First came the oil well. Then the off-shore drilling rig. Then pipelines and oil tankers. And tests in Utah show the next big development in oil production may be: germs.

Bacteria used in 136 oil wells near Altamont, Duchesne County, produce secretions that dissolve troublesome paraffin wax underground into beneficial gasoline or kerosene. The germs' secretions also thin out thick oil in the area, making it easier to pump."The results of the project to date are increases of oil recovery of 374 percent - 98,000 barrels of oil per well," Fred G. Brown, president of National Parakleen Co., told a House panel Tuesday.

So wells that may have been abandoned are kept in production - and production has more than tripled, he told the House Interior Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment.

The subcommittee is considering whether such "enhanced oil production" methods - helped with tax incentives to promote their use - may reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and the need to open such pristine areas as the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil production.

Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, thinks so - and is sponsoring a bill to offer such tax incentives.

"Many have forgotten that 70 percent of all the oil we have ever discovered - 341 billion barrels - remains untapped in existing wells. As many as 76 billion barrels of this important resource can be produced using known technologies," he told the panel.

"As we debate the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we must ask ourselves the question: Why should we encourage the destruction of our pristine and scenic wild areas with rigs, pipelines and drilling mud when oil is already available in developed areas?"

Brown said National Parakleen is finding success in Utah with germs to help recover more oil from existing wells - but such methods may not be used widely without tax incentives.

He said the experiment in Altamont "is the largest microbial enhanced oil recovery project in the United States" - and the most successful.

While it has increased oil production 374 percent, similar-but-smaller tests in Texas have increased production between 73 percent and 148 percent.

He said bacteria his company places into the oil field produce "solvents such as organic acids and alcohols, which act as thinning and dilution agents. In addition, microbes degrade or break down long- chain molecular paraffin wax into short-chain solvent (gasoline, kerosene, diesel)." The result, he said, "is thinner, higher quality oil that flows more readily through the (oil) reservoir, resulting in increased oil production."

He added, "The microbial process also mobilizes residual oil that otherwise would be left in the formation. The end result is enhanced oil recoveries."

Brown said the germs used are "friendly to the environment. The bacteria are naturally occurring. They are not genetically engineered micro-organisms. They are marine organisms in a slightly saline solution of nutrients."

About the need for tax credits, he said, "Tax incentives were necessary to encourage wildcatting that built the petroleum industry to its present status. Tax incentives are necessary to encourage producers to use microbial enhanced oil recovery as an alternative to early well abandonment."


(Additional information)

Increased production

Using germs in the oil-pumping process increased production at a well near Altamont, Duchesne County, by 374 percent. Similar tests in Texas led to increased production of 73 percent to 148 percent.