Sunday, November 3, 2013

Tech Talk - of Alaska, Libya and the belated bleat of awareness of a problem

I have written in earlier posts about the problems that the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System (TAPS) will face, as production declines below 500,000 bd. The conclusions from that post are pictorially summarized in a graph in the recent edition of the Oil and Gas Journal.

Figure 1. Declining throughput through TAPS showing the points of concern (OGJ)

Looking at current figures, in September the pipeline had an average throughput of 524,181 bpd against the year-to-date average of 528,092 bpd. It has just passed below the upper limit at which operational difficulties can be anticipated, due in part to the flow being too slow to keep the temperature high enough to prevent wax from separating from the fluid, and starting to block valves and critical infrastructure. Because of the long lead times, and high capital requirements for the development of new fields in the Arctic, and the likely probability that these will not yield significant production until at least 2025, the article is pessimistic about both the fate of the pipeline, and future Alaskan production.

Despite those declines OPEC remains optimistic, in their October Monthly Oil Market Report that the world producers can continue to meet global demand as they foresee it rising to an average of 89.7 mbd this year, and then going up to 90.8 mbd on average next year. They foresee, for example, that non-OPEC supply will increase this year by 1.1 mbd (to 54.1 mbd) led by production gains from the USA, Brazil, Kazakhstan, South Sudan and Sudan. Next year they see an additional non-OPEC growth of 1.2 mbd with Canada replacing Kazakhstan among the five countries that will make up this additional production. In contrast OPEC itself is reducing production, with overall production reported to be down 390 kbd in September.

The gain in crude oil production seen in the US, which has risen from 5 mbd to an average of 7.3 mbd in the first seven months of this year has had a significant impact on these projections, though the change in the mix of product now available to the Gulf refineries will continue to have some impact on the overall import picture. This is because, as the EIA note, some of the heavier crude refineries along the Gulf are tied to foreign producers including Pemex of Mexico, PDVSA of Venezuela, and Saudi Refining (for a combined total of just under 2 mbd).

Yet it remains difficult to sustain the optimism that OPEC project. Libyan exports, at one time running up around 1.25 mbd remain down at some 90 kbd, due to tribal disruptions and internal political disputes that show little sign of resolution.

Figure 2. Recent Libyan oil production (Energy Policy Info)

Certainly the physical ability to return to around pre-disruption levels has been demonstrated, but the weakness of the central government does not indicate that the political problems will be resolved in the near future. And until they are there is the best part of 1 mbd being with-held from the market. This drain from global supply is not yet disruptive since it has, to date, been largely picked up by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

The picture from the combination of Sudan and South Sudan following the division of the one country into two has not been promising, however it appears that the overall total decline has now been halted, and recent reports have raised production to somewhere between 190 kbd and 240 kbd.

Figure 3. Change in oil production from Sudan and South Sudan following the division of one country into two. (Council on Foreign Relations )

The IEA is not optimistic that the return to production will be as smooth as others think:
“Industry sources have been quoted as saying that restarting oil production could take six months or even longer, since the lines have been filled with water and because some wells were not closed properly.”
The OPEC projection that overall Sudanese production has returned to the 240 kbd level may, therefore, be still an optimistic estimate. The increase to 175 kbd following the repair to the pipelines from the Majnoon field in Iraq is encouraging (although the high level of violence that continues in that country does not give high confidence that the pipeline might not be struck again.)

The increased production from the Kashagan field in Kazakhstan – anticipated to rise to 75 kbd - has again been hit following system leaks so that this increased production that OPEC had anticipated has, again, been postponed.

And while production has now started from the Espirito Santo in the pre-salt fields off Brazil, it is not clear whether the production gains will offset the declines that have occurred in Brazilian production in recent months.

Figure 4. The Espirito Santo floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel (Shell )

Just as there is a perception that the United States is heading toward independence in energy needs (a fallacy I have written about several times in the past), so there is a perception that OPEC is becoming a less critical supplier. This is far from the case. KSA has been producing over 10 mbd for the last months, in order to offset the loss in Libyan oil to the market, and the combined production of KSA, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar now supplies 18% of global demand. This is only the second time that this number has been that high in the past 30 years. It comes at a time when the Middle East is supplying 25% of Chinese oil demand, as that country passes the United States to become the largest importer of oil.

Figure 5. OPEC oil production (numbers compiled from secondary sources (OPEC MOMR October )

This comes at a time when the world still wonders about the actual oil balance as it flows in and out of China.

Unfortunately the picture that is emerging continues to show that OPEC is tending to be overly optimistic in its forecasts for production, which does not bode well for future supplies of fossil fuel.

Given that a group of environmental scientists have just released a letter calling for increased investment in nuclear power since, to quote James Hansen:
Hansen, who’s now at Columbia University, said it’s not enough for environmentalists to simply oppose fossil fuels and promote renewable energy.

“They’re cheating themselves if they keep believing this fiction that all we need” is renewable energy such as wind and solar, Hansen told the AP.
This comes a bit late, since as I noted recently, it takes over a decade to build a new nuclear power plant, and with the current schedule for existing plant closures moving inexorably along their timetable, this may presage a decade of power shortages. We shall see!! But in the meanwhile we had better hope that those folk concerned over the possible shut down of the Trans Alaskan Pipeline because of inadequate flow are being just a tad pessimistic.