Mainly thanks to films and cartoons, when thinking about getting crude oil, it is not uncommon for people to conjure images of pressurized oil gushing out of the ground. While this has been known to happen in the past, it is far more rare than depicted.
Whether it is a giant energy company or a sole prospector, oil and gas deposits – much like gold or diamond mines – are not typically discovered by accident, and it is not cost-effective to just start randomly searching anywhere. In order to find and extract the product as efficiently and inexpensively as possible, they utilize today’s word: exploration.
Derived from the Middle French exploration and having its root in the Latin explorationem, which means ‘an examination,’ our word involves the overall searching and testing of a specific area in order to determine whether or not the area contains a resource (such as oil, gas, gold, copper, coal, etc.) in sufficient quality and accessibility for commercial extraction.
Appearing in 1778, in the 2nd edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, our word was first used during the beginning of the Age of Steam and first referenced coal: “Though plains be so favourable..to the production of coal,..clay, soil, and other lax matter..have..covered the surface of such plains to a considerable depth, which prevents the exploration of the solid strata there.”
One of the first usages of our term in relation to oil or gas occurs in 1888 in the Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, which writes that: “A new interest was taken in the drilling of exploration wells, more particularly in search of [natural] gas.”
Aside from beginning exploration, such as examining the geology of a location and its proximity to known, or proven, resources, in-depth surveys- either using more active seismic methods (observing a small, underground explosion) or passive methods, like monitoring natural seismic waves or using gravimeters and magnetometers- are used before the first preliminary well is ever drilled.
Though the price of oil has fallen from well over $100 a barrel as little as 3 years ago, considering market demands, exploration is essential to remaining competitive; however, exploration isn’t cheap. While drilling in shallow wells and wells in proven locations, such as Saudi Arabia, is comparatively low-cost (approximately $5-8 per barrel), market demand has necessitated moving into higher-risk and harder to access locations. For example, oil rigs in deep water (off of the continental shelf) can easily cost more than $100 million before the first barrel of oil reaches the refinery.