Jan Arps is the most influential oilman you’ve never heard of.
In 1945, Arps, then a 33-year-old petroleum engineer for British-American Oil Producing Co., published a formula to predict how much crude a well will produce and when it will run dry. The Arps method has become one of the most widely used measures in the industry. Companies rely on it to predict the profitability of drilling, secure loans and report reserves to regulators. When Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican, said at a March 26 hearing in Washington that the U.S. should start exporting its oil to undermine Russian influence, his forecast of “increasing U.S. energy production” can be traced back to Arps.
The problem is the Arps equation has been twisted to apply to shale technology, which didn’t exist when Arps died in 1976. John Lee, a University of Houston engineering professor and an authority on estimating reserves, said billions of barrels of untapped shale oil in the U.S. are counted by companies relying on limited drilling history and tweaks to Arps’s formula that exaggerate future production. That casts doubt on how close the U.S. will get to energy independence, a goal that’s nearer than at any time since 1985, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.