Saturday, January 29, 2011

Is "Peak Oil" Slipping Backwards to the Year 2060 and Beyond?

3 Feb 2011 Note: Jeremy Bowden is the author of the piece quoted below. He specialises in energy issues, among other topics.
“The estimates for how much oil there is in the world continue to increase,” according to William M Colton, Exxon Mobil’s vice president for corporate strategic planning. “There’s enough oil to supply the world’s needs as far as anyone can see.” Just as prices rose sharply and peak oil concerns re-emerged, huge deep water oil fields were found off the coasts of Brazil and Africa. Higher prices also stimulated “unconventional” oil production from massive Canadian oil sands projects, which now provide North America with more oil than Saudi Arabia. In 2009, the United States increased domestic oil production for the first time in decades. The longer “life horizon” and drop in natural gas prices make it a particularly attractive choice to power producers now, given its relatively low carbon emissions and flexibility as a generating fuel. _Source
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Much of the fashionable panic surrounding "peak oil DOOM!" is reminiscent of the catastrophic circus that surrounded Y2K. While it is true that the Y2K problem required the attention and effort of thousands of professionals to solve, the same thing is obviously true for ongoing energy supplies in the face of rising global populations and expectations. Maintaining reliable energy supplies is an ongoing problem which is solvable as appropriate effort is applied. least one positive development has resulted from the sharp rise in oil prices of recent years. The influx of capital to oil companies from high prices, combined with expectations that prices are unlikely to fall very far, has boosted investment in oil exploration and production, especially in what the industry terms “frontier” areas – namely enhanced oil recovery (more oil from existing fields), the deep (or ultra-deep) water and the Arctic. Massive new reserves have been identified, proven up, and brought to production – whilst reserves previously considered impossible to reach are now no more than a horizontal drilling or steam injection technique away. All this should help ensure supply can meet global demand for far longer than was expected just a few years ago – pushing back the oft-cited “peak oil” date by decades.

...most of this newly-discovered potential avoids the above-ground risks and cartel policies that constrain oil production in most of the world’s largest proven deposits – the bulk of which lie in Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), or are controlled by national oil companies in central Asia and Russia. It is the technical expertise and project management skills of the most dynamic multinational and independent oil companies that hold the key to these new hard-to-get-at reserves, rather than the whims of Arab dictators or the level of OPEC budget deficits. A similar, but even more dramatic change has taken place with gas, where new techniques mean huge “tight” gas deposits present in many rocks are now recoverable. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently estimated that natural gas reserves could last twice as long as previously expected – up to 250 years.

...Some experts claim enhanced oil recovery (EOR) could potentially double the amount of oil that can be extracted globally. Most fields only recover just over a half of the original oil in place and sometimes less than a third. With modern techniques field development should be able to extract a far higher proportion of the oil, while more and more oil can be made recoverable from existing wells.

The three main types of EOR are gas injection, steam (both cyclic stimulation and flooding), and chemical injection. They have been around for a long time, but are increasingly viable economically and nimble technologically....Natural gas injection is also an improving technique used to maintain reservoir pressures, especially where it is difficult to bring the gas to market, and where gas is produced alongside oil. Other gases, such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide, can also be used.

...The newest of the major EOR techniques involves inoculating reservoirs with microbes that will make the oil flow more freely. Such developing techniques may create a new jump in recoverable reserve estimates for many fields in the near future. Above all, EOR extends the life of oil fields – many North Sea fields were expected to have run dry by now, but continue to produce often in the hands of specialist oil producers that focus on enhanced recovery.

...Faced with falling reserves and barred from acquiring fresh production in areas such as the Middle East, international oil majors began to search for new large deposits in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico in the 1990s – on the back of a proven drilling record in shallower Gulf areas, and in the North Sea. Exploration and drilling below 10,000ft of water and through miles of hard rock, thick salt and tightly-packed sands required the development of supercomputers and three-dimensional imaging techniques as well as equipment that could withstand the heat and pressures common at such depths, not to mention submarine robots to make repairs.

That technology is now available to drill in other areas such as the Arctic and elsewhere...Similar advances in technology have opened up huge unconventional oil shale resources in Canada. This is moving to the US, where the Bakken shale field is now the country’s fastest-growing major oil field. Production has reached about 350,000bpd, from 100,000bpd a decade ago. In a recent report, consultancy firm PFC Energy projected production would climb to 450,000bpd by 2013. _Industrial Fuels and Power

Meanwhile, Exxon Mobil forecasts that by 2030, gas will surpass coal as an energy source.

Many analysts are expecting a lot of new oil supplies from multiple locations around the globe.

Clever technologists are finding ways to make every barrel of oil go that much further. This is true in many ways, not just in terms of improved efficiency at the consumer level.

The concept of "peak oil" is heavily dependent upon unknown factors which could change at any time. Only a fool would maintain a posture of predictive certainty in that atmosphere of uncertainy and rapid change.

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