The Truth about Oil
By Vasko Kohlmayer
A recent survey on the environment found that seventy percent of people worldwide think that the planet is running out oil. Only less than one quarter believe that there is enough of it to keep it as a primary source of energy. Petro pessimism runs especially high in the United States where a full two thirds think that the point of depletion is within sight.
Here are some hard facts.
According the Energy Information Administration as of January 2007 there was more than 1.3 trillion barrels of proved crude oil on earth. Even if this were all the oil on the planet there would be no immediate danger of shortages, because at the current rate of consumption – roughly 85 million barrels a day – this supply would last for more than 40 years.
But the 1.3 trillion in these so-called proved reserves refers only to a tiny fraction of earth’s oil, designating only that portion which can be extracted under current ‘economic and operating conditions.’ As it happens, this figure grows with each decade and usually dramatically so.
In 1882, for instance, there were 95 million barrels of proved petroleum reserves. This number jumped to 4.5 billion in 1926 and then to 10 billion in 1932. In 1944 the quantity stood at 20 billion. In 1950 it leaped to 100 billion and in 1980 it was 648 billion. In 1993 the world’s proved reserves grew to 999 billion, and today they stand at 1.3 trillion barrels.
These figures show that our ever-increasing consumption has not over the years reduced the pool of available oil. In fact, the exact opposite is the case – each successive year we have more of it than ever before. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, mankind’s oil supplies are not getting depleted, but they keep continually expanding.
There are several reasons for this. New exploration and advancements in surveying techniques in particular result in fresh finds almost every year.
We have seen a dramatic instance of this at the end of last year when a massive reservoir was discovered in the Tupi sector off the coast of Brazil. Estimated to hold some 8 billion barrels of recoverable crude it was the second largest find in the last 20 years. Two months later an even greater deposit was located nearby which may hold as much as 30 billion barrels. If confirmed, the field would be the third biggest on the planet, behind only the Ghawar in Saudi Arabia and the Burgan in Kuwait. Many scientists are now convinced that intense exploration fuelled by high prices will yield comparable discoveries in other places of the globe.
Adding appreciably to the proved reserves is the continual perfecting of drilling techniques. This makes it possible to tap deposits which because of their depth or geological environment were off limits only a few years ago. Today’s equipment can perform mind-boggling feats of horizontal drilling and there are oil rigs capable of reaching 35,000 feet under the surface, about double of what the previous generation could do.
Rising prices also make available oil which was previously considered unrecoverable commercially, because for whatever reason the extraction cost per barrel exceeded the price it could fetch on the market. With every jump in price, however, more and more of such oil is brought up as its production becomes profitable.
Finally, improvements in extraction processes make it possible to more fully utilize currently harvested reservoirs. Due to technical and economic limitations, normally only a portion of an oilfield can be recovered (it is this part that is referred to as the ‘proved’ reserve). A few decades ago the average oil recovery rate from reservoirs was 20%, but thanks to technological progress this rate is nearing 40% today.
It is the combination of these factors that accounts for the fact that more and more is added every year to mankind’s stock of crude oil. This in turn results in a seemingly paradoxical outcome. Even as our consumption increases with each passing year, the projected depletion point keeps moving further out into the future.
In 1986, for instance, it was estimated that the world’s proved reserves would last 38 years. On that estimate we should only have 17 years worth of oil left. But because the figure in the ‘proved reserves’ column keeps getting larger, we now have more than 40 years.
This dynamic has been in place ever since gasoline began to be mass consumed. Due to the continuing exploration and technological advancement, we can be virtually assured that two or three decades from now we will be talking about another 40 or 50 or more years worth of crude. Cambridge Energy Research Associates, one of the world’s premier energy advisors, predicts that earth’s proved reserves could increase by as much as 25% by 2015.
But there is more to the story. So far we have only been considering crude oil, but crude is not the sole source of this strategic commodity. There are far greater amounts of it locked in other materials such as shale, coal and tar sands.
Proven technologies exist to obtain oil from these resources but they have not yet been widely exploited, because until quite recently the extraction costs – ranging from $40 to $90 per barrel – exceeded the market price. The currently high and rising prices, however, are quickly turning these methods into potentially profitable ventures.
With many companies positioning themselves to take advantage of the opportunity, we are witnessing the birth of a giant industry and one that might eventually eclipse that in crude oil. This is because the estimated global deposits of recoverable shale oil alone exceed three trillion barrels. This is more than twice the world’s current crude oil reserves.
America is especially well endowed on this front as it has nearly 75% of the planet’s known oil shale deposits. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that the Green River Formation of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming alone ‘holds the equivalent of 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil.’ This is three times the proved oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. At current consumption levels, that quantity would satisfy America’s needs for 110 years.
Like shale, coal is another enormous repository of oil. Technology to liquidify it has been around since the 1920s. Germany was the first country to utilize it on a mass scale when during World War II it sought to compensate for a lack of crude. Today this technology is successfully exploited by South Africa whose three liqudification plants produce150,000 barrels a day, the equivalent of the output from a medium-sized oilfield.
The United States – with roughly 27 per cent of the world’s recoverable coal – is especially well positioned to benefit from this resource. A couple of years ago, the New York Times pointed out that ‘the coal in the ground in Illinois alone has more energy than all the oil in Saudi Arabia.’ It is estimated that at a standard conversion rate of two barrels of synthetic fuels from one ton of coal, America’s reserves are equivalent to 20 times the nation’s proved crude. In other words, liquefied coal could satiate America’s petrol thirst for two hundred years.
But even coal’s potential is exceeded by that of tar sands which may hold as much as two thirds of the planet’s petroleum. Tar sands occur in many parts of the world with large deposits in Canada, Venezuela, the United States, Russia and various countries of the Middle East. Canada alone is estimated to have some 1.7 trillion barrels of which about 10% is recoverable at today’s prices and with existing technology. The country’s tar sands alone make Canada second only to Saudi Arabia as an oil resource country.
Tar sands account for one million barrels (about 40%) of Canada's oil production with the number growing each year. America’s largest oil supplier, Canada provides about 20% of our imports of which a substantial portion comes from this untraditional source. So vast is its potential that a CBS broadcast stated ‘the reserves [of tar sands] are so vast in the province of Alberta that they will help solve America's energy needs for the next century.’
With estimated 30 billion barrels of recoverable petroleum from tar sands, America’s own supplies are not negligible either. A concentrated effort to launch wide scale commercial mining was launched in the late 70s, but the subsequent drop in oil prices led to the project’s abandonment. The $100 plus per barrel rate, however, is likely to change this situation in not-too-distant future.
All this should make one thing amply clear – there is enough oil to go around for a very long time. Even on conservative assumptions – accelerating consumption and few new discoveries – earth’s oil supplies should last for at least a century.
This, however, is the worst case scenario. We can be reasonably certain that new exploration and advancing technologies will in coming years greatly add to the quantities of available oil. So much so that Morris Adelman, Professor Emeritus in Economics at Harvard, has argued that the ‘amount of oil available to the market over the next 25 to 50 years is for all intents and purposes infinite.’
The notion that this planet is running out of oil is one of the great misnomers of our age. There is more oil available today than there was a hundred, fifty or ten years ago. And there is every indication that this trend will continue into the future. Instead of lamenting that we are running out of it, it would be far more accurate to say that we are constantly bumping into new oil. This is why two years ago the Economist headlined an article on the topic The Bottomless Beer Mug.
The general public, however, is largely ignorant of these facts. The divergence between the conventional wisdom and reality could hardly be any wider. Profoundly misinformed and alarmed, people place false hopes in misguided alternatives. Rather than implementing harmful, inefficient and expensive substitutes, we should insist that our government lift the obstacles which prevent us from availing ourselves of this superabundant resource.