My post of Aug 11, 2016 entitled “the End of the Oil Age” laid out the probability that Oil Depletion is far more advanced than is generally assumed and that assumptions about how long the world’s oil supply will last may be severely erroneous. The Trump/Clinton election debacle included reams of what is now called “Fake News” put out by spurious sources in the media and the internet which was unverified, unresearched and untrue. It is my contention after reviewing data for many years on the world energy picture that there is fake news there as well. I have come to the conclusion that much of the information and opinions disseminated by economists, energy organizations, financial organizations and the mainstream media regarding the future of petroleum are at best misleading and incomplete and at worst completely wrong. It is not my intent to cast stones singling out particular people or organizations. My purpose is to point out what I perceive to be flawed assumptions, incomplete data and wishful thinking and to try to get at reliable methodologies in an attempt to determine how close we are to the End of the Oil Age.
I will state right at the first that trying to get reliable, verifiable information on something as important as oil energy is exceedingly difficult and time consuming. The questions that have been asked are how much oil do we have in the world? Who has it? How much can we use and for how long and how much will it cost us now and in the future? These sound like straight forward enough questions but unfortunately the answers are rarely straightforward. I recall a quotation which goes something like : ”If they can stop you from asking the right questions, you’ll never come up with the right answers.”
Let’s start with the first question. How much oil is there in the world? Even that is the wrong question. What is oil? Well oil is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons with varying composition, purity, density and utility distributed within the world’s 48,000 oil fields. The oil of greatest value is a specific variety of crude oil with a specific density described by the American Petroleum Institute as a density between 30 and 45 degrees . Light sweet crude oil is one of the names given to this valuable fraction. This variety of crude has the greatest deliverable energy, is easily refined and yields the most net energy after processing. It is unfortunately only about 40% of the world’s supply. It is the fraction that powers the transportation industry yielding the highest quantity of refined gasoline and diesel. There are lighter and heavier varieties of crude oil which can be refined into transport fuels but they need additional steps like dilution or combination, vacuum distillation or removal of undesirable contaminants like sulfur or heavy metals, and water, steps that add to the processing costs.. So there is oil and then, THERE IS OIL. I am talking about this premium variety of crude oil, 30-45 API, which has been called “conventional oil.” There are several varieties of “unconventional “oil, some of which are called oil but which are not, such as Oil Sands which contain bitumen, a tarry substance. There is ”“tight” oil which requires fracking to release a very light oil trapped in rock of minimal porosity. Then there are synthetic biofuels derived from crops which can get grouped with oil supplies and production. Unless I state otherwise, my discussions are conventional oil and any associated lease condensate associated with crude API 30-45. I have and will probably use the term “Peak Oil” when describing API 30-45 crude. Peak Oil has become a pejorative term by some segments of the media who deny that the world is “running out of oil.” The very idea that the world could be running out of oil is anathema to them and the very mention of it is bad for business. The fact is the world has already hit a peak of conventional crude oil and we hit it about 2006 at around 72 million barrels per day(mbpd). Today when you read about oil production you will see far higher figures but they now include the unconventional oils, NGL’s(natural gas liquids), biofuels and the most absurd and misleading category “refinery gains”, a deliberately deceptive category which relates to the fact that after refining a 42 gallon barrel, you will get more than 42 gallons of gasoline and diesel. The energy content of course is unchanged, just the volume is different.
But now back to the first question: How much oil is in the world? If you do a Google search you will find a huge disparity of estimates. The highest I have seen is 4300 BILLION barrels in oil Resources. The terms resources and reserves are bandied around to serve the biases of the particular pundits or organizations. You include in world resources all types of hydrocarbons in all locations in all types of rocks at all depths…..Everywhere. With unlimited energy and if cost were no object, there is probably 4300 billion barrels. But cost is an object and the category of RESERVES is a much smaller figure because it includes all the oil that is known and can be economically extracted. The BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016 states that world reserves in 2015 were 1697.6 Billion barrels. BP also states that to date we have used 1290 billion barrels. As new oil is discovered those reserves are added to the figure but new discoveries have dwindled for decades. Last year discoveries were less than 3 billion barrels and the chance of finding a really big field like the supergiant fields of the Middle East are probably remote. One important fact that is rarely mentioned in the media is that discoveries of new oil have been below world oil consumption since the 1960’s. For example last year the world used about 33 Billion barrels and discovered less than 3 billion, a pattern which has persisted for decades. Are we then running out of oil? Of course we will eventually run out of oil that is cheap and accessible. We live on a finite planet and there are finite quantities of oil and other resources. Right now the world has a glut of oil but in the not too distant future there won’t be a glut of cheap oil. In fact the world will never run out of oil but at some point the cost of extraction will exceed the value. When the amount of energy invested to extract and process the oil exceeds the amount of energy in the oil, the party will be over. It will be over unless we can use other energy sources to extract the oil. In future posts I will try to attempt to answer the other questions I posed about oil at the outset. I will also try to explain how the newer methodologies around oil production and depletion offer a potentially more reliable answer to these questions. I will attempt to amplify and explain the work of the Hills Group which I have alluded to previously.