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April 21, 2006

Running out of gas, revisited

This week’s issue of The Economist has a three-page special report on the future of oil, along with a related editorial and economics focus. Unfortunately all three are behind the magazine’s paid-subscription firewall, but here are some highlights from the special (which is subtitled “Why the world is not about to run out of oil”):

For years a small group of geologists has been claiming that the world has started to grow short of oil, that alternatives cannot possibly replace it and that an imminent peak in production will lead to economic disaster. In recent months this view has gained wider acceptance on Wall Street and in the media. Recent books on oil have bewailed the threat. Every few weeks, it seems, “Out of Gas”, “The Empty Tank” and “The Coming Economic Collapse: How You Can Thrive When Oil Costs $200 a Barrel”, are joined by yet more gloomy titles. Oil companies, which once dismissed the depletion argument out of hand, are now part of the debate. Chevron’s splashy advertisements strike an ominous tone: “It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We’ll use the next trillion in 30.”
… [But] is the world really running out of oil? Colin Campbell, an Irish geologist, has been saying since the 1990s that the peak of global oil production is imminent. Kenneth Deffeyes, a respected geologist at Princeton, thought that the peak would arrive late last year.
It did not. In fact, oil production capacity might actually grow sharply over the next few years (see chart 1). Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), an energy consultancy, has scrutinised all of the oil projects now under way around the world. Though noting rising costs, the firm concludes that the world’s oil-production capacity could increase by as much as 15m barrels per day (bpd) between 2005 and 2010—equivalent to almost 18% of today’s output and the biggest surge in history. Since most of these projects are already budgeted and in development, there is no geological reason why this wave of supply will not become available (though politics or civil strife can always disrupt output).
Peak-oil advocates remain unconvinced. A sign of depletion, they argue, is that big Western oil firms are finding it increasingly difficult to replace the oil they produce, let alone build their reserves. Art Smith of Herold, a consultancy, points to rising “finding and development” costs at the big firms, and argues that the world is consuming two to three barrels of oil for every barrel of new oil found. Michael Rodgers of PFC Energy, another consultancy, says that the peak of new discoveries was long ago. “We’re living off a lottery we won 30 years ago,” he argues.
It is true that the big firms are struggling to replace reserves. But that does not mean the world is running out of oil, just that they do not have access to the vast deposits of cheap and easy oil that are left in Russia and members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). And as the great fields of the North Sea and Alaska mature, non-OPEC oil production will probably peak by 2010 or 2015. That is soon—but it says nothing of what really matters, which is the global picture.
When the United States Geological Survey (USGS) studied the matter closely, it concluded that the world had around 3 trillion barrels of recoverable conventional oil in the ground. Of that, only one-third has been produced. That, argued the USGS, puts the global peak beyond 2025. And if “unconventional” hydrocarbons such as tar sands and shale oil (which can be converted with greater effort to petrol) are included, the resource base grows dramatically—and the peak recedes much further into the future.

And then there are new ways to extract “conventional” hydrocarbons:

Technological breakthroughs such as multi-lateral drilling helped defy predictions of decline in Britain’s North Sea that have been made since the 1980s: the region is only now peaking.
Globally, the oil industry recovers only about one-third of the oil that is known to exist in any given reservoir. New technologies like 4-D seismic analysis and electromagnetic “direct detection” of hydrocarbons are lifting that “recovery rate”, and even a rise of a few percentage points would provide more oil to the market than another discovery on the scale of those in the Caspian or North Sea.
Further, just because there are no more Ghawars does not mean an end to discovery altogether. Using ever fancier technologies, the oil business is drilling in deeper waters, more difficult terrain and even in the Arctic (which, as global warming melts the polar ice cap, will perversely become the next great prize in oil). Large parts of Siberia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have not even been explored with modern kit.

Of course, given the Bush administration’s adventurism in the Middle East, it’s possible that some of that oil will end up off-limits. But even if it does, the outlook for hydro-
carbons is nowhere near as bleak as the peak-oilers claim—and certainly not gloomy enough to justify oil at anywhere near $75 a barrel.

More on the oil-price bubble here.

Posted by Stephen at 6:41 PM in Energy + environment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

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Interesting discussion of peak oil. I've been reading all of the gloom and doom scenarios and I was heartened by this info. Thanks!

Posted by: cannon at April 22, 2006 7:17 PM