Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"The Myth of the Oil Crisis" - A Review (Part 1)

The Actress and I are at home today, sitting out a Winter Storm over the Mid West. It is very slick outside as a thin misty icefall glazes the roads and pathways. A good time, therefore to turn up the music (Portuguese folk) and to sit down with Robin Mills “The Myth of the Oil Crisis.” For those of you not familiar with the title, it is written by an “oil industry professional”, Robin is currently the Petroleum Economics Manager for the Emirates National Oil Company in Dubai. He begins by dividing the world of those of who debate Peak Oil into Geologists, Economists, Militarists, Environmentalists and Neo-Luddites. Ah, me! Where to classify myself? I probably had bits of the first four stuck to various parts of me, so let’s press on.

Well the mission of the book is obviously to dispel the concerns that many of us have over future supplies of oil. To counter these concerns, the first step is to have the audience recognize that there is lots of oil still out there. That divides itself into two parts. The first is to look at reserves, both that are known, and that are yet to find. He makes the case that you only really look for new oil when you start running out of existing reserves, and thus, as long as there was a significant surplus of oil in known reserves relative to production, then it would not have been prudent to spend too much money looking for further amounts.

The world having gone through that phase, and now needing to have the larger reserves to meet the increased production rates of recent years, he does acknowledge that there is a downside to that philosophy. We no longer have the trained engineers, drilling rigs or investors to achieve the levels of exploration that are needed to sustain the reserve base that we need for the higher levels of production that the world has been demanding. (Though he sees some of the lack of talent being made up from the producing countries, rather than Europe and America where he feels – contrary to my experience – that petroleum engineers have a bad reputation.) Thus all we need to ensure that the amount of oil that we need is available is to put the necessary amount of folk to work drilling and exploring, on the right number of rigs and with the proper investment, and all will be well for future security. Unfortunately in the current climate it is unlikely that we will see any of those three conditions met, so let’s demur on that and move on.

The second point that he makes is that those who advocate peak oil do not properly consider reserve additions from existing fields as, once they start to be exploited, the range of the reservoir becomes extended through subsequent evaluation and production. There are several ways that this increase in yield can come about (he lists a dozen) one of the more productive being an increase in the recovery factor. When first developed he points out that the assumed amount of oil that could be recovered from the fields in the North Sea lay between 20% and 40% of the oil. As technologies, such as horizontal wells, 3-D seismic and dynamic 3-D reservoir modeling and knowledge of the fields has grown this has increased, for fields in the North Sea to up to 65%. (He appears to discount that the awareness of these gains influences current estimates of recovery from new fields as they are found).

His list of future technologies that will continue these advances includes: biotechnology; seismic monitoring; ultra-slim-hole drilling; remediation for contaminated oil and gas; carbon dioxide separation; nanotechnology; distributed computation and automation. (I work on one of these and his projection for its future is optimistic). Certainly when he talks of EOR technology he displays a level of optimism that only works theoretically. Carbon dioxide injection to enhance overall oil yield is a recognized technique and will likely be implemented on a broader scale with time. But studies have already revealed the high costs of capturing and compressing the gas, and then transporting it, prior to injection. For maximum effect the geological conditions are somewhat limited (due to the pressure and temperatures ranges required for most effective interaction) and the impact is most likely to occur after the carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) legislation is implemented and the additional cost benefits of that offset some of the high process costs that are not mentioned here.

There is a line, however, in the middle of the book, that I suspect, epitomizes the author's view of the oil industry.
a field that has been producing for seventy years with a conservative depletion policy and reasonable reservoir management can continue for decades more without decline; these are not warhorses that get old and die.
Because, unfortunately, he is wrong. Any field contains a finite amount of oil. Particularly when, as he espouses, you go in - maximize production and then get out, it also has a finite life. Not recognizing that the accumulated data over the finite life of fields that are now in decline or closing tells us that current levels of production are not sustainable, means that he is ignoring – by concentrating on how much oil could conceivably be extracted from the ground – how fast we can produce it, and in how timely a manner. Just listing fields that will come on stream in the future, without recognizing the level of current declines in production from existing wells and fields, means that the book does not understand the relevance of timing in sustaining deliverable levels of oil. Without that understanding, the arguments posed weaken sadly towards irrelevance.

Well I am now half-way through the book – the snow is now falling heavily, perhaps I will have time to finish the text tomorrow – stay tuned!

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