07 March 2006

Oil: Caveat empty

“From the standpoint of the oil industry obviously - and I'll talk a little later on about gas - for over a hundred years we as an industry have had to deal with the pesky problem that once you find oil and pump it out of the ground you've got to turn around and find more or go out of business. Producing oil is obviously a self-depleting activity. Every year you've got to find and develop reserves equal to your output just to stand still, just to stay even. This is as true for companies as well in the broader economic sense it is for the world. A new merged company like Exxon-Mobil will have to secure over a billion and a half barrels of new oil equivalent reserves every year just to replace existing production. It's like making one hundred per cent interest; discovering another major field of some five hundred million barrels equivalent every four months or
finding two Hibernias a year. For the world as a whole, oil companies are expected to keep finding and developing enough oil to offset our seventy one million plus barrel a day of oil depletion, but also to meet new demand. By some estimates there will be an average of two per cent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead along with conservatively a three per cent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day. So where is the oil going to come from? Governments and the national oil companies are obviously in control of about ninety per cent of the assets. Oil remains fundamentally a government business. While many regions of the world offer greet oil opportunities, the Middle East with two thirds of the world's oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies, even though companies are anxious for greeter access there, progress continues to be slow. ”

-Dick Cheney,Chairman Halliburton
speech at the London Institute of Petroleum Autumn lunch in 1999

"The speech by Dick Cheney is also very interesting from other aspects. First we can read his own opinion about himself: “I'm often asked why I left politics and went to Halliburton and I explain that I reached the point where I was mean-spirited, short- tempered and intolerant of those who disagreed with me and they said' Hell, you'd make
a great CEO'.”

Oil: Caveat empty
By Alfred J. Cavallo
May/June 2005 pp. 16-18 (vol. 61, no. 03) © 2005 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist
ithout any press conferences, grand announcements, or hyperbolic advertising campaigns, the Exxon Mobil Corporation, one of the world's largest publicly owned petroleum companies, has quietly joined the ranks of those who are predicting an impending plateau in non-OPEC oil production. Their report, The Outlook for Energy: A 2030 View, forecasts a peak in just five years.

In the past, many who expressed such concerns were dismissed as eager catastrophists, peddling the latest Malthusian prophecy of the impending collapse of fossil-fueled civilization. Their reliance on private oil-reserve data that is unverifiable by other analysts, and their use of models that ignore political and economic factors, have led to frequent erroneous pronouncements. They were countered by the extreme optimists, who believed that we would never need to think about such problems and that the markets would take care of everything. Up to now, those who worried about limited petroleum supplies have been at best ignored, and at worst openly ridiculed.

Meanwhile, average consumers have taken their cue from the market, where rising prices have always been followed by falling prices, leading to the assumption that this pattern will continue forever. In truth, the market price of crude oil is completely decoupled from and independent of production costs, which average about $6 per barrel for non-OPEC producers and $1.50 per barrel for OPEC producers. This situation has nothing to do with a free market, and everything to do with what OPEC believes will be accepted or tolerated by the United States. The completely affordable market price--what consumers pay at the gasoline pump--provides magisterial profits to the owners of the resource and gives no warning of impending shortages.

All the more reason that the public should heed the silent alarm sounded by the ExxonMobil report, which is more credible than other predictions for several reasons. First and foremost is that the source is ExxonMobil. No oil company, much less one with so much managerial, scientific, and engineering talent, has ever discussed peak oil production before. Given the profound implications of this forecast, it must have been published only after a thorough review.

Second, the majority of non-OPEC producers such as the United States, Britain, Norway, and Mexico, who satisfy 60 percent of world oil demand, are already in a production plateau or decline. (All of ExxonMobil's crude oil production comes from non-OPEC fields.) Third, the production peak cited by the report is quite close at hand. If it were twenty-five years instead of five years in the future, one might be more skeptical, since new technologies or new discoveries could change the outlook during that longer period. But five years is too short a time frame for any new developments to have an impact on this result.

Also noteworthy is the manner in which the Outlook addresses so-called frontier resources, such as extra-heavy oil, "oil sands," and "oil shale." The report cites the existence of more than 4 trillion barrels of extra heavy oil and "oil sands"--producing potentially 800 billion barrels of oil, assuming a 20-25 percent extraction efficiency. The Outlook also cites an estimate of 3 trillion barrels of "oil shale." These numbers have figured prominently in advertisements that ExxonMobil and other petroleum companies have placed in newspapers and magazines, clearly in an attempt to reassure consumers (and perhaps stockholders) that there is no need to worry about resource constraints for many decades....
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