe oil that Captain Hazelwood spilled in Prince William Sound. It is Prudhoe oil that shows up in the Christmas stockings of every Alaskan, in the guise of a $2,000 royalty check.

If you are going to kill something rare, it seems polite to know its place in the world. Prudhoe is one of about 40 supergiant oil fields that together contain about 30% of Earth's oil. North America is home to two of these so-called elephants, the Persian Gulf two dozen. Elephants like Prudhoe are the world's most endangered species; in the last decade, we've found just two.

The chances of finding a new Prudhoe on this continent are nil. Three of every four oil wells in the world have been drilled in the U.S. To an oil man, North America is Swiss cheese. Of course, British Petroleum still scours the North Slope. In the last ten years it has found dozens of new fields; the largest, Alpine, is one-thirtieth the size of Prudhoe.

Prudhoe was a giant, and as it passes into history, we ought to take a few moments to remember it. If it seems curious to mourn an oil reservoir, that's because we have so little appreciation for the fluid itself. Oil is more central to our way of life than bison were to the Sioux, but whereas they celebrated the beast in dance and ceremony, we fill up at the Kum 'n' Go and carp bitterly about the cost.

Americans are the Oil Tribe, consuming our body weight in petroleum every seven days. The defining ritual of our civilization, that act which all of us have in common, is not Monday Night Football or church on Sunday, but buying a tank of gasoline. It happens 150 million times each week.

In the 1930s America's heroes were Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Lindbergh was the first to fly the Atlantic, met in Paris by 10,000 cheering Frenchmen. Amelia disappeared trying to circumnavigate the planet in 1936. Today, a typical Baby Boomer will travel 1,000,000 miles in his or her lifetime, equal to forty times around the globe. In effect, cheap petroleum has made every man Lindbergh, every woman Amelia, given us all wings.

And yet, I'm troubled: How can petroleum matter so much, yet elicit so little care? There is a chilling ingratitude here, a coldness that could shatter permafrost. Muslims bow to Mecca five times a day, but in a country where mobility is our religion, show me someone who cares about oil, and I don't mean its price.

Prudhoe, no less than the redwoods or Yosemite or Yellowstone, was a national treasure, an incredible bounty. A pool of oil created 225 million years ago has been pissed away in two short decades with nary a moment of thanks.

Prudhoe Bay field production reached its highest level in 1987 at 1.56 mb/d. Through Sept. 2001, production this year has been ~515,000 b/d. Production this year is running about 10% less than last year.

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First published in Oil and Gas Journal, the Prudhoe chart is an eye exam, cunningly designed to elicit your world view. Do you see an irrefutable case for drilling in the Arctic Refuge? Do you see an urgent need to strengthen fuel efficiency standards? Do you feel a sense of denial, the well never runs dry. Or do you feel that classic American emotion, that naïve childlike faith that only a rich virgin continent can engender--there must be more where that came from.

The chart reminds me of a moment that occurred during a month-long ski trip I once took with my brother Brad. Late on our tenth day after skiing 100 miles we arrived at a food cache we had placed weeks earlier. We were both exhausted and famished. After wearily digging the cache up, Brad grabbed a box of Mystic Mints, his cookie ration for the next 100 miles, and hammered every single one of them in a few short minutes. I shot him a quizzical look that said dude what are you doing?

"Easy come, easy go," he laughed.

Maybe that's a good epitaph for Prudhoe Bay.

As for preserving ANWR, why bother? If our grandchildren need oil, let them look on Mars or Pluto.

We at RENEW wish to thank Randy Udall for allowing us to reprint the above article. Randy, who is Executive Director of Community Office for Resource Efficiency, also authored "Methane Madness: A Natural Gas Primer" and "When Will the Joyride End," both of which appear on this web site under the End of Cheap Oil section.

"Prudhoe, no less than the redwoods or Yosemite or Yellowstone, was a national treasure, an incredible bounty. A pool of oil created 225 million years ago has been pissed away in two short decades with nary a moment of thanks."