For years now the elephant in the room for the petroleum industry has been the prospect of a level of global oil production not adequate to meet the requisite global demand largely due to a falling rate of oil production, difficulty finding and/or accessing new conventional fields and a continual increase in oil demand. Production maximization has been dubbed ‘peak oil’. With falling production rates and increasing demand it is believed that shortly after ‘peak oil’ is reached oil prices will skyrocket resulting in increased fuel and energy costs leading to a significant impediment for economic growth. The reality of the situation is that ‘peak oil’ is not just a theory that may or may not be realized, but something that is inevitable; therefore a solution will be required for the future regardless of when ‘peak oil’ is attained.
Before getting into specifics regarding ‘peak oil’, a background regarding it as a concept and its influence would prove useful. Although the concept of ‘peak oil’ seems simple enough, attaining a maximum of oil production be it in a specific country or globally, such a simplistic viewpoint can easily lead to misidentifying the actual situation. For the last 150 years oil production has steadily increased worldwide, largely due to emerging new technologies making exploration and extraction more economical and an unyielding demand for oil guaranteeing a viable market, which drives investment. Although demand for oil continues to increase the problem of supply has become more of a concern for producers. Recall that oil is not a short-term renewable resource in that the creation of new crude oil-based supplies would require millions of years, something that is clearly not tenable. Due to the limited supply and escalating demand, most commentators have proposed that oil production will peak at some point in the future, if not already. However, those prognostications have proven to be the first significant problem when preparing for ‘peak oil’ in that the predictions are all over the map.
M. King Hubbert, one of the first oil prognosticators and developer of the appropriately named Hubbert Curve detailing the lifecycle of oil reserves for a given well, believed in 1974 that peak oil would be met sometime in the mid to late 1990s.1 Others, like Sadad Al Husseini, a former head of production for Saudi Aramco (the world’s largest oil company), the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas and Energy Watch Group (EWG) all believe that ‘peak oil’ was reached during the last 3-5 years.2,3,4 In late 2008 the Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security (ITPOES) identified peak oil occuring at 2013.5 The International Energy Administration (IEA) believes that peak oil will occur sometime between 2020 and 20306 while others still, like Abdullah S. Jum’ah, President of Saudi Aramco, believe peak oil is still over a century away.7 Overall it is difficult to get a straight answer when talking to various oil executives because each one seems to have a different estimation for ‘peak oil’.
The first issue that should be addressed regarding the topic of ‘peak oil’ is that some use global demand as a factor when classifying a time point for ‘peak oil’, a strategy that does not appear to be reasonable because the nature of ‘peak oil’ itself should not have anything to do with demand, but instead only when oil production will reach a maxima. Tracking global demand is important because of its relation to oil prices, but based on current production information there will probably be a short grace period between when ‘peak oil’ is officially attained and a correlative response from oil prices based on supply alone (when factoring out other influencing factors like speculation).
The reason for such a wide range of predictions from prognosticators can be largely attributed to a variety of different assumptions that were used to calculate future production levels. One of the first important points of contention when calculating a ‘peak oil’ date is classification of available oil reserves. Typically oil reserves can be classified in one of three different categories based on a confidence level correlating to the accuracy of the estimated amount: Proven, Probable and Possible. Proven reserves have a confidence level of 90-95%; probable reserves have a confidence level of 40-60%; possible reserves have a confidence level of 5-10%. Some estimation only take into account proven reserves where others extrapolate that new technology or higher oil prices will raise the probability of extraction from probable and/or possible reserves.
The biggest problem stemming from this classification system is that a large majority of oil wells are not independently audited, which leaves estimations on the total and remaining reserves of a given field to the country or private company that is operating the well. This single-source non-objective information is subject to frequent speculation regarding whether or not a given country is over-estimating or under-estimating its reserves and whether or not that error in estimation is intentional.8,9 Claims of over-estimation are frequently made against OPEC countries (Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela) because within the OPEC operational and production structure, production rates are related to total available reserves. Basically the more oil a country in OPEC has, or claims to have as some critics point out, the more oil a country can produce and sell on the open market. Others claim that OPEC actually under-estimates available reserves in effort to convince the world that oil is a more valuable commodity which demands a higher market price.9
Under-estimation claims seem to have the potential for both a positive and negative motiviating factor on a psycological level. As stated earlier, if the global community believed that oil was more scarce than it actually was, then they would understand lower production rates and higher prices based on the simple premise of supply and demand. However, the belief in lower than actual oil supplies could also instill the drive to hasten the development and deployment of alternatives to oil to avoid economic calamity in the future when oil is no longer available. The development of these alternatives would result in much lower prices for oil and the omitted supply would then sell for a much lower value than if a genuine reserve number was reported. If such a result occurred it would likely lead to a high probability for an overall net loss for oil producers in an under-estimation scenario vs. a correct-estimation scenario. Interestingly enough, although this scenario seems to be probable theoretically, in practice most individuals do not seem to buy into it due to the snail pace at which oil alternatives are being developed. Therefore, there may be no psycoloical disadvantage to purposely under-estimating existing oil reserves.
With regards to over-estimating reserves, it is true that production potential on over-estimated reserves would be higher, however, if most of OPEC over-estimated their reserves with the intent to produce more, too much oil would flood the marketplace significantly lowering price causing OPEC, as it has done many times in the past, to cut production until oil price rebounds. Clearly all of the OPEC countries know that such a strategy would be implemented in the face of over-production; therefore, it does not appear that over-estimation would prove to be a useful tactic unless only a small number of OPEC countries did so. Under such a scenario it would be the OPEC countries with the smaller genuine reserves that would be more likely to over-estimate, but such an over-estimation would only create a small error relative to genuine global reserves, thus inconsequential to skewing global estimates. So from a logical perspective it does not appear that over-estimation makes much sense for OPEC countries, while under-estimation makes some sense, but realistically current estimates are probably fairly accurate based on current extraction and seismic measurement methodology. Of course the last statement assumes that OPEC countries will behave rationally, which is unclear.
Another element that will influence the time point of ‘peak oil’ is where capital investment in new oil exploration and extraction is directed. The IEA states that most investment capital is used for exploration and development of high-cost reserves because of access limitations on cheaper resources due to government policy.6 Most of these limitations come in the form of environmental concerns or nationalistic concerns in that the government wants a larger stake in the oil profits than any international bidder is willing to give.
One of the concerns with investment in future oil production may ironically be the projected pace of oil alternative research and deployment. The faster oil alternatives are injected into the marketplace, the lower the oil price would drop due to changing the demand curve despite dwindling supply. With a dropping oil price an increase in supply through investment in exploration and developing new wells will further decrease the price reducing the profitability prospects for those new wells making them less attractive for investment. However, at the moment large-scale deployment of alternatives does not appear to be a concern. Oil alternatives are largely vested in either food-derived bio-fuels or non-food-derived bio-fuels. Taking just the United States into account, the estimated production of food-derived bio-fuels for 2010 is 12.5 billion gallons a year or (4% of the EIA anticipated oil demand in 2010).10,11 Estimated production of non-food-derived bio-fuels for 2010 is 39 million gallons a year or 0.0127%.12 So next year bio-fuels could, under ideal circumstances, account for 4.0127% of the total oil consumption in the United States; clearly there is a lot of work left to do and that assumes that those estimates, which are on the high side, are met.
One of the best methods for removing investment barriers may be the formation of partnerships between national and international oil companies which would facilitate better profit sharing between the labor and capital investment made by the international company and the natural resources provided by the national company. Such partnerships may be necessary because the national companies that control most of the remaining oil do not have the capital, extraction technology or the personnel required to significantly increase production. In large respect national companies will have to learn that getting 45-50% of something is better than getting 100% of nothing.
A third concern with estimation is that source information from oil companies themselves do not have a uniform reserve categorization. For example British Petroleum (BP) includes crude oil, condensate and liquid natural gas in production databases whereas IEA uses all of those reserves as well as bio-fuels. Fortunately this concern only provides a problem when prognostication is not specific about what estimates are being used to determine production levels when predicting a time point for ‘peak oil’.
One of the biggest reasons most prognosticators believe ‘peak oil’ will occur in the next five years is the claim that peak production levels have been reached in non-OPEC countries, which provide 55-60% of all global oil.6 If over half of the global supply has peaked then gains in production made by those that can still make gains will be required to outpace the declines in production from the countries that have already peaked to ward off a global supply peak. If one believes that a Hubbert Curve is a reasonably accurate way to track the lifespan of an oil field, then it is unlikely that OPEC can make up for these loses without discovering a large untapped reservoir.
That said there are two issues that early ‘peak oil’ proponents are not considering. First, it is highly likely that non-OPEC production in 2008 was abnormally skewed downwards due to three separate events. The global economic recession sent oil prices in mid-2008 tumbling downwards, which made producing oil much less attractive thereby reducing production. Also production in the Gulf of Mexico was diminished due to higher than normal hurricane activity. Finally significant gas leaks slowed large amounts of oil production in Azerbaijan. Taking these factors into account it would be reasonable to anticipate oil production increases in late 2009 into 2010 at an overall level for non-OPEC countries. However, the rebound in production will be short-lived because the above factors have nothing to do with discovering new reserves to tap, they simply represent small reduction in production blips.
The second factor is the mystery box known as Iraq. In early 2001 geological surveys calculated the total reserve capacity of crude oil in Iraq at 115 billion barrels.13,14 However, due to the current government in operation during the time and limited available seismic technology (2-D instead of 3-D) there was reason to believe that this estimation is significantly lower than what is actually available. In addition recent events in Iraq, most notably a forced unilateral regime change driven conflict, have reduced production rate and capacity in the last seven years. New estimates have increased the potential crude oil by a little over 200% to 350 billion barrels.15 The reason for such a dramatic turnabout is that none of the previous surveys from 2001 and earlier focused any real attention on the vast deserts in Western Iraq where most of these new reserves are thought to be located.14,15
If this new estimate is correct and projecting future oil demand based on two scenarios, the EIA low price oil or high price oil scenario 11,16 then Iraq by itself could supply enough oil to feed global demand for an additional 10 years under low oil prices and 12 years under high oil prices delaying ‘peak oil’ beyond most of the existing projections. The biggest issue with tapping this reserve is the unfortunate reality that currently the Iraqi production capacity is pathetic. Huge levels of investment (billions of dollars a year) along with favorable investment rates for international oil companies and government cooperation between Shiite, Sunni and Kurds will be required if any reasonable amount of these new reserves will be relevant in the context of ‘peak oil’.
With the unpredictability of future new reserves, especially in Iraq, and the wide-ranging assumptions used by prognosticators it is difficult to identify a range for when production will reach an apex. However, even reaching an apex is not necessarily the end of the story, especially for the nature of future oil price, for there is another element that must be considered. Recall ‘peak oil’ focused on determining when oil production reached a maximum, but almost all estimates regarding that time point do not include unconventional sources of oil. Technically unconventional oil or liquids include oil shale, oil sands-based synthetic crudes, coal-to-liquids, gas-to-liquids, extra heavy oil and bitumen.17 Also bio-fuels can be classified as an unconventional liquid, but bio-fuels will be addressed separately.
Significant quantities of unconventional oil are available for extraction, but are not significantly tapped under the condition that it is not economical to do so. Basically it costs more to extract the product and convert it into usable oil then can be made on the market selling it. Although the numbers tend to fluctuate, a consistent dollar/barrel of oil price needs to range from 75-95 dollars for initial production with estimates after sufficient scale-up requiring 40-50 dollars per barrel for profitability although there is a significant question to the validity of the scale-up estimate because of uncertainty.18,19,20
The two principle large categories, with regard to supply, of unconventional oil are extra heavy oil and oil shale, thus the focus will be on these two unconventional oil resources. The reason extraction of extra heavy oil deposits is so difficult is they possess a density at or exceeding water, hence the name, which make them extremely difficult to be produced, transported and refined via conventional methods as conventional crude oil has a density lower than water. Also the concentrations of extra heavy oil are frequently contaminated with sulfur, nickel, vanadium and other metals. Removing these impurities from the production stream significantly increases costs.
Oil shale is organic-rich fine-grained sedimentary rock with large amounts of kerogen. Kerogen is defined as a solid mixture of organic chemical compounds that are insoluble in organic solvents.22 Due to its chemical components kerogen can be converted into oil through a thermal process like pyrolysis or hydrogenation.18,23 The minimum temperature for extraction of oil shale from kerogen is 250 C, but the process takes months, so frequently the thermal process uses temperatures of 480-520 C, which has been described as the maximum conversion rate.18
Extraction/processing of the kerogen normally occurs via above ground (ex-situ/displaced) through oil shale mining and then transfer of the kerogen to a processing plant where the appropriate thermal process is applied. However, new technologies have allowed for on-site underground processing (in-situ/in place), for example hydraulic fracturing, and then the extraction of resultant oil product through a standard well. Ex-situ processing is rather straightforward with regards to the economic costs and the environmental damage as it is similar to mining for coal with the addition of the thermal process at the end expelling additional CO2 into the atmosphere.
In situ processing typically involves heating the oil shale while it is still underground either through injection of a hot fluid or using a planar heating source and allowing thermal conduction and convection to divert the heat to the appropriate locations.24 Most in situ technologies are still in the experimental stages because of the off and on interest in unconventional sources (primarily based on the rise and fall of crude oil price over the last three decades). The chief advantage of in situ methods is that there is a higher probability for a greater capacity of unconventional extraction because the influx of the heating element is more cost-effective at reaching greater depths in unconventional oil deposits. Also in situ methods can extraction deposits of lower grade than ex situ methods.24
The biggest problem with extraction, regardless of technique, is the excessive levels of energy that are required and where that energy is going to come from. Trace to zero emission sources are not universally viable because they are site sensitive and/or intermittent. In the long term these options could become viable, but not at the present time. Natural gas, which is used in conventional oil extraction, is beginning to run short itself, at least conventional sources of natural gas. Similar to oil, unconventional sources of natural gas are available for processing, but it does not make sufficient economic sense to use these reserves. Extraction of expensive unconventional natural gas to power the extraction of expensive unconventional sources of oil typically would result in wasted money and unnecessary environmental damage. Therefore, extraction of these reserves may depend on construction of a nuclear plant near the point of extraction. Fortunately such a strategy is possible because a vast majority of the discovered unconventional oil in the world is concentrated over a small number of locations, so it would not require the construction of hundreds of nuclear plants.
Unfortunately concerns of economic viability are not the only caveat surrounding the extraction of oil shale. Currently the available extraction technology for these reserves is heavily detrimental to the environment. In addition to the generic damage generated by mining, ex situ extraction could result in additional acid drainage due to rapid oxidation of previously buried materials and excess metal contamination of water supplies.24 Ground water and soil contamination is the chief and a legitimate concern for in situ extraction.24 Also the fact that some in situ techniques are more effective when the ground water level at the site of extraction is lowered below the extraction site could increase the probability of surface damage due to flora requiring longer roots to access the water. Of course some argue that the extraction site will be significantly unfavorable for flora and fauna for a long time, thus water alteration is just beating a dead horse. Finally both extraction techniques involve the production of more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil extraction. Overall if one is willing to sacrifice the immediate environment around the extraction zone, in situ extraction is superior to ex situ in almost every way once the economics of scale drop a bit.
Despite all of these processing difficulties, the global estimated amount of oil shale in just the Athabasca Oil Sands (Alberta, Canada) and the Orinoco Extra Heavy Oil depsoit (Venezuela) only is approximately 1.638 trillion barrels of oil, which is 51.7 times the current yearly global oil consumption rate.11,16 Therefore, if all conventional oil production were to stop tomorrow, the supply from just these two regions, if tapped, would still be able to met the expected future demand of oil for over 37 years in the EIA high oil price scenario (highly likely if unconventional oil is being extracted) and 47 years in the EIA low oil price scenario. That additional time does not include the reserves in the Green River Formation in the Rocky Mountains, which are also sizable. In short it appears that a more appropriate designation for ‘peak oil’ should be representative of the point when more economically viable oil production (conventional oil) reaches a maximum.
The question of extraction also provides a catch-22 scenario in that if unconventional sources of oil are not tapped and alternatives are not available then not only will the price of oil be high, but more importantly there will be demand that is not met which will be severely detrimental to the global economy (people not able to go to work, fewer plastics and other hydrocarbon based products produced, lower food yields for farmers, etc.). However, if unconventional oil is tapped the price of oil will still be high (required to justify the higher capital costs of its extraction regardless of overall existing oil supply) and the environmental damage both from the extraction of oil and its eventual release into the atmosphere will be significant. Basically the options are global depression or accelerated global warming and lower quality environment. Overall it appears that if the status quo remains, society will have no real choice, but to tap into unconventional sources of oil to avoid a severe global depression due to the significant role that oil plays in the global economy. Also it is reasonable to suggest that any possible environmental damage from the extraction of these unconventional reserves could actually be less than the environmental damage brought on by a global depression due to unavailable capital to fund remediation, research and development and deployment efforts that would limit and/or reverse existing and future environmental damage. Of course that is only valid if that capital is directed toward environmental remediation programs.
Therefore, the future of oil use would be aided by one of two responses, a more economical and environmentally safe means of extracting unconventional oil sources or the introduction of an oil alternative that can be mass-produced. Unfortunately the first option appears unlikely, for oil producers have already devoted decades and millions of dollars in research to developing an economic means to extract oil shale and its ‘friends’ with little success. New methods have been produced, but nothing groundbreaking. With the prospects of developing unconventional oil extraction technologies that operate in an efficient and effective manner lacking, focus must be placed into developing alternatives that can scaled up quickly and cheaply and conservation methods that can be applied to limit oil use.
The chief conservation method involves the mass deployment of pure electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. If the electrical grid used to supply the power to these vehicles consists of a trace to zero emission source then their application would not only significantly reduce oil use, but it would also reduce global emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The two biggest problems with mass deployment of a primary electrical vehicle fleet are the ‘chicken and egg’ question and the ability of the grid to handle mass charging over short time periods.
The ‘chicken and egg’ question involves the counterbalance between the absolute number of electrical vehicles available for purchase vs. the development of the proper infrastructure to facilitate the smooth operation of an electrical vehicle fleet. For instance what occurs first, the construction of the infrastructure or the mass production of electrical vehicles? Suppose the infrastructure is constructed first, such a project would be massive, expensive and potentially worthless if a large number of electrical vehicles were not purchased to justify the construction of a national electrical recharging infrastructure. Therefore, planners may wait until a significant number of electrical vehicles are purchased before beginning construction on the national or even local infrastructure; however, the lack of a viable infrastructure reduces the mobility of an electrical vehicle fleet reducing its attractiveness to potential buyers increasing the probability that fewer electrical vehicles are sold. This lack of vehicles then tracks back to the reduced rate of return in the construction of an infrastructure to support electric vehicles, an infrastructure that is needed to support increased electrical vehicle sales. Overall the ‘chicken and egg’ question is rather silly because when discussing it most exclude the simple fact that combustion-based vehicles will inevitably become too expensive to operate at some point in the future due to the eventual lack of existing oil. Construction of an electrical vehicle support infrastructure really has limited risk because of this eventual expense reality for combustion-based vehicles. So the real question is determining at what point in time after constructing the infrastructure it will become profitable.
The second problem is more significant because ideally the more electric vehicles are manufactured and purchased the better due to increased oil supply savings. However, because humans are generally diurnal most of the electrical vehicles will be charged during the night, millions of electrical vehicles demanding power from a portion of the electrical grid all at once, a demand that those who originally designed the grid would never have anticipated. This new stressor creates the very real problem that the grid could be unable to support all processes that demand electricity creating rolling blackouts. Therefore, to support a new electrical grid for an electrical car fleet, significant changes will have to be made to the existing grid. Fortunately the requisite changes coincide with other grid changes that need to be made to reduce electricity inefficiency and better accommodate the application of renewable energy to the grid, so the importance of making these changes is magnified increasing the probability of its occurrence.
Substitution of petroleum in favor of biological-based oils (bio-fuels) is also a favored option for both saving oil and eventually supplanting oil. Unfortunately there are two significant problems plaguing bio-fuels. First, bio-fuels are most easily produced through food-based feedstock due to the lax energy requirements to ferment the sugars from starch into ethanol; however, the production of a large enough quantity of bio-fuel seems implausible because the shear amount of feedstock that would be required to generate production rates of even 10-20 million barrels a day (420 to 840 million gallons or 20-25% of the global demand) would heavily tax available food supplies and mass starvation in even developed countries would be highly probable.
Without the ability to tap into food stocks to provide the feedstock, any future supplies of bio-fuel need to originate from non-food sources. The two most viable candidates to synthesize this type of bio-fuel are cellulous and algae. Synthesis from cellulous sources is problematic due to the excessive energy costs associated with breaking the chemical bonds that make up cellulous. However, if the correct enzyme is discovered then this energy obstacle would insignificant. Synthesis from algae sources is thought to be easier than cellulous, but has its own overhead costs because production rate is entirely dependent on the total mass of algae within the perspective environment, thus enough bioreactors (i.e. space) needs to be set aside for algae growth. Also if any detrimental condition afflicts the algae, production losses could cascade rather quickly taking a large chunk out of the alternative oil supply.
The second problem for bio-fuels is that ethanol cannot simply be dumped into the standard combustion-based engine, but instead it either has to be combined with a significant amount of gasoline, usually in a 20-80 mixture (ethanol-gasoline) or the engine needs to be retrofitted to operate properly with the ethanol. So, unless a new synthesis methodology is developed or an expanded retrofit infrastructure is established, the ability of bio-fuels to influence oil use in transportation sector appears to be limited.
Reduced oil consumption can be achieved without the administration of new technologies such as electric or bio-fuel based vehicles. New investment in the development of mass transit options like buses and light rail could reduce both the capital required for the deployment of these new technologies as well as reduce oil use both in the short-term and the long-term. Unfortunately there does not appear to be a sufficient drive for reinvestment in older mass transit technologies reducing the probability that such a strategy will play a meaningful role in the reduction of oil consumption.
Although pinpointing the exact time point of ‘peak oil’ and the resultant spike in oil prices due to lack of supply, rather than due to short-term temporal factors, seems to be important it really isn’t. Regardless of whether or not non-conventional sources are tapped, it is highly probable that oil itself will become less and less economically attractive as time passes demanding the rapid production and deployment of oil alternatives to avoid economic slowdown in the global economy. There appear to be two elements that must happen to avoid significant economic slowdown in the future due to lack of oil, confirmation and appropriate heavy investment in Iraqi oil development and devotion of significant capital and effort to aiding the development of alternative oil-based resources.
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