India's next big business?

Possibly oil, says CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos. The country's deposits are twice the size of Iraq's.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
DOHA, Qatar--Srhi Shankar Aiyar, minister of petroleum for India, knows the idea sounds outlandish, but he believes that India could become a petrodollar state in the 21st century.

"If you don't get into the Bay of Bengal now, you will be left back as an Okie," he said during a presentation at the International Petroleum Technology Conference last week. "Unless you step into the breach, you may regret one day dismissing me as a raving lunatic."

The optimism is grounded in massive oil deposits, close to 30 billion tons, in Central India. That's twice the size of the deposits in Iraq (13 billion tons, according to the Institute of Petroleum) and just shy of Saudi deposits. With this, India, which imports 70 percent of its oil, could become an exporter, Aiyar hypothesized.

Although nations are clamoring to build their economies around clean industries like semiconductor design and outsourcing, there's still a lot to be said for 19th century activities like drilling holes into the ground and blowing up rocks.

Unfortunately, oil is stuck under the Deccan Traps, a deep layer of volcanic rock created 65 million years ago when the protocontinent Gowandaland smacked into Eurasia. The collision coincided with the extinction of the dinosaurs.

"How do you begin to do seismic surveys before you even drill through this mess?" he said. "It is necessary that the best kind of scientific R&D be brought to bear upon this problem."

Although nations are clamoring to build their economies around clean industries like semiconductor design and outsourcing, there's still a lot to be said for 19th century activities like drilling holes into the ground and blowing up rocks.

For one thing, it's sort of cool. Exxon Mobil is working on ships that carry 260,000 cubic meters of liquefied natural gas across the Atlantic without accidentally blowing up. When was the last time someone jumped out of helicopters over Baku to wrestle customer relationship management software back into line?

Exxon is also now drilling 2,500 meters down in some offshore wells. In the '90s, the limit was 1,000 meters.

The technology and energy worlds will also increasingly become more intertwined over the next decades. Oil and gas consumption will double by 2030, in part because of growth in tech centers like China and India. Gulf states this year will export $313 billion worth of oil and gas, a figure that will rise to more than $600 billion by 2030.

"In 2004, the oil map changed. For the first time ever, Asia consumed more oil than North America," said Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

Meanwhile, rising demand will prompt companies to devise technologies to extract more natural resources and contain environmental hazards. The oil industry, it turns out, is not that efficient. On average, only about 35 percent of the oil in a given deposit actually gets brought to the surface, according to industry estimates. If that could be raised to 45 percent, the world's proven known oil supply could be extended by 20 years.

Scientists are thus tinkering with ideas such as genetically modified microbes that could generate gases to increase underground pressure. For students, this will likely become a strong job market. Academics and international oil companies--which laid off hundreds of thousands of employees in the 1980s--say the industry now faces a huge shortage in engineers.

Fears about the impact of global warming, have created markets for electronic bikes and hybrid cars. Oil companies like Shell and Exxon Mobil have begun to tout a clean, synthetic diesel fuel for choked cities like Seoul.

For India, exploiting its oil resources could represent a massive step forward in modernization. Blackouts remain common in most Indian cities. Nearly half the country's electricity, according to various estimates, gets stolen by individuals placing illegal feed wires onto power lines. In Aiyar's dreams, it could also reverse the balance of power between East and West.

"We have the opportunity to band together to restore Asia's role as the vanguard of civilization, which has traditionally been Asia's role," he said. "Asia only lost the role around 200 years ago. Two hundred years is but a blink of an eye in a long, long saga."

Becoming the light of civilization, however, will require some outside help. Geological science remains a second-class citizen at the Indian Institutes of Technology. Although Aiyar is lobbying the government to change the situation, India will have to rely on foreign expertise.

"Luckily, we're not as broke as we used to be, so we can pay for the services," he said.