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Passage Discussion

Paragraph 1 Overview

This paragraph begins with a broad characterization of the impact of oil well exploration. The author
notes a very specific temporal relationship here: first, an oil well is drilled. Then an undesirable event
occurs which impacts the environment. The event is studied scientifically and the results of that study
reveal the need for regulation (interestingly enough, this chain of events is also reflected in the passage
structure and paragraph organization). The implications here are that the reasoned application of
scientific evidence will lead to increased regulation, and that both are desirable. As a general rule, the
test makers tend to advocate regulation as an effective solution for a broad range of problems, including
the protection of natural resources. The final sentence here indicates that the remainder of the passage
will deal with a specific undesirable result of oil drilling: the potential contamination of groundwater.
Note the careful definition of groundwater – test takers are told what groundwater is, where it is found,
and what purpose it serves. Be sure to make note of each of these elements.

Paragraph 2 Overview

Not surprisingly, the author begins the second paragraph by providing a historical context for assessing
the problem of groundwater contamination discussed in paragraph one. Here, the author supports the
notion that the knowledge necessary for successful regulation typically comes in retrospect. The author
notes the creation of regulations in the late nineteenth century designed to protect oil from contamination
by groundwater but no regulations to protect groundwater from contamination by oil. “Thousands of
wells were drilled” (line 17) in this manner and, inevitably, undesirable events occurred. In this case,
nearby drinking water became unpotable and oil-contaminated (lines 20- 22). Although the word
“unpotable” is not explicitly defined, the sentence structure associates unpotable with oil-contaminated
and contrasts it with drinking water. The test makers assume no prior knowledge and will always provide
sufficient context for attentive readers to grasp the meaning of unfamiliar words. Developing the ability
to quickly categorize unfamiliar concepts and to recognize their functional meaning is essential to
performing well on the Reading Comprehension section.

Paragraph 3 Overview

This paragraph provides a scientific analysis of the undesirable environmental event. The author
proceeds by describing the relative location of groundwater and oil reservoirs, indicating that the
geologic formations are similarly porous and permeable, but that ground water is generally found closer
to the surface than oil reserves. Thus, oil wells are often drilled directly through existing groundwater
reservoirs. This process connects all of the penetrated formations and, in the absence of appropriate
safeguards, will inevitably contaminate groundwater. The author also introduces saline water reservoirs,
a new element which is found at the same depths as oil reservoirs and poses much the same threat to
groundwater. Although the introduction of saline water may seem tangential or incidental to the main
discussion, it provides an excellent opportunity for the test makers to catch inattentive test takers offguard.
Understanding the relationship between saline water and oil reserves and properly characterizing
saline water as an additional potential contaminant for groundwater will help test takers avoid this
potential pitfall. This paragraph concludes by describing early attempts to prevent the mixing of
groundwater and oil, first by using hollow trees as a protective barrier and now by placing large metal
pipe casings in cement. Both methods attempt to create a non-permeable barrier between the oil and the
groundwater. Interestingly, this paragraph does not mention regulations at all; it is strictly concerned
with the process of groundwater contamination and the methods of prevention that are used.

Paragraph 4 Overview

The final paragraph contains the expected return to a discussion of regulation. Readers are told that there
are regulations governing the materials used to create the protective barriers and would expect the author
to be pleased with this knowledge. However, the author’s concern is not alleviated and he or she suggests
that regulation alone is insufficient. For the author, it is the combination of scientific knowledge and
effective regulation that is needed to address this problem. The author delineates several areas in which
our current knowledge is inadequate. We do not know how long these barriers will last, what effect
various subsurface fluids will have on the casing or on the cement, and what the environmental impact of
groundwater bacteria, groundwater chemistry, and traffic vibrations may be. Finally, the author suggests
that additional factors, such as access to the ocean, may prevent existing regulations from performing
properly. Such lists provide excellent source material for test questions and test takers can fully expect
to be tested on their understanding of this list. The major disaster, described beginning in line 55,
occurred not necessarily because the oil company failed to follow regulations, but because it failed to
properly evaluate the location. Properly using protective barriers as described in the third paragraph may
have prevented oil from mixing with groundwater, but did not prevent ocean water from mixing with
groundwater or oil from mixing with ocean water. This event prompted new research and has begun the
cycle anew. Once again, the problem became evident only after the disaster occurred. It is obvious that
the author believes this problem will continue until an accumulation of scientific knowledge – and the
resulting regulatory efforts – “catches up” to the actual drilling of oil wells.

Passage Summary

There are numerous risks of environmental damage associated with oil well drilling, and until there
is more sufficient scientific knowledge that can be used to better regulate drilling, these hazards will
persist.

Passage Structure

Paragraph 1: Introduces oil drilling and the issues of hindsight-based regulation and groundwater
contamination
Paragraph 2: Gives a history of lagging regulatory efforts and the contamination that occurred as
a result
Paragraph 3: Discusses the process of contamination and provides specific examples of
prevention methods
Paragraph 4: Emphasizes that a combination of scientific knowledge and effective regulation is
needed to prevent future disasters

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