Estimates of ultimately recoverable crude oil in the United States published within the past 10 years range rather widely. The highest estimate of recoverable oil remaining to be discovered-is 15 times the lowest estimate. This spread is serious because national strategy based on the highest estimate could be quite different from that based on the lowest estimate.
If a high estimate is accepted, the nation might be justified in seeking to subsidize domestic discovery as an alternative to foreign imports and to development of substitute fuel systems. If a low estimate is accepted, appropriate strategies would be to subsidize the rapid development of substitute fuel systems, to build up a strategic economic reserve of petroleum, and to engage in government-to-government negotiations in order to try to assure a continued inflow of foreign oil at prices equal to or below that of substitute fuels.
Poorly defined terms and unjustifiable usages of figures representing a wide range of uncertainty are barriers to general understanding of fossil-energy futures. Geologic estimates of oil in place tend to project past costs of exploitation and to ignore exponential increases of work cost with depth and with reservoir recalcitrance; they also ignore the probability that “substitution” technology will outpace petroleum technology, and will transform most “undiscovered reserves,” if they exist, into mere geologic anomalies. It may be that nongeologic methods of estimating future availability of oil and gas are better guides to national policy than are geologic methods.