Sunday, August 31, 2014

Global oil supply and Bárðarbunga

Some time ago magma started rising in the rocks near the Bárðarbunga volcano in Iceland, and after weeks of increasingly intensified earthquake activity, the first signs of eruption were found to have occurred under thick ice within the last week. These were not that visible to the general public. That eruption was followed by a second, where there were some streamers of magma across the surface, without causing any significant airborne dust to interfere with aircraft.

The delays in dramatic eruption footage, and the early decay in immediate activity has led a number of folk to anticipate that the risk has declined and for some the risks from the eruption are over, with one scientist commenting::
"If this eruption persists it could become a tourist attraction, as it will be relatively safe to approach, although the area is remote,"

Figure 1. The eruption at Bárðarbunga (from the first webcam) at 5:40 pm Aug 31.

Figure 2. The eruption at Bárðarbunga (from the second webcam) at 9:00 pm Aug 31.

The eruption is continuing and will likely continue, and potentially significantly worsen, over the next several months. Yet, in the world of instant highlights, headlines and Twitter the risks from the long-term eruption (which can be horrendously severe) are immediately glossed over as the eruption fails the “dramatic event” test.

This is uncomfortably similar to the situation that one sees when writing about “Peak Oil”. One can, on any individual day, find comforting headlines that tend to gloss over the longer-term problem that is being written, in increasingly large letters on the predictive wall of our future. But that does not hide the potential disaster that it presages, it merely conceals it from the general public.

The headlines are those that are short-term, and deal with the drivers for the daily fluctuations in oil price, rarely do they back off to look at the overall threat that the situation may presage. Similarly the eruption in Iceland looks relatively tranquil at the moment, but may be of a similar nature to that of 1783, which created, over a period of months, an absolute disaster in Europe, and may have been one of the contributing causes to the French Revolution. The problem with the oil crisis is that there is no similar history to look back on. (Not that this would matter to those “editors of the moment” who control the daily press).

If one were to step back from concerns over daily price fluctuations for oil and gasoline, and consider the import of the trend in international politics one could very easily be aghast at the situation. Not that one might tell this from the headlines.

Consider that, of the three international leaders in oil production, one – Russia – is currently set on a course that may well lead the rest of us into World War 3. As a consequence is likely to be unable to attract the financing that will allow it to even approach the current levels of oil production that it need to retain current production levels in the years to come.

The second of the three is Saudi Arabia. Glossing over any problems that the Kingdom may run into in the next couple of years with the terrorism that is sweeping though its neighbors, it is a country that has realized that today’s cornucopia is about over, and it must seriously invest in exploration and development. The KSA recognizes that if it is to have a chance at being able to even meet the bills for domestic consumption, let alone export income, as the years move onward, it must find new oil. Again it would seem that global commentators fail to realize that, while KSA is recognizing the problem, any finds of “elephantine fields” would require huge investments of money and time, given that they are now likely to be off-shore and sour (as with Safaniya and Manifa, even if such fields exist, which is very doubtful).

The Kingdom has repeatedly stated that it will not increase its production over current levels, despite the assumption of many commentators that they will have to, if global balance is to be retained between supply and demand. Put bluntly, their analysts have realized that, without new reserves that are currently still to be found, they will be unlikely to be able to meet even current targets without major new field finds. Yes, they have fields that are found and available, but in relative terms they are tiny when set against the current levels of production. (Bearing in mind that a 5% reduction in production per year from existing fields, a level now increasingly found to be overly optimistic, would still cut existing production by 450 kbd).

And so, gentle readers, as we have so often in the past, we return to prognostications of future American production. This should, realistically, be focused on the production from the USA, since that in Canada is tied to production from the oil sands and that is only likely to change at a slow (one might suggest geological, but that would be a little harsh) time frame.

And in the United States hope continues to focus on an assumed linear increase in production, month on month, from the Bakken and Eagle Ford Shales. That this is denied by even the local authorities (who also note that the Bakken is named after a local farming family). Their current estimate (assuming more than 200 drilling rigs, and there are currently only 192 is that the fields will peak in 2017, and will start to decline in around 2026. The problem with that estimate relates both to the number of rigs employed (which have to be higher) and the quality of the remaining reserve (which is highly unlikely to be of equivalent value to that which is now, or has been, developed in the past.

I would venture into the second tier producers, but they include those that lie in the MENA (such as Iraq and Libya) and are in even worse condition than KSA, and yet, as documented here repeatedly, these states seem increasingly unlikely to meet projections and thus are an ongoing and significant threat to a balance between global production and demand.

The global economy, and particularly the economies of the Western countries, are tied to a cheap source of energy and power – on which their industrial clout is based. Remove that underpinning, and the writing is clear on the wall about this, and current levels cannot be sustained.

But, as with the wish of the press to get “beyond” the “yesterday’s story" of Bárðarbunga, so the reality of the energy situation is unlikely to be recognized until, as with the Iceland volcano. its effects become too evident to ignore.

1 comment:

  1. "the world of instant highlights, headlines and Twitter"

    So true. The future seems to matter less and less for our contemporaries, or at least to those writing the daily script. Twitter is one of the things I will never understand.

    Thanks for this refreshing piece. It is always nice to climb up the hill to have a broader look on the world.