Thirty years ago today, Texaco Inc. said it struck natural gas in a well 100 miles off the New Jersey coast.
The well in 432 feet of water east of Atlantic City was part of an exploratory-drilling blitz after the Arab Oil Embargo caused the price of crude to nearly quadruple between 1973 and 1976.
Alas, only five of about two dozen wells drilled in the region found natural gas. None found oil, and all were abandoned because they were not commercially viable.
Does this mean that New Jersey's coastal waters are unlikely to see any action if restrictions on offshore drilling are lifted, as President Bush and some members of Congress have proposed?
Don't be too sure.
If the industry had the chance, "I think you would see some interest" in running new tests in the region, because technological advances have made it easier to choose the best place to drill, Andy Radford, a policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute, said yesterday.
The prospect of renewed drilling off the Jersey Shore has politicians weighing in. Gov. Corzine said this month that he opposed drilling because the risk to New Jersey's 127 miles of beaches was too great.
U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) wants the ban on offshore drilling - which covers the East and West Coasts and the eastern Gulf of Mexico - to remain.
His Republican opponent in this year's election, former U.S. Rep. Dick Zimmer, is against offshore drilling anywhere that could harm the Jersey coast, but he would leave it up to other states to decide for themselves if they wanted it.
A 62 percent majority of likely New Jersey voters polled this month by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute said they favored drilling in protected offshore areas.
An even higher percentage of Jersey Shore voters - 70 percent - supported lifting the ban, polling spokesman Pat Smith said. The poll released yesterday did not ask specifically about drilling off the New Jersey coast.
Lifting the ban became a hot topic this summer in the presidential race when gasoline prices shot above $4 a gallon. But the federal Energy Information Administration said access to areas currently off limits would expand oil production from the lower 48 states only 7 percent in 2030 and warned that it would have little effect on prices.
Drilling is also likely to come under legal challenges by government and environmental or other groups, as it did in decades past.
The federal Minerals Management Service says the North Atlantic outer continental shelf, which stretches from Maine through New Jersey, contains 1.91 billion barrels of technically recoverable, but as-yet-undiscovered, oil.
That would be enough to feed the U.S. oil habit for about 31/2 months, at the rate of consumption last month, which was the lowest in five years, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
But the minerals agency estimates are from the 1980s and based on old technology. Since the 1980s, agency estimates of oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico have soared from nine billion to 45 billion barrels of oil, said Nicholas Pardi, an agency spokesman.
Radford, of the American Petroleum Institute, which is the main trade association for the nation's oil and gas producers, said the industry had replaced two-dimensional with three-dimensional seismic-imaging technology.
"It allows them to pinpoint where they want to drill," Radford said. "You are drilling the wells in the rock where the oil or gas is actually flowing."
The oil industry spent $2.8 billion on drilling leases along the East Coast from 1976 through 1983 and billions more to drill wells - some of which set deepwater records at the time and helped pave the way for deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Even so, Radford said, "maybe they just didn't find the sweet spot."
Another big change in the industry is the ability to tie several smaller oil or gas fields into one platform. That can make fields viable that were not worth the trouble before.
"The key is," Radford said, "we need to get out and look."