Behind the drill bit, attached to a long line of steel known as the "drill string," is an array of sensors. The sensors bombard rock with subatomic particles and measure the gamma radiation that bounces back. They assess how easily electricity flows through the rock and underground fluids. They analyze the magnetism of the rock and how it vibrates — both up and down and side to side — while drilling.
"To the layman, it looks like dumb iron, but you'd be shocked about what's inside," says Art Soucy, president of global products and services at Baker Hughes.
All this information is sent to engineers via fiber-optic cables. They run the information through supercomputers as powerful as 30,000 laptops to create a picture of the earth thousands of feet below the surface.
The people analyzing this data — and even directing the drill bits — are often sitting hundreds of miles away. Shell's Pennsylvania drilling operations are directed from a center in Houston, where experienced drillers monitor the progress at several sites across the country from a single room.
And when the drilling is done, the rig itself can "walk" a hundred feet or so to another location and start drilling again. In the past, rigs had to be taken down and reassembled, which could take days. New rigs are built on sliding "shoes" that allow hydraulic lifts to shuffle the rig forward in short steps.
"It has made possible things that were unthinkable 10 years ago," says Claudi Santiago, managing director at First Reserve Corp., a private-equity firm that invests in energy companies.
Now, drillers are finding oil faster than the world is using it. At the end of 2001, the industry had enough "proved oil reserves" to satisfy world demand for 45 years, according to BP's annual statistical review, a closely watched study. By the end of 2011 that had grown to 51 years — even though a decade's worth of oil had been used and daily demand had grown 14 percent. And "proved reserves" refers to oil that can be economically tapped using today's technology. Tomorrow's methods could yield even more.
This is good news for a global economy that remains dependent on fossil fuels, but it's terrifying to climate scientists.
"If we're willing to go down this road of squeezing whatever petroleum we can out of the earth, we can easily get carbon dioxide levels up to unfathomable levels and put in motion what would be dramatic or catastrophic changes in our climate system," says Michael E. Mann, a geophysicist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.
RENEWABLES PROGRESS, BUT NOT FAST ENOUGH
Renewable technologies have had their successes. The average cost of a solar power system has fallen by 31 percent in the last two years. Solar now generates six times more electricity in the U.S. than it did a decade ago, and wind produces 14 times more. Most major automakers offer some type of electric vehicle.
And this success has come despite the fact that renewable energy's major benefit — that it doesn't pollute — is given little or no value in the marketplace because most governments haven't adopted taxes or penalties for fossil fuel pollution.
But the outlook for wind, batteries and biofuels is as dim as it's been in a decade. Global greenhouse gas agreements have fizzled. Dazzling discoveries have been made in laboratories, and some of these may yet develop into transformative products, but alternative energy technologies haven't become cheaper or more useful than fossil fuels.
Solar, wind and geothermal sources together accounted for 4.8 percent of U.S. power generation last year. Ten percent of U.S. gasoline demand was satisfied with corn ethanol, but ethanol and other fuels made from non-food sources have yet to hit the market.
"In many cases, renewables aren't ready for primetime yet," says George Biltz, vice president for energy and climate change at Dow Chemical, which continues to work on a host of renewable technologies.
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