Our Inexhaustible Resources

A Texan and a geologist who has been President of Standard Oil (New Jersey) since 1944, EUGENE HOLMANrefutes the charge that we have, dangerously depleted our resources. In the article which follows he has drawn up an inventory of our potential resources, and stresses his belief in our capacity to renew them. Mr. Holman Itegan his scouting as a geologist after taking his M. A. at the University of Texas in 1917; and he soon had a working knowledge of Cuba, Mexico, and our own Southwest. The survey which resulted in this article was prepared for the annual meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.



ALL of us who are in any way connected with natural resource industries — geologists, engineers, executives, investors — are even more concerned than most people about how last we are using up our natural resources. These materials have a vitally important place in the pattern of human existence, and people frequently fear that we are going to run out of one or another of them. We worry about “wasting” our resources or exhausting” them. But I suggest that the viewpoint expressed in those terms “wasting” and “exhausting” is a partial viewpoint. I think that under certain circumstances we can forget our fears and entertain the notion of inexhaustible resources.

Let’s look at the record. It shows that from earliest times men have used minerals drawn from the earth. And we see that the availability of larger numbers of minerals, in greater quant.ities, has progressed by a kind of steplike process.

Archaeologists have shown us that prehistoric men used axes, drills, and other implements made of Hint and other hard stone. With these tools they were able to create simple societies, which in turn made possible the accumulation of knowledge about the natural world.

The Stone age developed both the instruments and the knowledge which enabled men to use certain of the softer metals, especially copper and tin. Humanity then stepped up to the Bronze age. Now man had more tools and more serviceable ones, He could fell trees faster and thus have more buildings for shelter and more vehicles for transport. He could dig deeper and fracture rock more readily. He could move more widely than before over the earth.

As the men equipped with bronze tools learned more and more about the world, humanity stepped up again — this time to an age of Iron. Now man began fashioning a really formidable array of tools. We had new power to cut. grind, hammer, and otherwise work materials. He could handle masses of material with stronger levers, wedges, pulleys, gears, hooks, eyes, and pincers.

In modern times the age of Iron has given way to the Steel age. And within our own lifetimes there has been superimposed on the Steel age what we may call the age of lightweight metals, plastics, and atomic fission.

From the Stone age to the present so great a wealth of scientific information has been amassed — most of it in the past hundred years — that we now have tools and instruments of a power and precision beyond all previous imagination. We have the means to compound, cast, and grind lenses and mirrors that permit us to peer farther than ever before into matter and into space. We command the strength of engines whose ratio of power to weight is constantly being increased. We have machines to produce millions of glass tubes whose miraculous contents harness a stream of electrons to our service.

A notable feature of the steplike pattern of material progress is that it has proceeded at a geometric rate. Each successive age has been shorter than the one before It. The Stone age lasted several hundred thousand years; the Bronze age, 4000 years; the Iron age, 2500 years. Steel was firsl made in commercial quantities 95 years ago; and the past 20 years have seen material developments that are almost incredible. It is as though the stairway of advancement were composed of steps with progressively higher risers and narrower treads.

Another outstanding feature in the history of material progress is that each step has been dependent on the one before it. The use of the materials available in one period — and I emphasize that word “use” — has supported societies in which men could accumulate knowledge. Such knowledge then made new quantities and new kinds of material available.

I emphasize the fact that people used the materials available in any period so that a fallacy one sometimes finds in connection with the conservation of natural resources will be crystal-clear. This fallacy is the concept of conservation as nonuse. I am convinced that nonuse results only in hobbling progress. It will not result in more natural resources for men to use but less, because it retards the march of scientific knowledge.

Now it goes without, saying that I do not advocate reckless squandering of natural resources. What I do advocate is true conservation — which is not hoarding but efficient and intelligent use.


INCREASING knowledge operates in a number of ways to expand the natural resources available to us. It helps us to discover new sources of materials which we are already using and in the raw form that is currently useful to us. For example, new techniques like the use of the airborne magnetometer help us to locate oil fields. New knowledge also enables us to extract a material we are already using from raw forms which we were previously unable to process, such as iron from taconite. It also extends supplies of ihe familiar materials by developing more efficient met hods of use. Improved heating units, turbines, and internal-combustion engines are eases in point here. More knowledge helps us work out means of using materials which have been known but not usable — as, for example, titanium. And it discovers or makes entirely new materials that do not exist in nature, such as plastics.

I’d like to enlarge a bit on these examples and their significance. Take petroleum.

A great many new sources of oil have been discovered in just the past several years. To mention only a few, there are the Williston basin in North Dakota, the Uinta basin in Utah, and the Alberta fields in Canada, the Scurry and Spraberry fields in Texas, in addition to fields in central Sumatra, southern Iraq, and the Cretaceous fields of western Venezuela. In some of these areas, geologic explorations had gone on for years without, any oil ever having been found before. In others, oil had been produced before, production had subsequently fallen off, then new horizons were tapped.

By producing and using oil we have built a dynamic oil industry and have developed the means, both financial and technical, to find more oil. We have invented methods for locating and mapping structures with greater speed and accuracy. We can select where to drill a structure with better odds of success. We can reach deeper strata. Asa result, in the United States alone, there has been produced since 1938 as much oil as was known to exist in the country at that time. And despite that great withdrawal, the domestic industry’s proved reserves are at an all-time high level. It’s as though we started out with a tank of oil, used it all up, and had a bigger tankful left. The wisdom of optimislic men in our profession, like Wallace Pratt, is becoming daily more evident.

Besides learning more about finding underground reservoirs of crude, oilmen are also learning how to get more of the oil out of the reservoir after it has been located. We are discovering how to get maximum yield from large, highly porous reservoirs of the Middle East type, where the water table is important, as we are also learning how to get maximum yield from tricky, tight reservoirs. Repressuring, waterflooding, and other techniques of secondary recovery are also adding greatly to the quantities of oil available for people’s use. The supply of usable oil is increased also by improved practices in its transport and handling, which cut down losses.

New developments in the science of refining make possible better products. This fact, coupled with improvements in consuming devices, means lhat we can get more work from a barrel of oil today than we could previously. And I think we’ve only begun to use the energy potential in a barrel of oil.

Not only arc we finding new sources of liquid hydrocarbons in the familiar raw form of crude petroleum; we will be able, when and if it ever becomes necessary, to derive liquid hydrocarbons from oil shales, tar sands, coal, and other sources not used at present.

Finally, our present use of oil and coal supports an industrial and scientific structure in which men are already learning how to apply atomic power to constructive work and may learn how to harness solar energy. Such developments, of course, would probably displace ihe fossil fuels in some applications, thus making them available for other use. The over-all effect would be to increase still more the total amount of energy available to humanity.

Incidentally, in connection with atomic energy, two news items which I recently noticed have a bearing on our subject.

Only a few months ago it appeared that the future use of atomic energy for industrial purposes might be doubtful because of the problem of the radioactive wastes. Yet only a few weeks ago, a gov ernment official reported lhat the solution is in sighl. What he called “atomic garbage” is apparently on the verge of being employed in such a way as to bo not just harmless but actually useful.

The second story was about a new atomic plant, called a “breeder reactor,” now in operation. As I understand it, the object of the process is to use uranium 235, which is rare and costly, to convert nonfissionable materials, which are abundant and cheap, into fissionable material at a faster rate than the uranium 235 itself is consumed. One of these nonfissionable materials is thorium, which previously was used chiefly in the manufacture of mantles for gaslights.


I HAVE been considering mineral energy resources. Now let us look at the picture for metals. There are 45 metallic elements and some 8000 alloys of those metals now in commercial use.

The world in general, and the United States in particular, is using metals at a rate never seen before. Two world wars in a quarter century and the present unhappy need to build great quantities of arms have used vast amounts of iron and copper— to name but two metals in demand. Our steel expansion program now under way calls for annual production of 120 million tons — 15 million tons more than we turned out last year. And, to meet our new needs, we plan to step up our domestic production of copper (which last year was about 1.2 million tons) by 225,000 tons, and aluminum bv 700,000 tons.

Can we say that what has proved true of fuels will prove true of metals? We have seen that increased knowledge has led to the discovery of new sources of energy which are seemingly unlimited. Does a comparable outcome seem likely with respect to metals?

The metals we use most today—iron and aluminum — are second only to the elements of oxygen and silicon in their abundance on our planet. It has been estimated that there is at least 5000 times as much iron ore, bauxite, and alunite in the earth’s crust as the world now uses annually. Furthermore, unlike fossil fuels, most metals can be reclaimed after use and used again. In the meantime, the discovery of new sources of metal supplies and the development of techniques for making them economically available go on at a rapid pace.

It wasn’t so long ago that people were worrying about imminent depletion of the 50 per cent ironore deposits of the Mesabi range. Today a number of steel companies are planning or building facilities, estimated to cost over three quarters of a billion dollars, for processing taconite. Taconite deposits in Minnesota occur in a hundred-mile strip, several miles broad, and are believed to amount to 5 billion tons. The reducing plants will turn out about I ton of 60 per cent iron from every 4 tons of taconite.

Rich deposits of iron ore have been found in a number of countries outside the United States and are now being developed, in many cases by American capital. Labrador, Venezuela, and Brazil, for example, are the scenes of some truly epic engineering projects. A 358-mile railroad is being cut through wilderness and wasteland to haul ore from the Ungava area in Labrador to water. At Steep Rock Lake, Ontario, 70 million tons of a lake bed are being removed in a four-year dredging operation to get at an iron deposit underneath. In EI Pao, Venezuela, one of two projects in that country has been completed after fourteen years of work. Ore has to be shipped by a railroad built through jungles, and by barge to the sea on a river whose water level at the loading point, fluctuates 43 feet at different seasons.

We take aluminum for granted these days. It costs currently about 18 cents a pound. Yet when the Civil War started, it sold for $545 a pound. United States production now amounts to about 800,000 tons per year, and plants under const ruction will almost double that figure. If it becomes necessary to find substitutes for bauxite or alunite ores, chemists seem confident they will be able to produce aluminum oxide from aluminum-bearing clays.

The first plant to extract magnesium from sea water went into operation only eleven years ago with a capacity of 0000 tons a year. Magnesium production in the United States for 1952 is expected to exceed 100,000 tons. As for the future — there’s a lot of water in the sea.

Titanium is one of our most abundant metals and has long been known. What we have not known is how to extract it from the earth’s crust at a cost which would make it economic for largescale use. Up to five years ago, titanium was used chiefly as an ingredient in paint. But it is lighter than steel, stronger than aluminum, and highly heat-resistant—hence potentially very useful. Present extraction processes arc still expensive, but I have heard that a more economical method is being developed.

With almost every metal the story is repeated — of widening use, of the discovery of new sources and better methods of extraction. Here, as in other fields, research and ingenuity have been great multipliers of our natural resources.

Our supply of metals is being supplemented by other rigid materials — both old ones put to new uses and newly discovered ones. Glass, for example, is an ancient product that has been improved in recent years to the point where it can take the place of many other substances. And it is made of materials whose supply is practically unlimited.

As for plastics—mere infants in comparison with Granddaddy Glass — there seems no limit to the possibilities of synthesizing organic compounds. A hint of some of the things to come may have been contained in a story I read only a month ago of an automobile body made of plastic anil layers of glass fiber. It was claimed the body is dent proof, rustproof, and, for its weight, stronger than steel. When you consider the large fraction of our steel output that goes into auto bodies you can perhaps imagine what a successful plastic body would mean in terms of metal supply. That’s especially impressive when you consider further that plastics can be made from corncobs, oat hulls, the spent libers of sugar cane, and other materials we used to regard as waste.

These benefits are available to us as they become economically feasible, in that orderly natural development characteristic of all true technical progress. We discovered long ago that the real usefulness of any new product or process begins only when its economy in use surpasses the economy of that which it is supposed to replace. We could, for example, grow bananas at the North Pole, but the usefulness of such a project is clouded by considerable doubt.

For many years, I believe, people have tended to think of natural resources as so many stacks of raw material piled up in a storehouse. A person with this sort of picture in his mind logically assumes that the more you use of any natural resource, the sooner you get to the bottom of the pile. Now I think we are beginning to discover that the idea of a storehouse — or. at least, a single-room storehouse — does not correspond with reality. Instead, die fact seems to be that the first storehouse in which man found himself was only one of a series. As he used up what was piled in that first room, he found he could fashion a key to open a door into a much larger room. And as he used the contents of this larger room, he discovered there was another room beyond, larger stilt. The room in which we stand at the middle of the twentieth century is so vast that its walls are beyond sight. Yet it is probably still quite near the beginning of the whole series of storehouses. It is not inconceivable that the entire globe—earth, ocean, and air represents raw material for mankind to utilize with more and more ingenuity and skill.

This conception of limitless raw material is not new. It is held by a number of persons, lint il is an idea certainly not familiar to people at large. I notice, though, that Dr. Leahy’s recenl American Petroleum I iwtitule report is receiving wide publication. It’s the one that shows that for every barrel of crude oil or cubic foot of natural gas withdrawn from the ground in 1951, two new barrels of oil or cubic feet of gas were found or developed. Perhaps the idea is getting around.

I should like to point out a corollary to this thesis. It is that the concept of unlimited raw materials does not mean that progress is simple and that Utopia is at hand. On the eonlrary, raw materials, no matter how vast in amount, do not become available resources until human thought and effort are applied to them. In a very real sense raw materials do not exist, they are created. We know, for example, that in a region of great mineral wealth, people, can grind out their lives in poverty and misery if they do not realize the wealth exists or if they do not know how to get at it. It is use that makes it valuable. Even when the wealth is made available through technical means, the accelerating growth of populations and the enormous wastage of war are additional complications to consider.

So the march up 1 he steps of material progress, or from storehouse to storehouse — according to which figure of speech you prefer—depends not alone on I he continued expansion of scientific know ledge and on industrial daring and managerial skill, but also on political and social conditions. Those conditions in many parts of the world today are not conducive to progress. In fact, extreme nationalism, government controls and monopolies, currency restrictions, abnormal tariffs, threats of expropriation, wars and revolutions, have sealed the doors to many storehouses of useful raw materials.

The basic requirement for progress is freedom freedom to inquire, to think, to communicate, to venture. Without these conditions, the human mind and spirit will be so shackled that the availability of natural resources will be limited and we may exhaust the known sources of some needed material and find nothing to replace it. To the free man, all things are possible. Opportunity is the wand which can change the useless into the useful, waste into raw materials of great value, exhaustible resources into inexhaustible resources. It is the key that unlocks the greatest energy source of all —the infinite power of the human indi\ idual.

The longer I live, the more convineed I am that material progress is not only valueless without spiritual progress: it is, in the long term, impossible.