Sunday, December 30, 2012

Five possible energy surprises for 2013

Many people trot out their predictions for the coming year right about now. I'm generally allergic to predictions and think rather in terms of probabilities. Naturally, the world we live in is far too complicated to yield anything approaching certainty concerning such matters as the future price and supply of energy, future economic conditions, and future political developments. In the end, the future is simply unknowable. So, I've tried to think of some developments which conventional wisdom has judged rather unlikely and which would therefore significantly alter our lives and perceptions should they occur--precisely because we are not prepared for them.

I don't think any of the following is likely to happen in 2013. But, any one of them would certainly surprise most people and most experts and upset the plans and expectations of many governments, businesses, investors and consumers. Here are my five possible energy surprises for 2013:

  1. U.S. natural gas production falls. There has been so much talk of the vast resource of natural gas now available to America in the form of shale deposits that it is practically unthinkable that U.S. natural gas production would actually fall. Of course, very low natural gas prices have led drillers to cut way back on drilling until the current glut is worked off and prices rise. What most people don't know is that U.S natural gas production has essentially been flat so far in 2012.

    One person I know who is tracking natural gas production closely believes that drillers will wait too long to ramp up drilling again leading to a plunge in supply--and here's the real kicker--one from which we cannot recover. The annual production decline rate for U.S. natural gas wells taken as a whole has reached 32 percent. That means that if we were to forgo drilling any new natural gas wells in the coming year, production would fall by one-third. The production decline rate for shale gas wells is considerably higher than that of the average natural gas well--above 50 percent in the first year with many shale gas wells declining by more than 60 percent from initial flow rates. By the end of the second year, shale gas wells are often down 85 percent from initial flow rates. This means that by the end of the second year of operation, 85 percent of the production from any given set of shale gas wells must be replaced just to keep shale gas production level.

    The logistical challenges of shale gas are daunting, i.e., getting enough rigs and workers quickly enough in the field along with the necessary millions of gallons of fracking fluid needed for each well. But perhaps even more important, investors who took a shellacking in the previous drilling boom may be reluctant to part with more capital to drill wells until they are absolutely certain that prices will stay high enough long enough to reward them. That will mean further delays in reviving drilling once it becomes apparent that supply is shrinking in earnest.

    All this adds up to not enough rigs, not enough personnel, and not enough capital to keep up with the ferocious production declines in shale gas and even conventional fields. It will nevertheless be a surprise to most people if U.S. natural gas production actually falls in 2013. But, it'll be an even bigger surprise if production then fails to rise or recovers only marginally once prices get high.

  2. Oil production from the America's most prolific tight oil region, North Dakota, falls. Tight oil (often mistakenly referred to as shale oil) is typically extracted using the same method as shale gas. But, as a result, tight oil wells experience the same types of declines. Wells drilled into the Bakken formation in North Dakota show an annual production decline rate of around 40 percent. As the rate of production grows from this deposit, more and more effort will have to be devoted to simply replacing production from wells that are swiftly declining. Already production increases are slowing. But almost no one expects oil production in North Dakota to decline in 2013 which is why it will be a surprise if it does.

  3. Oil prices plunge to $30 a barrel and stay there. This is really a macroeconomic scenario based on plunging oil demand. And, the reason for plunging demand might be that Europe finally implodes under the pressure of its slow-motion financial crisis; the United States goes into a recession, perhaps because Congress fails to agree on reducing hefty tax hikes now scheduled to go into effect automatically; and China has a hard economic landing and stays economically moribund. All these events coming together imply essentially a deflationary depression. In such circumstances, commodity prices in general would decline because of both excess capacity and falling demand. Oil won't be the only commodity whose price plunges under this scenario.

  4. Oil prices go to $200. This scenario is based on the idea that the civil war in Syria spills out into other Middle Eastern countries and becomes a general conflagration that hampers oil exports throughout the Middle East. Of all the scenarios I'm mentioning here, this one seems the least likely. But, if it does happen, look for scenario 3 above to take hold within a few months as the world economy, shocked by extremely high oil prices, goes into a profound economic contraction. If the fighting continues to rage throughout the Middle East for the entire year, we may get the economic contraction, but prices won't come down nearly as far as in scenario 3.

  5. The U.S. Congress forbids additional natural gas exports. Even though the United States remains a net importer of natural gas--imports constituted 12.7 percent of consumption in 2012--the country currently exports small amounts of natural gas to Canada and Mexico. This is because the North American gas pipeline system connecting all three countries makes it economically sensible to do so in a few instances. If it becomes clear that America's natural gas endowment is actually quite limited, Congress may be keen to keep natural gas produced in the United States at home in order to keep prices low.

    If Congress doesn't act, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission may simply continue to grant permits for more liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals from which special refrigerated tankers will carry natural gas overseas to importing nations. With LNG prices in Europe and Asia three to four times pipeline prices in the United States, there is no doubt that natural gas drillers will spend prodigious amounts of time and money trying to prevent any export restrictions. If such a measure is introduced in Congress, it will result in a battle of corporate titans as the natural gas producers come up against large, well-funded users of natural gas such as utilities, chemical companies and fertilizer manufacturers. And, if such a fight does arise, it's not at all certain who will win.

    My money, however, would be on the users of natural gas including the 50 percent of those who heat their homes with natural gas. These consumers represent an enormous number of votes, perhaps enough to overcome the lobbying acumen of the country's powerful natural gas producers.

As I said, all these developments would be surprises because so few people believe they are even within the realm of possibility. I will, however, not be surprised if we get through all of 2013 without any one of them coming to pass.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, December 23, 2012

There's no such thing as energy independence in our globalized, fossil-fueled world

Anyone who tells you that energy independence can be achieved based on globally traded commodities such as oil, coal and natural gas is either trying to mislead you or doesn't understand the structure of energy markets. As of 2011 fossil fuels produced 83 percent of the world's energy according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Because fossil fuels can be transported anywhere in the world, producers seek out the highest price unless they are constrained by law or infrastructure from doing so.

This means that energy independence for a country is something of an optical illusion when it is based merely on the domestic production of fossil fuels. Here's why:
  1. Events far away such as wars; embargoes; strikes; and mine, oilfield and refinery disasters affect the level of domestic prices for fossil fuels in all countries where these fuels are freely exportable regardless of whether that country produces enough for its own consumption. In such countries consumers of these fuels including domestic industry and transportation, commercial establishments, households and government agencies are all subjected to fluctuating world prices that can be unrelated to anything happening in the host country even if the country extracts enough fossil fuel from its own soil to meet domestic demand.

  2. Even fossil-fuel exporting countries that subsidize purchases of fossil fuel energy by businesses and consumers are affected by events outside those countries as prices for their exports are largely determined by external events. The revenue they forgo by keeping domestic prices low is a hidden cost to the energy sector of the economy. Those subsidies mean reduced investment both in new production and in the maintenance of the existing energy-producing infrastructure. That hidden cost grows as energy prices rise if subsidized domestic prices do not rise as well.

  3. Unless fossil fuel companies are owned by a government, those companies focus on maximizing both returns for their shareholders and compensation for their managers. They seek out the highest prices for their products worldwide (adjusting for transportation costs) regardless of the effect on the energy security or energy independence of the country in which the oil, natural gas or coal is produced--unless, of course, those companies are prevented from doing so by law or by the infrastructure. It is disingenuous, therefore, for such producers to tell the public in any country that they are focused on energy independence. On the other hand, government-controlled fossil fuel companies such as those in China actively seek acquisitions in other countries that can serve as suppliers to the home country regardless of the needs of the country those companies operate in.

Let's see how this is playing out in the United States where the oil and gas industry and its financial backers on Wall Street have lately been touting in the media the notion that the United States will soon become energy independent. That same industry is currently seeking permission for oil exports even though U.S. crude oil production of 6.3 million barrels per day (mbpd) this year remains far below U.S. consumption of finished petroleum products including gasoline and diesel of 16.2 mbpd. (To be precise we should subtract U.S. exports of finished petroleum products of about 2.5 mbpd to come up with a net U.S. consumption figure of 13.7 mbpd which is still far above U.S. crude production). Yes, it's possible for the United States to become free of oil imports; but, the most likely course will be a drastic reduction in oil consumption made possible in part by the electrification of the nation's transportation system and by aggressive conservation measures.

As for the supposed natural gas boom in the United States, U.S. natural gas imports were 12.7 percent of U.S. consumption so far this year, according to the EIA. That's down from an average of 15.7 percent for the 20 years prior. It's progress, but it's not energy independence. Nevertheless, the natural gas industry is pushing ahead with plans for U.S.-based natural gas export terminals which must be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). One terminal in Sabine, Louisiana has already been approved and is under construction. Many more applications are under review.

Naturally, the industry will tell you that it is seeking permits for these terminals in anticipation of the day when U.S. natural gas production exceeds U.S. needs. Does that mean they'll hold off exporting gas until that day? Not a chance. Not when liquified natural gas (LNG)--the form in which natural gas is transported by ship--is selling in Japan for $17.30 per million BTUs and $11.83 in Europe (both as of November 30). Compare that to $3.42 for spot natural gas in the United States (the Henry Hub price as of December 21). The profit potential for U.S. producers is too great to pass up.

So, what does this mean for manufacturers, especially those chemical and fertilizer companies that rely heavily on natural gas as a feedstock? They have been moving operations back to the United States because of cheap natural gas prices. If the natural gas industry gets all of its currently planned export facilities approved and built, that would mean 22 percent of current daily production of U.S. natural gas could be exported. This is certainly enough to bring U.S. prices much closer to world prices. If we include all projects identified by sponsor companies but not yet under review by the FERC, the percentage rises to 37 percent of current daily production. Of course, natural gas producers tell us that U.S. production will rise significantly from here even though production has been essentially flat for a year. That's only temporary, they will say. But should we take their word for it?

And, even if production grows significantly, can we not assume that the producers will simply ask for more export terminals to be permitted so that these producers can capture world prices for natural gas?

So, U.S. manufacturers are in for a surprise if they believe natural gas prices in the United States will stay low because America is moving toward "energy independence." It is the duty of U.S. natural gas producers to seek the highest price for their product. Only two things could stop them: If the FERC ceases issuing permits for export facilities or if the U.S. Congress passes a law preventing the export of LNG. Both seem unlikely.

On the other hand, it may be that there will simply not be enough natural gas produced to justify very many export terminals which require extremely long-term delivery contracts, on the order of 30 years. If American natural gas producers cannot guarantee adequate production to fulfill such contracts over their full period, it seems unlikely that those interested in receiving the gas will be willing to make the necessary commitment to and investment in import facilities. With all the talk about America's vast shale gas deposits, this may seem an unlikely scenario. But a growing number of skeptics have outlined plausible reasons why shale gas will turn out to be much more expensive and much more limited in its production than is currently believed. Keep in mind that it is NOT the size of the resource that matters so much to the daily functioning of society, but rather the rate at which we can extract gas on a daily basis.

So, is there anything that really could make a country energy independent? The answer is yes, and the method is two-fold. First, vast reductions in energy use can be had through retrofitting buildings to the so-called passive house standard. This almost eliminates the need to burn fuel to heat most buildings. Those reductions could also come from changes in the transportation system: more emphasis on public transportation including rail and on ridesharing for drivers. The electrification of most transportation would almost surely be part of any such independence plan. And, we need to reconfigure the way we live so that our cityscapes allow us to work, socialize, and shop nearer to where we live.

Second, we would need to build a distributed energy system, allowing people to gather energy at the individual household and business level. Much of this would have to be renewable energy from wind and solar. Expanding hydropower where possible is another way, particularly small hydropower utilizing the myriad smaller dams which either used to generate electricity or which have never been exploited for this purpose.

This path would require a sustained effort over decades to achieve. But once it is achieved, the country that undertakes this path would never be subject to disruptions of energy supplies in faraway places. And, that country would never have to worry about the inevitable declines in the production of fossil fuels which must come someday because they are finite.

This alternate route to energy independence is rarely discussed as the world continues to fixate on increasing production of fossil fuels as the path to energy independence. But in truth, these fuels only put us further in thrall to fickle global markets and unstable exporting nations while exposing us to the ever present threat that fossil fuel supplies will begin to decline before we've made adequate preparations for an energy transition. Already worldwide crude oil production has been on a plateau since 2005.

If any country really wants to be truly energy independent, a feasible, durable path is already available. All that country has to do is look away from the false advertising of the fossil fuel industry and look toward the future of energy that is already unfolding before us.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Previous long-term government, industry oil forecasts badly overestimated supply; why should we listen now?

[I]f you're still operating under the assumption that the earth's petroleum--or at least the cheap stuff--is about to run out, you're not going to thrive in the new oil era. Technology is making it possible to find, produce, and refine oil so efficiently that its supply, at least for practical purposes, is basically unlimited.

The writer of the above sentences was reacting to oil prices hovering around $11 a barrel. He could not have known then that we were about to embark on a bull market that would take oil to its highest price ever--even adjusted for inflation--just 10 years later. And so, after oil's run, it's all the more astonishing that as Brent Crude--now the true worldwide benchmark price--stands above $100 a barrel, we are hearing a similar message about the future of oil both from official agencies and the oil industry.

The reverence accorded each new forecast of future energy supplies from international and government agencies and from major oil companies seems to go far beyond that accorded to the oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece. That oracle's record may be lost in the mists of time, but we can check the record for these modern energy oracles.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy), the Paris-based International Energy Agency (a consortium of 28 countries), the National Intelligence Council (an advisory body to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence) and the oil giant ExxonMobil, all regularly release long-term forecasts for world energy supplies. The last three have released their latest forecasts this fall. The U.S. EIA updated its world projections in 2011.

Looking back at forecasts made in the year 2000 by the U.S. EIA, the IEA, and the NIC, it becomes obvious that drawing an upward line on a chart does not make an oil forecast magically come true. All were considerably off the mark. ExxonMobil's oldest forecast available online dates back to 2006. It, too, has proved wide of the mark.

First, let's see by how much each forecast missed. Reports issued in the year 2000 by the U.S. EIA and the IEA contained similar projections. The U.S. EIA forecast that total world liquid fuel supplies would reach 93.2 million barrels per day (mbpd) in 2010. The IEA forecast 95.8 mbpd. Though the NIC report did not provide an explicit forecast for 2010, the implied forecast was around 92 mbpd. All those numbers include not only crude oil and lease condensate which constitute the proper definition of oil, but also natural gas plant liquids (only a fraction of which can be substituted for oil) and refinery processing gain (which is the result of applying energy to break oil into its components, causing the final volume to expand). We can now check those numbers. Actual total worldwide liquid fuel production for 2010 was 87.1 mbpd.

All three groups overestimated production by a considerable margin. This helps to explain the colossal miss on prices. The U.S. EIA report included a price projection for crude oil of about $28 a barrel for 2010 (adjusted for inflation). The actual average price for oil traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange in 2010 was $79.61. The 2000 IEA report forecast an inflation-adjusted price for oil in 2010 only 25 cents higher than the U.S. EIA forecast. The NIC report did not provide an explicit price forecast for oil, but did say this: "Meeting the increase in demand for energy will pose neither a major supply challenge nor lead to substantial price increases in real terms." All three groups failed to anticipate the plateau in worldwide crude production that began in 2005. All failed to gauge properly the pace of growth in oil demand in Asia, particularly China and India, which put upward pressure on prices.

Of course, it's easy to pick apart long-term forecasts when the actual data become available. But, the point here is not that the forecasts were wrong, but that they were all wrong in the same direction, namely, overestimating actual production. Taking an average of all three would still have resulted in a substantial overestimate. That's a serious concern because the forecasts provided by these groups are used worldwide for government and corporate planning and policy purposes. They are extremely influential. And, yet experience should have taught us by now that long-term energy forecasts by anyone--even people whose job it is to study energy markets and supplies--are a poor guide to policy and planning.

There is a basic asymmetry in the effects of energy supply forecasts. If an oil production forecast promises a business-as-usual future (i.e., continually growing production) as all three forecasts mentioned above did and that forecast turns out to be too low, the mistake is benign for most people. Extra supply means lower prices and therefore more money available for other things. If, however, such a forecast turns out to be too high, the consequences can be severe because the global system we now have is acutely sensitive to changes in the price and supply of energy, especially oil. We have seen just how sensitive it can be as we've watch oil prices reach historic highs in the last decade and remain high. Negative supply surprises have the potential to undermine the very stability of our global system, and the only way to prevent that is to prepare for scenarios that these official reports refuse to contemplate.

Now keep in mind that the comparisons made here between forecast and actual production and prices are for a 10-year period. The latest U.S. EIA and IEA world forecasts extend out 23 years to 2035. The newest NIC forecast purports to know the state of the world in 2030. The accuracy of any forecast deteriorates rapidly the further it goes into the future, and these forecasts go out about twice as far. We are taking many more times the risk if we rely on them. This is because energy transitions can take up to 50 years. Waiting until the last minute to begin the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels could cause terrible discontinuity and possibly disaster.

Imagine how different government energy policy and corporate planning would have been had all three forecasting groups predicted in 2000 that oil prices would rise above $100 a barrel by late in the decade. Imagine if all three groups had predicted a plateau in the worldwide rate of production of crude oil proper (defined as crude oil including lease condensate) starting in 2005. Imagine further if all three groups had predicted that global net exports of petroleum liquids--the petroleum fuels available for import by such importers as the United States, China, India, Japan and most of Europe--were going to decline consistently starting in 2006, leading to intense competition for supplies among importing nations.

There were voices warning that such things might happen. But the entrenched institutional prejudices in all three groups prevented them from contemplating these outcomes. So deep are those prejudices that none of the three seems yet to have picked up on the issue of shrinking global net exports even though it is now clear in the data. Of course, it is safer to be wrong when the vast majority are wrong with you. That way you can say, "Nobody could have seen it coming."

As the realities of constrained worldwide oil supply have become apparent, all three groups have gradually lowered their long-term oil supply forecasts. But, all three continue to believe that supply will be there to match projected demand, a dubious assumption given the experience of the last decade.

It's true that forecasts can miss by being too pessimistic as well. None of the three groups foresaw the shale gas phenomenon back in 2000. It was assumed that North America would be importing a considerable amount of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by now as domestic supplies declined. Having missed the rise in gas production, it is possible that all three groups are now simply following the trend and projecting it forward with little skepticism--much as they did for oil in 2000.

One thing they all seem to be missing is that production of large amounts of shale gas will depend on much higher prices as drillers move from the easy-to-get gas--which is currently flooding the North American market at prices that are below the cost of production--to the difficult-to-get gas that will flow at slower rates and be much more costly to extract. They also seem to be missing the fact that high decline rates for such wells mean that rig counts and infrastructure will have to expand almost geometrically to keep supplies growing. That expansion will hit a wall at some point when the price of natural gas rises to reflect this reality and forces some consumers to cut back on natural gas use. Already U.S. natural gas production has been essentially flat since December 2011 as prices have vaulted from multiyear lows. This comes after years of persistent growth in supplies from the low seen after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Because ExxonMobil has recently released its 2013 Outlook for Energy with projections to 2040, I had hoped to find the company's report from 2000. The oldest I could find came in the form of a slide show from 2006. Even at this late date, ExxonMobil's forecast was predicting consistent, uninterrupted growth in the worldwide production of crude oil proper and assuming that North America would need considerable LNG imports in the coming decade. The report shows that the conventional wisdom remained intact well into the period when underlying events made them no longer tenable.

ExxonMobil's latest report, not surprisingly, concludes that fossil fuels will continue to provide the bulk of the world's energy well into the future and that there will be plenty of them. With the media repeating what will inevitably turn out to be a flawed forecast, they are forgetting to point out the obvious. The company has an interest in convincing consumers and shareholders that oil and natural gas will be the dominant fuels of this century--which is all the more reason to be skeptical about the company's projections.

When the U.S. EIA, the IEA and the NIC made their long-term forecasts in 2000, supposed game-changing technology was going to make it possible to extract oil in the Arctic and in deepwater "at improbably low costs." The NIC even prophesied that natural gas from methane hydrates, essentially methane trapped inside ice crystals in the deep ocean, would become an increasing part of the natural gas supply. No commercial production of methane from methane hydrates has so far taken place.

And, with regard to oil, even though prices have risen from an average $30.26 in 2000 to an average of $94.60 this year on the New York Mercantile Exchange, we are told again by all three groups that a new miracle technology called hydraulic fracturing is going to make future oil supplies plentiful. (By the way, that technology is 60 years old.) Given their record on such pronouncements, we would be wise to be cautious.

Long-term forecasts are inherently unreliable. In the case of the U.S. EIA, the agency does provide three forecasts based on various price assumptions. But price is not the only variable, and among those forecasts, even the most conservative in 2000 was still too optimistic about supplies and wildly wrong about prices. At the very least, all long-term forecasts should have wide error bands around them. Those error bands would aid us in understanding the risks. No one can know the future. So, we are left with evaluating scenarios that help define the risks we face.

When it comes to policy, it is not the benign energy supply scenario which should guide us, but the most severe because it has the potential to undermine the very stability of global society. It may be for political reasons that statisticians who plot the data for such projections choose to leave out the error bands which they know ought to be there. If policymakers and planners understood just how big the uncertainty about future fossil fuel supplies is, they might panic. But, they might also do something else; they might quickly wean society off finite fossil fuels wherever possible in favor of energy sources such as wind and solar which won't be running out any time in the next few billion years. And, they might also require deep reductions in energy use starting now to guard against the day when fossil fuels decline.

It comes down to whether it is wise to continue with a system of energy, the stability of which is entirely dependent on highly uncertain long-term forecasts for fossil fuel supplies. I repeat: History tells us that it can take up to 50 years to complete an energy transition. Previous transitions gradually moved us to new fuels having increasing energy densities--wood to coal, coal to oil and natural gas, oil and natural gas to uranium. But coal, oil, natural gas and uranium are all finite, and we will someday--perhaps very soon in the case of oil--find that their supply cannot grow any more and will even begin to decline.

When long-term forecasts promise energy that is both cheap and plentiful as the U.S. EIA, the IEA, and the NIC reports did in 2000, governments, businesses and individuals do little to prepare for scarcity. Wouldn't it be wiser to build an energy system which would free us from the inherently risky and unreliable racket of long-term forecasts? Wouldn't it be wiser to build an energy system that is forecast-proof because the energy that powers it is constantly renewed?

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The one chart about oil's future everyone should see

When people read about a long-term forecast of world oil supply--say, out to 2030--they often believe that the forecasters are merely incorporating our knowledge of existing fields and figuring out how much oil can be extracted from them over the forecast period. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the forecast supply has not yet been discovered or has no demonstrated technology which can extract or produce it economically. In other words, such forecasts are merely guesses based on the slimmest of evidence.

Perhaps the best ever illustration of this comes from a 2009 presentation made by Glen Sweetnam, a U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) official. The EIA is the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. The following chart from that presentation will upend any notion that we know exactly where all the oil we need to meet expected demand will come from.

The chart shows that by 2030 world output of oil and other liquid fuels from current fields is expected to drop to 43 million barrels per day (mbpd), some 62 million barrels below projected demand of 105 mbpd. (Though prepared in 2009, the chart takes into account known projects expected to be producing by 2012.) This drop is consistent with the observed decline in the worldwide rate of production from existing fields of about 4 percent per year. Certainly, there will be more projects identified in the 18 years ahead. And, many people will say that we already have a large new resource of tight oil (often mistakenly referred to as shale oil) which can be extracted through hydraulic fracturing or fracking. But even if the optimists are correct--and there can be no guarantee that they will be--this source of oil will only add 3 to 4 million barrels of daily production. What Sweetnam's chart tells us is that we must find and bring into production the equivalent of five new Saudi Arabias between now and 2030 in order to meet expected demand even if the volume of tight oil reaches its maximum projected output. (The Saudis currently produce about 11.7 mbpd of oil and other liquids.)

Because Sweetnam's chart is for total worldwide "liquid fuel supply," it's worth noting that in recent years something called natural gas plant liquids (NGPLs) have been included in world oil supply based on the assumption that these hydrocarbons are 100 percent interchangeable with oil. NGPLs are components of natural gas other than methane such as ethane, propane, butane, and pentane, and their production grew recently with the natural gas drilling boom in the United States. Only a small portion of NGPLs can directly substitute for oil, and ramping up production of that portion independently is impossible since it is mixed in the methane.

But oil proper--defined as crude oil including lease condensate--continues to trace out a plateau in production that began in 2005.This makes the oil situation all the more concerning. It is true that rising and ultimately record high oil prices in the last decade have prompted oil companies to increase capital expenditures including those for exploration and drilling to their highest level ever. But, the vast effort represented by those expenditures has failed to boost true crude oil production definitively above the current bumpy plateau.

Some will point to vast deposits of so-called oil shale in the American West and suggest that production from these can fill the gap in the coming years. But right now commercial production of oil from this source is exactly zero. And, current reserves are also exactly zero since reserves are defined as those underground resources that can be produced profitably at today's prices from known fields using existing technology. (For a more detailed discussion, see my recent piece on unconventional oil resources.)

Perhaps most important is that Sweetnam's chart shows not how much oil we must discover, but the rate of flow we must achieve from any discoveries in order to match supply with projected consumption. Huge discoveries mean little if we cannot extract the oil profitably and at rates that are commensurate with our desired rate of consumption. With conventional oil in decline since 2006 according to the International Energy Agency, a consortium of 28 mostly importing nations, we will now be forced to rely increasingly on sources of unconventional oil such as the tar sands of Canada and the heavy oil of Venezuela, both of which are difficult and costly to extract and refine. So far the flows of unconventional oil have only just offset declines in the rate of production of the cheap, easy-to-get, free-flowing conventional oil which has powered modern civilization to date.

The global economy is entirely dependent on continuous flows of energy and raw materials. Oil is absolutely central because it provides one-third of the world's energy and more than 80 percent of its transportation fuel. Unless oil production rises from here, global economic growth will eventually stall (if it hasn't already).

With the EIA projecting oil production from oil shale of 140,000 barrels per day by 2030, we should not expect to close Sweetnam's deficit of 62 mbpd from this source. Even if the EIA is too pessimistic on oil production from oil shale by a factor of 10, such production would barely put a dent in the anticipated supply gap by 2030.

It should be apparent that energy policy around the world is essentially based on the idea that Sweetnam's gap will be filled in time and comfortably. And yet, there can be no assurance of this. In fact, the ongoing plateau in the rate of world oil production in the face of record high prices ought to give us pause. If seven years of very high prices can only marginally move the rate of production of all liquids (which includes crude oil, natural gas plant liquids, biofuels, and refinery processing gains) up about 3.15 percent and if crude oil proper can only stay flat during the same period, how can we expect that the next seven years and the next seven after that will be filled with nothing but good news on supply?

If the answer to this question is that technology will unlock new resources and overcome the declines in existing fields, keep this is mind. If that technology is not on the shelf and ready to deploy today, it will make almost no difference in the 18 years between now and 2030. For those who point to hydraulic fracturing as a recent technological breakthrough, they need to do a little research. Hydraulic fracturing was first used in 1947. More than 30 years later in the early 1980s, building on government research, George Mitchell and his company Mitchell Energy and Development began pursuing natural gas in deep shale deposits. It took Mitchell 20 years of experimentation, government help and government incentives to perfect the type of hydraulic fracturing which is now used to release both natural gas and oil from deep shales. It took another 10 years for his methods to be widely deployed by the oil and gas industry.

So, here's the timeline on hydraulic fracturing. It took 60 years from the time the technique was first deployed until it was refined and widely adopted by the industry for the specific purpose of extracting natural gas and oil from deep shale deposits. Don't look for any new miracle technologies to make a significant difference in oil production between now and 2030 unless they are already in the field performing their magic today and have not yet been widely adopted.

The effects of hydraulic fracturing on oil production are already in evidence. And, while the technique has allowed us to recover oil from previously inaccessible deposits, it has not allowed us to grow oil supplies worldwide as declines in production elsewhere have offset increases in production of oil from shale deposits (properly called tight oil).

With high oil prices and the hottest new technique unable to move the needle on worldwide production of crude oil, we should look at Glen Sweetnam's chart with considerable concern. We should ask ourselves whether it is wise to base energy policy on the fantasies of industry and government forecasters. Perhaps we should focus instead on the trends and data we can verify and prepare ourselves and our economies for a world that may not have the copious amounts of oil that the industry is promising.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, December 02, 2012