The steady increase in crude oil prices worldwide is fueling speculation that Utah's sluggish oil industry may receive a badly needed boost.
State energy officials and industry representatives say there has been a slight upswing in oil drilling and well workovers since the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi troops. However, drilling permits are far fewer in number than during the energy boom of the early 1980s."We have heard there is an increased interest in pursuing workovers in the Uintah Basin. We have to be pretty cautious about anecdotal evidence, but I have heard that from people in the basin," Kevin Higgins, assistant director of the Utah Energy Office within the State Department of Natural Resources, said in an interview this week.
Working over a well may involve an "acid job," pumping an acid solution into the well to dissolve mineral deposits and loosen oil pockets. Another technique is a "crack job," forcing sand or similar substances into a well to fracture rocks and release oil.
While word of renewed activity is encouraging, work-overs employ small crews on a temporary basis. There's no need to pack up the kids and move to Vernal quite yet, officials say.
Drilling permits issued by the state have increased nearly four-fold from July 1, 1989, to July 1 of this year. Higgins said 33 permits were issued between Jan. 1 and July 1, 1989, compared with 115 permits issued for the same time period this year.
And that was before the Iraqi conflict erupted. But Higgins says 115 drilling permits pales by comparison with the number of permits issued during the peak of the energy boom in the early 1980s. Even in 1985, which energy experts consider the end of Utah's oil boom, 392 permits were issued.
"There's been some increase in activity but we're coming off a very slow period. Anything's going to be an improvement of where we've been the last few years, but it doesn't mean we're approaching where we were in the early '80s," Higgins said.
Although oil has traded recently at higher prices than during the boom of the 1980s, the marketplace is so volatile that few investors are willing to drop money into oil speculation. Prices may have to stabilize for years before any sustained drilling occurs.
"It's still been that kind of `crisis mentality' that has prevailed. I think we still seem to be at a price that could drop substantially if a peace accord breaks out or rise substantially if war breaks out. People have a feeling it could go either way," he said.
Long-term price stability appears to be the key to rekindling Utah's oil industry, said Jim Peacock, executive director of the Utah Petroleum Association.
"That has to be a stable figure, not up one day and down the next," said Peacock.