The Wise Use of Natural Resources

A graduate of M. I. T. and a director of Standard Oil of New Jersey, DAVID A. SHEPARD was brought up in Colorado, a state aware of its natural wealth and anxious to keep it coming. He believes, as do many men in industry today, that we must conserve our natural resources.


A COMMON characteristic in America a century ago was waste. It was not waste in a deliberate sense. It was rather the natural reaction to a land seemingly so rich in resources that it was easier for a farmer to move on from depleted acres to virgin fields (as is still sometimes done by the Brazilian coffee planter), for the logger to leave his slash piles and stumps and set his eyes on the uncut forests ahead, for the hunter to kill in wholesale numbers from apparently endless herds. I remember as a boy the family conversation about one of the country’s early campaigns to reduce waste. It was early, but it did not even begin until the first decade of the present century.

Until that time, the prospect of abundance without limit and the demands of a booming country combined to press upon the industrialist, the developer, and the people generally a short-term view. Ore beds were skimmed and abandoned for richer deposits. The once sparkling waters of New England streams ran stained with the effluvia poured out by mills along their banks. The infant oil industry — the first intentional oil well was drilled in 1859 — took its place among America’s industrial spendthrifts of the period.

The Pennsylvania oil fields in their early days, in fact, witnessed waste on what was then a prodigious scale. Gushers, hit by luck and with power far beyond known methods of control, sometimes sprayed millions of barrels of oil over the landscape. Natural gas flowing from the earth with the oil escaped unused into the atmosphere, or flared up from an accidental spark to incinerate wells and, sometimes, whole towns. Wooden barrels of oil, barged downstream on the crest of spring freshets, splintered and spilled as the clumsy craft piled up in jams. Volatile petroleum products evaporated from primitive storage tanks.

Beyond this physical waste was the economic. The oil business was based on the law of capture. A new discovery often touched off a frenzy of drilling as each property owner in the area strove to get as much oil as possible out of the field before his neighbor did. The result was periodic gluts of the market, with prices so depressed it was scarcely worth the oil producer’s effort to move his product. Such periods were likely to be followed by other periods of zooming prices. This economic waste actually was a chief reason for John D. Rockefeller’s establishment of Standard Oil. He saw that order would benefit both producer and consumer — that relief from the “boom and bust” extremes would be profitable for all concerned. Perhaps, with the ironic justice of history, the mists of emotion may sometime clear away and reveal the credit he deserves as an early and great conservator.

But the law of the land, the exuberant growth of the oil industry, and the embryonic state of technology hindered for some time the reduction of waste. The oil developments in the Southwest during the early days of the twentieth century — those fabulous finds in Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana — were marked by gushers, wide-open production, and the other evils of profligacy. Then discoveries were made in east Texas. The five-billion-barrel field found there in 1930 was colossal in its economic impact. The price of crude oil plummeted to ten cents a barrel, or less. With each drop in price more oil came into the market in the producers’ desperate effort to get at least some slight return on their investment. The economic waste of an important natural resource on such a scale was too much for even our nation to tolerate. Some states — notably Texas — adopted new conservation laws. The Interstate Oil Compact was drawn up five years later by several oilproducing states, with the consent and concurrence of the federal government.

Today, under the terms of the Compact, a regulatory body in each of the member oil-producing states determines the maximum efficient producing rate of each well within its boundaries. This is an engineering standard. Then, taking into account the amount of oil required to meet market demand in a particular month, this regulatory body sets an overall producing rate for its own state. The total contemplated production is prorated among the several fields and the individual wells in those fields. The oil resources of the nation are now conserved for the utmost advantage of producer and consumer.

PHYSICAL waste of oil has been brought largely under control by technology. Today, from the very beginning of a new oil field’s development, methods of controlled production, proper well spacing, the return of gas to the reservoir to maintain pressure, automatic chokes and valves, evaporation-proof tanks, and many other devices and techniques are at work to assure the maximum life to, and recovery of, oil from the field. These methods and tools are the result of research by many companies over long periods of time. The plurality of effort, which has been effective in finding the oil the nation needs, thus is also useful in developing methods to prevent its waste. Such work has made possible achievements like those in Venezuela, where the Lake Maracaibo fields are being repressurized by the injection of gas. This gas flows from the fields with oil brought to the surface and is being pumped back into the reservoir, deep in the earth’s crust, by the world’s largest centrifugal compressors. The compressors are housed in structures built seven miles from shore over 100 feet of water, and each one is as large as a football field. These, and other measures, mean that the total ultimate recovery from new oil fields will be much greater than had previously been possible.

A somewhat analagous but more direct approach to waste prevention is the oil industry’s work in secondary recovery. This is the process of getting more oil out of the underground strata than would otherwise be possible. Today, for example, we get on the average about 30 per cent of the oil we find in the earth up to the surface where it can be put to use. Secondary recovery methods — by which much of the remaining oil is flooded out by injected water, scoured out by gases and detergents, or volatilized and driven to the well by wet or dry heat — is increasing that percentage of recovery every year. Some of the newer methods are so promising that before long we may be able to increase our recovery rate to 45 per cent. This achievement would have the practical effect of increasing the world’s oil reserves by almost one half.

The story of other extractive or manufacturing industries is a similar one. The bypassed and rockbound taconite ore lying outside the exhausted wealth of Mesabi now comes as pellets to feed the Pittsburgh steel mills. Waste water is purified. Textile fibers are made from coal, water, and air. Complex machines mine coal in greater quantities from a seam than human labor could do before. Rubber, chemicals, plastics, and other valuable materials are extracted from components of crude oil formerly burned as fuel or used even less efficiently. “Waste not, want not” has become the slogan of industry for sound business reasons.

Industry’s lessons in conservation have been learned, quite understandably, for commercial reasons, but they have, to my mind, far wider significance and application than dollars and cents. We live on a planet whose population is now expanding at a rate that can, without exaggeration, be termed explosive. Experts tell us the world’s present 3 billion people may increase in the next century to 7 billion. This growth is more pronounced in developed and industrialized nations; the United States, for example, has today a rate of population growth greater than India’s. Obviously the calls put upon the earth’s resources will be sharply increasing.

Those who work in industry are concerned not so much about the amount of resources available for our needs, but rather with their wisest use. If the promise of America’s next one hundred years is to be fulfilled, society must take positive steps in the field of conservation, and in this work industry can and must collaborate.

Water is probably the most critical resource in our country today. We read with dismay of drought and flood cycles, massive in their direct and indirect destruction. Water tables are being seriously lowered in many areas, pollution and salinity are reducing the usefulness of surface and ground supplies, while on every hand there is increasing need.

Much of the demand comes from industry: our mills, factories, and processing plants account for almost 40 per cent of the country’s present water consumption. The very reliance of industry upon water has led to projects which are bringing about its more effective use. Oil refineries, for example, have perfected methods of purification which return to rivers and lakes a more wholesome form of water than they originally drew out. Each year affiliates of Jersey Standard spend many millions of dollars to assure unpolluted air and water near refineries, an expense which has no immediate short-range economic justification but which we realize has important justification in the long run.

Commercial methods of distilling salt water, though expensive and difficult to maintain, have reached the stage where islands such as Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles or, indeed, entire countries such as Kuwait on the edge of the Persian Gulf are almost wholly supplied from sea water made fresh by distillation.

These efforts, however significant, are still — with no pun intended — a drop in the bucket. In this country at present only about three fourths of an inch of our total 30-inch average rainfall is captured and used. The possibilities of increasing our total usable water supplies are, therefore, sizable; in terms of the tremendous total precipitation in the United States each year, the recovery of only a fraction of an inch more would make an enormous difference.

As much as 65 per cent of the water lost through evaporation might be saved by the use of a chemical shield about 20 millionths of an inch thick. Experiments are now underway on a reservoir near Loveland, Colorado, where the chemical compound, hexadecanol, spread in a coating one molecule thick, is being tested to see if it will live up to its laboratory promise. Already in Australia similar coatings of this same compound have saved 200 million gallons of water over a 14-week period at the small cost of about a penny per thousand gallons.

Encouraging possibilities are inherent in our biggest source of water, those underground storage layers of sand and gravel called “aquifers.” If we were to discover by geological examination how much ground water there is in these layers, howfast nature is replacing it, and how man might best proceed to recharge these vast reservoirs, we should have taken a long step forward toward the solution of the water problem.

Core holes and wells drilled to find oil tell us things we did not know about water. Three wells drilled by a Jersey Standard affiliate in the Cape Hatteras-Maryland area in 1945 were dry so far as oil was concerned, but their recordings of the geological structure of the region were of great value in coping with the problem of finding water for local use on the Eastern Shore. Experience with underground pressures and drive which are encountered in oil fields also has application to the problem of recharging aquifers.

New approaches are being devised. There is the imaginative possibility recently proposed by Dr. Vannevar Bush, who suggested the use of detergents to enable soils to absorb the water of a sudden, violent rain instead of allowing most of it to run off.

WHERE soil is concerned, the situation we face in the United States is also sobering. At present a good 100 million acres of cropland have been ruined for further cultivation, and this out of the approximately 500 million acres in the country originally suited for growing food. Another 100 million acres have been damaged. This ruined and damaged land is larger than the combined areas of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri, and to it, according to the Soil Conservation Service, we are annually adding another 400,000 acres which are spoiled for cultivation. Fortunately, given the right conditions, nature can create soil, though at a far slower pace than man’s ability to destroy it. The problem here is one of learning what the right conditions are and taking precautions to see that they are provided.

Those industries whose operations are directly connected with our soil — notably lumber and paper companies — have already begun largescale conservation programs. Selective cutting of trees and scientific methods of growing timber as a crop are doing much to preserve the ground cover which builds soil and keeps its complex structure from blowing away. Other industries, such as suppliers of chemical fertilizers or producers of agricultural machinery, have acquired experience which should offer possibilities of making contributions in this area.

The commercial activities of many industries have invaded our wildlife resources. An example is the oil industry, whose rigs and exploration parties are often found in marshlands, remote coastal or offshore areas, and in wilderness regions which are the habitat of our fast-shrinking wildlife population. Happily, the industry has a good record where wildlife is concerned. Companies having acreage in the Texas coastal region, for example, which has been chosen as a winter residence by the continent’s few remaining whooping cranes, confine their activities to the summer season when the birds have left for their mating grounds in Canada. Oil companies operating in or near the oystering grounds of Louisiana underwrote a seven-year scientific study of the oyster’s environment and the nature of its life cycle. They did this because of self-interest, stirred by criticism and legal actions brought against them by oystermen who were convinced that the dwindling supply of shellfish was the direct result of oil operations. By exhaustive experimentation, the scientists not only proved that these charges had no basis in fact, but also isolated the minute and hitherto unknown fungus which was the real culprit. Their studies and recommendations, instigated and supported by industry, have been important in revitalizing the oyster business in Louisiana.

In Venezuela, a Jersey Standard affiliate has carefully experimented with the effect of underwater seismic explosions upon fish, so as to protect this valuable resource. Other affiliates regularly conduct their operations in wilderness areas with fire prevention, anti-pollution measures, and wildlife preservation as major goals.

THE problems we face in conserving natural resources are laborious and complex. The preservation of even small bits of marshlands or woods representing the last stands of irreplaceable biotic communities is interwoven with the red tape of law, conflicting local interest, the overlapping jurisdiction of governmental and private conservation bodies, and an intricate tangle of economic and social considerations. During the time spent in resolving these factors, it often happens that the area to be preserved is swallowed up. Even more formidable is the broad-scale conservation problem raised by the spread of urban belts in such places as the northeastern part of the United States. The pressures of human growth are so acute in such instances that they raise issues which would tax the wisdom of Solomon.

How and what industry might properly do in these cases must wail upon a clearer understanding of what is involved. But industry can certainly do much in helping our society reach such understanding. It can offer support to groups dedicated to studying the principles and problems of conservation. It can use its good offices to help our citizens get information. It can make available to other organizations, and coördinate within its own ranks, the daily experience it is acquiring through its operations.

Probably the most effective immediate contribution of industry could be made at the community level. Many conservation problems and opportunities are directly concerned with communities and can best be handled by them. Here industry’s effort might range from participation in longrange studies and plans for community expansion to the practical steps of actually acquiring threatened areas with its own funds — or helping organizations presently set up to do this work — and turning them over as gifts to established public or private bodies. It would seem that the most practical, immediate action in the field of conservation is to preserve specific areas of land before they are overrun and lost forever.

There is no lack of things to be done by all segments of American society in conserving our natural resources. And it is high time to move forward from good starts already made. The better the understanding of all of us about wise use of resources, the better are the chances that our children and their offspring will inherit a nation in which full opportunity for the human spirit is preserved as well.