Friday, January 04, 2008

The Peak Oil Debate and Oil Companies


The developments in the oil market in recent years have helped building up a rather pessimist widespread perception about the future of oil and oil industry, which is focused on one common question: Are we running out of oil? The short answer is, No! That is the good news. The bad news is that each additional barrel of high quality oil to global supply is getting more costly and difficult to find, develop, extract and bring to where it is demanded.

If we are not running out of oil, what else should be blamed on? Two words: Peak Oil. The term "Peak Oil" has begun to enter the common vocabulary thanks to the ongoing quite heated debate inside and outside of the oil industry since the turn of the new century. There is no doubt that the debate will continue in the coming years and will probably become part of the long-term energy and economic planning.

In this article we will first list the challenges facing the oil industry. Then we will question whether era of easy oil is approaching to an end by having a look at the peak oil phenomenon. After giving a brief overview of the main issues in the peak oil debate we will provide a number of quotes from oil company executives on peak oil. Finally we will make some concluding remarks on the future of oil and oil industry.

Challenges Facing the Oil Industry

Our oil thirsty world is now demanding 86 million barrels of oil every day — or 1,000 barrels a second. This thirst is expected to increase about 35% by 2030, according to the IEA, EIA and OPEC. To meet that demand will require a net additional supply of more than one million barrels per day each year up to 2030. This will certainly not be an easy task when we consider the following challenges facing the oil industry today and in the future.

• Inventory of good prospects is diminishing even though some parts of the world have not been thoroughly explored. Since 1986, more conventional oil was produced than were replaced by new discoveries, and the peak of discoveries took place in the mid-1960's. The sizes of the newly discovered oilfields are getting smaller and smaller and recent discoveries are replacing only about a quarter of global annual oil production.

• Although there are 47,500 oil fields in the world about half of the world’s oil production comes from 116 giant fields, each producing more than 100 thousand barrels per day. The total size of some 500 giant oil fields, each having an estimated ultimate recovery of 500 million barrels or more is over 1 trillion barrels. The majority of the largest giants are over 50 years old, and average size of new giant discoveries is declining.

• Offshore has been the main source of growth for world crude production as the onshore has essentially remained at plateau for more than two decades.

• World conventional oil production from new oil fields is offset by depletion of oil reserves in known oil provinces. Some of the world’s largest oil fields such as Cantarell in Mexico and Burgan in Kuwait have already entered decline phase. And there is widespread speculation that the world’s largest oil field Ghawar in Saudi Arabia may be the next to follow. Advanced technologies will help reducing the decline, but will not be able to eliminate it.

• Supply is getting increasingly dependent on a shrinking number of countries and domestic demand in major exporters is increasing tremendously.

• Oil companies are in a global hunt to replace their reserves. The worldwide oil and gas upstream capital spending between 2002 and 2006 more than doubled, and so did the acquisition, exploration and development costs. CERA’s upstream capital costs index, a measure of project cost inflation, has risen to 198 points in the hird quarter of 2007, from 100-106 points average between 2000 and 2005. Private oil companies replace their reserves mostly by the discoveries in and near existing discoveries or by merging with others. But the number of companies to be merged is also dwindling.

• Over the past decade the number of active rigs drilling in the world more than tripled. They work at or near capacity around the globe. But this has had no parallel effect on boosting production and reserves. Average age of rigs is more than 20 years.

• According to Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) there could be a potential 10-15% shortfall of qualified staff by 2010 which will increase costs and further delays in projects. CERA anticipates that over 50% of today’s workforce will have retired by 2015.

• There are immense in-place unconventional oil resources (such as tar sands, extra heavy oil and oil shale) but their fluid quality is poor, recovery rates are lower than the conventional oil, and put pressure on water and to some extend natural gas supplies. The liquids derived from coal, natural gas, biomass and seeds are hardly competitive without government subsidies. Moreover, the share of unconventionals in global oil supply will be determined by a number of fundamental constraints such as costs, environment, investment requirements, energy payback times, and most importantly energy returned on energy invested in full cycle from well-to-wheel or from seeds-to-wheel. Advances in technology will surely help but how much and how fast yet to be seen.

• Private oil companies are facing rising competition from national companies both from producing and consuming countries. The competence of many national companies, combined with increasing financial strength, has allowed them expand rapidly and internationally. As a result, most private companies have started to move into more remote territories, harsher conditions, environmentally more sensitive areas, more complex, large, hard to recover and technologically challenging projects, where the costs and risks are high, including unconventional oil.

• As oil prices have increased about ten fold in the last decade, several countries have restricted access to prospective resources, tightened the fiscal terms, or revised contracts terms. Many of these measures have also been applied in several OECD countries.

Peak Oil: A Brief Background

Peak oil refers to the point at which marginal extraction of conventional oil in an oil field diminishes to zero at about half of its total recoverable reserve, stays at that level for a while, and turns to negative, marking the decline phase. The first phase of production up to the peak tells us the exploitation of higher quality oil which is easier to access and extract in a relatively cheap way. The second phase, however, will contain rather lower quality oil which is more difficult to reach and extract that would require application of artificial pressure lifting techniques in reservoirs.

Similarly, the peak of global oil “production” (extraction) means that as production from old oil fields decline and new discoveries become smaller, more difficult and more costly to extract, marginal amount of worldwide conventional oil production will diminish to zero for a while and decline thereafter. The point of decline will mark the beginning of the end of easy oil era.

Arguments like “we are running out of oil” are a misinterpretation of peak oil. After the peak there will still plenty of oil left in the world, simply because we cannot recover all the oil in the ground. Today’s average global recovery rate is only about 35%. In other words, 65% of the world’s discovered oil endowment (original oil in place) is left in the ground. Recovery rates may increase in the future but we will never ever be able to recover all the original oil in place. Thus, we will never run out of oil. However, we will run out of is “easy” oil. And that is what indeed peak oil refers to. Some of today’s unconventional oil may in the future become conventional and may be categorized as “easy” but they will remain, at least another decade or so, mostly more expensive, polluting and energy intensive to produce, and will not probably be in substantial quantities compared to conventional one.

The peak oil concept was pioneered by a U.S. geologist named M. King Hubbert (1903-1989), who correctly predicted in his seminal speech on March 8, 1956 that oil extraction in the lower 48 United States would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970 based on two different ultimate recovery estimates. His estimate for 1970 is proved to be correct.

According to Hubbert, oil production in any given oil field follows a bell-shaped trajectory over time, with production rising to a maximum and then, when about half the recoverable resource has been extracted, gradually falling to zero. This principle became to be known as the Hubbert’s Peak and the trajectory Hubbert Curve. He argued that once discoveries start falling, production would too after a time lag. His essential assumption was that oil exists in fixed, finite, and exhaustible quantity, therefore exponential growth in extraction is unsustainable, extraction must eventually decline and cease, and total extraction cannot exceed initial quantity.

The Peak Oil Debate: An Overview

The peak oil debate created two extreme camps:

On the one hand there are those pessimists (mostly geologists) who argue peak oil is already upon us or shortly (generally before 2015) will be. Once the peak is reached, this camp foresees skyrocketing prices leading to economic ruin, social and environmental collapse, massive dislocation and even a dying civilization. Most important advocate of this group is the International Association of the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) promoting the message of imminent depletion, often in crisis tones.

On the other hand there are those optimists (mostly economists and political scientist) who believe that unconventional sources of oil, technological advancement, market forces and increased investment will enable us to produce more oil or invest substitutes and hence meet increasing demand. They expect a smooth shift to new and better energy resources driven by market forces. Most prominent advocates of this group are US Energy Information Agency, International Energy Agency and Cambridge Energy Research Associates. They all argue that no peak is visible before 2030 and “above-ground issues” are more important than below ground issues.

In the middle way stands another camp, called mitigationist, warning of the risks and potential consequences of approaching Peak Oil. They suggest to look beyond the conflicting forecasts and to focus on the consequences of underestimating the severe consequences of the peak oil problem, and urge mitigation efforts begin immediately.

It is impossible to determine who is correct because forecasts for peak vary due to different methodologies, data, definitions and assumptions used. While some optimists tend to lack of knowledge on the Hubbert method, mix reserves with resources and productive capacity with flows, many pessimists underestimate the power of technology. It is a historical fact that early global peak oil warnings of the pessimists didn’t become true. It is another historical fact that none of the optimists could see oil production peak in the North Sea and gas production peak in North America coming, oil prices could go higher than $80, and global economy could register record growth rates despite high oil prices. So, blame game has no end.

Another frontline dividing peak oil camps is whether decline in global oil production will be preceded by a peak or plateau: some pessimists foresee what they refer to "bumpy plateau" as a consequence of price and demand signals in the peak-oil transition years, contrary to many other pessimists who expect a sharp decline after the peak. Majority of the optimists believe the decline in production (which is decades away) will be preceded by a “undulating” plateau rather than a peak. Optimists believe that the decline in conventional oil will be very slow which will be more than offset by unconventionals. Pessimists on the other hand argue that unconventionals will only postpone the peak for some time but the peak is inevitable.

The voices of peak oil camps have attracted so much public attention that led even the U.S. Government Accountability Office, National Petroleum Council and World Energy Council study it. Conclusions of these studies include warnings of possible severe consequences, accumulating risks, complex challenges, global uncertainties, and overseeing the vision of the long decline.

The essential input to peak oil estimates is the ultimately recoverable oil reserves (URR), the total quantity of oil that will ever be produced. URR is the sum of cumulative production, “remaining” reserves and undiscovered potential. While pessimists generally rely on an URR of less than 3 trillion barrels, optimists prefer to use a value more than 3 trillion for conventional oil.

Virtually everybody, regardless of which side of the peak oil argument they stand, agree that approximately one trillion barrels of oil have so far been extracted and consumed over the approximately 150 years since the first commercial oil production in Romania. What both sides do not agree is the size of reserves and yet to be discovered potential.

The term reserves means different things to different people because of varying interpretations due mainly to recoverability (geological, technical or economical), coverage (from proved to proved plus probable plus possible), and reliability (whether they really exist in the ground) criteria.

As far as the undiscovered potential is concerned, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is considered to be the most authorative institution. It used to periodically conduct geology-based assessments of the oil and gas resources of the world. Its last assessment, based on data through 1995, was released in 2000. In that assessment the USGS treated reserve growth of known fields separately for the first time. As was the case in previous ones, that assessment indicated that the bulk of conventional oil yet to be produced in the world resides in fields that have already been discovered. Though an extremely important reserve (or field) growth is still a poorly understood phenomenon and may cause wrong perceptions about the future availability of real reserves. As a matter of fact, the best way to align perception with reality is to backdate reserves to discovery or first production year.

The disagreements on what is the true or reliable size of reserves and resources will continue to be debated. Unfortunately, there is still no harmonized understanding on them and progress on harmonization efforts has been very slow. More importantly, the world urgently needs a comprehensive world oil reserves and resource assessment to which all stakeholders participate. Still relying on USGS estimates based on 12 years old data does not make sense any more.

Oil Company Executives on Peak Oil

The views of oil company executives on peak oil vary widely. On one side there are companies like ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco who see peak oil a non-event and on the other side there are some companies who see that peak oil is inevitable. Most company chiefs, however, agree that the end of easy oil era is upon us. Below are some important quotes from chief executives and the position they held at the time of the quote.

For more than two years now Chevron took out a series of “easy oil is over” adverts and campaign, which can be seen in nearly all the leading journals and newspapers. The adverts are signed "Dave" - David O'Reilly, the company's chairman. These adverts contained following sentences: “one thing is clear: the era of easy oil is over ...Many of the world's oil and gas fields are maturing. And new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract - physically, technically, economically, and politically….The world is currently burning 2 barrels of oil for every barrel of new oil discovered.”

“Oil will peak - that is a geologic fact. But the new energy equation is not static. It is dynamic and variable.” - David J. O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO. 21 September 2005.

“There's been plenty of debate about the notion of "peak oil." … I'm very much a believer in the plateau philosophy - a leveling off of oil supply over many years.” - George L. Kirkland, Executive Vice President for Upstream and Gas. 8 February 2006.

"The question is will there be peak oil? Yes, but will it be the disaster [some people] expect? I don't think it has to be. We have other ways of making fuel." - Donald Paul, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. 24 October 2007.

"Although expert opinion is divided on the issue, here at Total we put the watershed oil production peak at around 2020 and 2030" - Yves-Louis Darricarre, President Gas & Power. Total's Corporate Social Responsibility Report 2003.

“If demand continues to grow at this pace, global production will peak sooner, not later, for geological reasons.” – Thierry Desmarest, Chairman and CEO. Total’s Corporate Social Responsibility Report 2005.

"The capacity of raising production is a real challenge ... if we stay with this type of production growth our impression is that peak production could be reached around 2020." - Thierry Desmarest, Chairman and CEO. June 2006.

“I want to point out that peak oil does not spell the end of oil, but designates the production peak that will precede a gradual decline in output over several decades. Oil production could top out at around 100 to 110 million barrels a day by 2020-2030” - Jean-Michel Gires, Executive Vice President, Sustainable Development and the Environment. 11 May 2007.

“100m barrels per day is now in my view an optimistic case… It is not my view: it is the industry view, or the view of those who like to speak clearly, honestly, and not just try to please people….We have been, all of us, too optimistic about the geology. Not in terms of reserves, but in terms of how to develop those reserves: how much time it takes, how much realistically do you need.” - Christophe de Margerie, CEO. 30-31 October 2007.

“Not this year, nor the next, but maybe as soon as five years hence, oil prices will start to rise. Well before 2010, the world will be vulnerable to 1970s-style oil shocks….despite today's low prices, in the long term we will be back to a high-price scenario in the oil sector.…output [in the North Sea] will start to decline in the next 2 to 3 years….My forecast is that between 2000 and 2005 the world will be reaching peak production from our known fields, and after that, output will decline." - Franco Barnabé, CEO. 15 June 1998.

“There is an alarmist theory that the world is running out of oil. Quite the contrary. There is plenty of oil in the ground, and high prices are just what's needed to tap the earth's vast reserves.” - Leonardo Maugeri, Senior Vice President for Corporate Strategies and Planning. 24 July 2006.

In March 2006, ExxonMobil ran a peak oil advertisement in prominent newspapers. ExxonMobil ad says “Contrary to the theory, oil production shows no sign of a peak…A peak will not occur this year, next year or for decades to come…With abundant oil resources still available peak production is nowhere in sight.”

"I think there's a lot of misconceptions of what peak oil is..The resource base is continually changing, driven by economics and technology." - Lee Raymond, former CEO. 14 September 2006.

“[S]ome today claim that the “era of easy oil” is over. It is true that today oil is not “easy” -- but, over my 32 years, it has never been easy. Changing conditions, growing demand and evolving environmental expectations test our latest technology and require our industry to continuously innovate further. Oil only seems easy after it has been discovered, developed and delivered.” - Rex W. Tillerson, Chairman and CEO. 30 November 2006.

“Ongoing technological advances have enabled the continued expansion of economically recoverable supplies from resources once considered technically challenging to what we now describe as the “easy oil.” – Rex W. Tillerson, Chairman and CEO. 13 February 2007.

On July 10, 1985 the President of Shell USA John Bookout gave a speech in San Antonio on “two centuries of fossil fuel energy,” which was later on published in 1989. In his talk he showed a chart showing oil and gas peaking about 2010 and 2015 respectively and declining thereafter. A decade later, Shell scenarios moved the peak to around 2025.

“My view is that “easy” oil has probably passed its peak. But there are other reserves that are still a long way from their peak. In unconventional oil and gas – resources that are harder to tap – there are plenty of reserves. The oil industry has to explore new frontiers, develop new hydrocarbon energy sources and integrate “CO2 solutions”. - Jeroen Van der Veer,CEO, Royal Dutch Shell. 25 January 2006.

“The growth rate of supplies of “easy oil”, conventional oil and natural gas that are relatively easy to extract, will struggle to keep up with accelerating demand. Just when energy demand is surging, many of the world’s conventional oilfields are going into decline. The problem is not the availability of resources as such….to replace [every consumed barrel] costs more, so our industry gets a lot more capital intensive per unit all the time," - Jeroen van der Veer, CEO, Royal Dutch Shell. 25 June 2007.

“In a way [Peak Oil] scarcely matters; what really matters is the gap between production and demand. I don’t know whether there is going to be a peak in world oil production, whether it’s going to plateau and then slowly come down. It could well plateau within next 20 years and I guess I would be surprised if it hadn’t.…We’re never going to run out of oil, it’s simply going to become too expensive to use as we traditionally have. And that may happen much sooner than we expect.” - Ernest Ronald Oxburgh, former Chairman of Shell Transport and Trading Company. 16 September 2007.

“[We] cannot rely on “easy oil” supplies to meet that demand. By “easy oil” I mean oil and gas that are relatively easy to extract.” - Jeroen Van der Veer, CEO, Royal Dutch Shell. 18 October 2007.

“Peak oil (the theory that oil production worldwide is in an irreversible decline) is still an open question. The National Petroleum Council recently said we are a long way from peaking. You need to look at the assumptions. Easy oil production has peaked.” – John D. Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil America. 7 November 2007.

“Some in the ‘peak oil’ school of thought believe that we are in a crisis and the age of oil is ending soon. I am actually not a resource “peakist”….I am a capacity “peakist”, because I believe the fundamental constraint on the industry’s ability to grow is the capacity, both human and equipment, to connect these resources to production.” – Ellis Armstrong, Group Vice President, Exploration & Production. 24 October 2006.

“The precise timing of what people call Peak Oil will really be governed by the actions that all parties, producers, consumers and the industry, choose to take over the coming years.” - Tony Hayward, Group Chief Executive. 11 June 2007.

“I believe, from what I know today, that peak oil supply is still a long way off. However, we may face a peak demand for oil first.” – Michael C. Daly, Group Vice President, Exploration & LTR. 10 September 2007.

Other oil companies

“We’ve embarked on the beginning of the Last Days of the Age of Oil. Nations of the world that are striving to modernize will make choices different from the ones we have made.” - Mike Bowlin, Chairman and CEO, ARCO. 9 February 1999.

"[The] history of cheap oil may have ended." - Rafael Ramirez, President, PDVSA. 24 May 2004.

“The era of oil is coming to an end. The world is thirsty for more energy and the demand for gas is growing steadily” - Helge Lund, President and CEO, Statoil. 24-26 April 2005.

"[T]he world has only consumed about 18 percent of its conventional and non-conventional producible potential [of 5.7 trillion barrels of oil], even leaving aside oil shale potential. That fact alone should discredit the argument that peak oil is imminent, and put our minds at ease concerning future petroleum supplies." - Abdallah S. Jum‘ah, President and CEO, Saudi Aramco. 12 September 2006.

"I believe we're already here (at the peak)…I think it’s fair to say the era of cheap energy is over" - James W. Buckee, President and CEO. Talisman Energy Inc. 9 May 2007.

“[T]he peak for conventional oil and gas sources may be on the horizon, but significant advancements have been made in technology and that alternative energy sources now are being pursued more aggressively.” - Gene Batchelder, Senior Vice President, Services and CIO, ConocoPhillips. 24 October 2007.

"There is a real problem -- that supply may not be possible to increase beyond a certain level, say around 100 million barrels….The reason is, in some countries production is going down and we are not discovering any more of those huge oil wells that we used to discover in the Sixties or the Fifties….So many people are talking about the peak oil theory…. It is not the figure itself but the principle that the world cannot continue being able to produce oil infinitely." - Shokri Ghanem, Chairman, Libyan National Oil Corporation. 30 October 2007.

“I have always been a big believer in the oil price going higher. I should have pursued acquisitions more aggressively than I did, because the supply situation is proving just as tight as I thought it would be….. we’re there or close to [peak]. Mexico, the North Sea and possibly Ghawar are all in decline. The truth is the world is producing 30 billion-plus barrels of oil a year and is finding less than 10 billion. This is the worry.” - James W. Buckee, former President and CEO. Talisman Energy Inc. 8 October 2007.

Concluding Remarks

We like it or not, oil is a finite natural resource. Its global production peak (either followed by a plateau or decline) will eventually come. The challenges facing the oil industry and the developments witnessed in the oil market since the beginning of this century indicate that peak oil is in sight. We are fast approaching to the end of easy oil era.

It is almost impossible to know exactly when the peak will occur, mainly because of pathetically poor quality of data, classifications and definitions on production, reserves and resources. Instead of wasting time on who did what and why, we should concentrate our efforts on contributing to better understanding of future realities. We should move from controversy to acceptable consensus, from confrontation to cooperation, and from secrecy to transparency.

The oil industry executives do not think it will be that easy to meet future world oil demand. The challenges facing the industry will be more difficult to overcome in reality than in theory. Maybe time has come to question also the reliability of future oil demand forecasts.

this article was originally published in the Global Energy for the Mediterranean in December 2007


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