Yergin rains on “peak oil” parade

Daniel Yergin, author of the Pulitzer-winning history of the petroleum industry, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, was recently invoked by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert to drive home the point that the Persian Gulf oil reserves are “the greatest single prize in all history”—and at the root of George Bush’s Iraq adventure. On July 31, Yergin had an op-ed in the Washington Post (online at the website of Yergin’s own group, Cambridge Energy Research Associates or CERA) raining on the morbid parade of the “peak oil” apocalyptoids. Yergin argues that the current price spike is due to “above ground” factors like political instability, not the “below ground” factor of dwindling reserves. But he fails to consider that the driving forces behind this instability—the US military grab for the Gulf reserves, and the jihadi imperative to resist it—may, at least, be driven by the perception that reserves are running on empty. And even Yergin admits that that world energy consumption will explode over the next several years if current trends continue, providing what he perhaps somewhat understatedly calls “a very big challenge.” WW4 REPORT has always argued that the price spike could be an intentional creation of a White House strategy to boost global production—which is exactly what Yergin argues it will do. It should also be kept in mind that from the standpoint of the health and stability of the biosphere, continued high oil production is probably the worst thing imaginable, as signals mount of global ecological collapse.

It’s Not the End of the Oil Age
Technology and Higher Prices Drive a Supply Buildup

by Daniel Yergin

We’re not running out of oil. Not yet.

“Shortage” is certainly in the air — and in the price. Right now the oil market is tight, even tighter than it was on the eve of the 1973 oil crisis. In this high-risk market, “surprises” ranging from political instability to hurricanes could send oil prices spiking higher. Moreover, the specter of an energy shortage is not limited to oil. Natural gas supplies are not keeping pace with growing demand. Even supplies of coal, which generates about half of the country’s electricity, are constrained at a time when our electric power system has been tested by an extraordinary heat wave.

But it is oil that gets most of the attention. Prices around $60 a barrel, driven by high demand growth, are fueling the fear of imminent shortage — that the world is going to begin running out of oil in five or 10 years. This shortage, it is argued, will be amplified by the substantial and growing demand from two giants: China and India.

Yet this fear is not borne out by the fundamentals of supply. Our new, field-by-field analysis of production capacity, led by my colleagues Peter Jackson and Robert Esser, is quite at odds with the current view and leads to a strikingly different conclusion: There will be a large, unprecedented buildup of oil supply in the next few years. Between 2004 and 2010, capacity to produce oil (not actual production) could grow by 16 million barrels a day — from 85 million barrels per day to 101 million barrels a day — a 20 percent increase. Such growth over the next few years would relieve the current pressure on supply and demand.

Where will this growth come from? It is pretty evenly divided between non-OPEC and OPEC. The largest non-OPEC growth is projected for Canada, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Azerbaijan, Angola and Russia. In the OPEC countries, significant growth is expected to occur in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Algeria and Libya, among others. Our estimate for growth in Iraq is quite modest — only 1 million barrels a day — reflecting the high degree of uncertainty there. In the forecast, the United States remains almost level, with development in the deep-water areas of the Gulf of Mexico compensating for declines elsewhere.

While questions can be raised about specific countries, this forecast is not speculative. It is based on what is already unfolding. The oil industry is governed by a “law of long lead times.” Much of the new capacity that will become available between now and 2010 is under development. Many of the projects that embody this new capacity were approved in the 2001-03 period, based on price expectations much lower than current prices.

There are risks to any forecast. In this case, the risks are not the “below ground” ones of geology or lack of resources. Rather, they are “above ground” — political instability, outright conflict, terrorism or slowdowns in decision making on the part of governments in oil-producing countries. Yet, even with the scaling back of the forecast, it would still constitute a big increase in output.

This is not the first time that the world has “run out of oil.” It’s more like the fifth. Cycles of shortage and surplus characterize the entire history of the oil industry. A similar fear of shortage after World War I was one of the main drivers for cobbling together the three easternmost provinces of the defunct Ottoman Turkish Empire to create Iraq. In more recent times, the “permanent oil shortage” of the 1970s gave way to the glut and price collapse of the 1980s.

But this time, it is said, is “different.” A common pattern in the shortage periods is to underestimate the impact of technology. And, once again, technology is key. “Proven reserves” are not necessarily a good guide to the future. The current Securities and Exchange Commission disclosure rules, which define “reserves” for investors, are based on 30-year-old technology and offer an incomplete picture of future potential. As skills improve, output from many producing regions will be much greater than anticipated. The share of “unconventional oil” — Canadian oil sands, ultra-deep-water developments, “natural gas liquids” — will rise from 10 percent of total capacity in 1990 to 30 percent by 2010. The “unconventional” will cease being frontier and will instead become “conventional.” Over the next few years, new facilities will be transforming what are inaccessible natural gas reserves in different parts of the world into a quality, diesel-like fuel.

The growing supply of energy should not lead us to underestimate the longer-term challenge of providing energy for a growing world economy. At this point, even with greater efficiency, it looks as though the world could be using 50 percent more oil 25 years from now. That is a very big challenge. But at least for the next several years, the growing production capacity will take the air out of the fear of imminent shortage. And that in turn will provide us the breathing space to address the investment needs and the full panoply of technologies and approaches — from development to conservation — that will be required to fuel a growing world economy, ensure energy security and meet the needs of what is becoming the global middle class.

See also our recent book review on “peak oil.”