May 18, 2012
Scraping the bottom of the barrelBack
Business|Flow|Gas|Mining|Petroleum|Refining|Resources|Canada|United Kingdom|United States|Venezuela|USD|Conventional Crude Oil Production|Conventional Oil|Energy|Flow|Gas-to-liquids|Heavy Oil|Massive Surface Mining Opera|Namely Heavy Oil|Natural Gas|Natural Gas Liquids|Oil|Oil Casts|Oil Sands|Oil Shale|Peak Oil|Shale Oil|Synthetic Oil|Unconventional Oil|Unconventional Oil Resources|Unconventional Oil Sources|Ventional Crude Oil Discoveries|Yearly World Oil Production|Environmental|Chris Skrebowski|Drilling|Alberta|BIOFUELS|Fracturing
Data from the US Energy Information Administration show that conventional crude oil production – oil from wells accessed using typical drilling techniques – has been essen- tially flat at around 74-million barrels per day (mbpd) since 2005. Looking at the history of con- ventional crude oil discoveries, this is not surprising – they peaked in the mid-1960s and have been on a declining trend ever since.
Since 2005, all liquid fuels production – which includes natural gas liquids, biofuels, gas-to-liquids and unconventional oil – has been growing much more slowly than in previous decades – at less than 1% a year – while demand in the developing world has burgeoned. The trillion-dollar question is: For how much longer can growth in these unconventional sources of oil offset the declining production from existing conventional fields, estimated by the International Energy Agency to be depleting at about 6.5% each year?
There are three types of unconventional oil resources, namely heavy oil, oil sands and oil shale. Heavy oil, which is mostly located in Venezuela’s Orinoco belt, is denser and more viscous than conventional oil and requires special extraction and refining techniques. Oil or tar sands – the bulk of which is located in Canada’s Alberta province – consist of sandstone impregnated with heavy oil. Oil shale, found predominantly in the western US, is oil trapped in shale rock.
Technically, recoverable resource estimates for unconventional oil vary widely but are generally very large – possibly several times the roughly one- trillion barrels of oil consumed globally to date. But, economically, recoverable reserves are substantially smaller than total geological resources.
The methods involved in extracting oil from unconventional sources are quite different from those used to extract conventional oil. In the case of shale oil, extraction involves similar hydraulic fracturing processes used to extract natural gas from shale. Oil sands production is a massive surface mining opera- tion, followed by extensive use of natural gas to produce synthetic oil.
The hugely capital-intensive nature of these production processes means that marginal production costs – typically estimated at between $80/bl and $100/bl – are much higher than those of conventional oil. As the world shifts increasingly from conventional to unconventional oil sources, the floor under market oil prices will continue to rise.
The higher production costs reflect the most crucial energy variable of all: the energy return on investment (EROI) ratio, which measures the energy delivered by a process relative to the energy required to find, extract and process the energy resource. Experts estimate the EROI for oil shale and oil sands at about 4:1 at best, compared with a global average for conventional oil of about 18:1 today, and nearly 100:1 in the 1930s.
A further downside to unconventional oil is that its environmental impacts are significantly worse than those of regular oil. The freshwater demands are much greater and the carbon dioxide emissions can be up to twice as high for each barrel of oil. Fracking and oil sands production also pollute freshwater sources. These environmental costs are largely externalised, that is, the public pays for it indirectly.
Returning to peak oil – the key issue is the flow rate, that is, how much oil can be brought to market in a given year. There are economic and physical constraints on how much oil can be extracted from low-EROI, high-cost unconventional oil reserves, arising from the highly capital-intensive nature of this business.
Several peer-reviewed articles in academic journals have shown that the depletion of older, conventional-oil fields will soon outpace the gains from new unconventional oil sources. Chris Skrebowski, consultant editor of the UK-based Petroleum Review and director of Peak Oil Con- sulting, maintains a large database of current and forthcoming oil pro- jects. His latest forecast is that global spare oil capacity will be exhausted by 2015. After that, we are looking at a long downhill slide for total world liquid fuel production.
So, while there will be plenty of investment in unconventional oil sources, it will not materially change the peak oil phenomenon – at best, it will delay the date of the global peak of all liquids by a few years. And the switch to unconventional oil is setting a triple-digit floor to international oil prices, thereby putting brakes on global economic growth.
The bottom line is that the peak oil challenge has not gone away. If we do not intentionally wean our civilisation off oil quickly, we face increasingly severe economic shocks as well as intensifying climate destabilisation and environmental degradation as we burn dirtier fuels.
Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor
To subscribe email firstname.lastname@example.org or click here
To advertise email email@example.com or click here
Other Dr Jeremy Wakeford News
Recent Research Reports
Automotive 2016: A review of South Africa's automotive sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Automotive 2016 Report provides an overview of South Africa’s automotive industry over the past 12 months. The report provides insight into local demand and production, vehicle imports and exports, investment and competitiveness in the sector, as well...
Energy Roundup – April 2016 (PDF Report)
The April 2016 roundup covers activities across South Africa for March 2016 and includes details of a North Gauteng High Court Judge’s dismissal of a court application to postpone the 9.4% electricity tariff increase, which the National Energy Regulator of South...
Electricity 2016: A review of South Africa's electricity sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Electricity 2016 report provides an overview of South Africa’s electricity sector, focusing on State-owned power utility Eskom and independent power producers, electricity planning, transmission, distribution and the theft thereof, besides other issues.
Energy Roundup – March 2016 (PDF Report)
The March 2016 roundup covers activities across South Africa for February 2016 and includes details of the Department of Energy’s plans to announce the preferred bidders for the first tranche of the coal independent power producer procurement programme; the Council...
Steel 2016: A review of South Africa's steel sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Steel 2016 Report examines South Africa’s steel industry over the past 12 months. The report provides insight into the global steel market and and particularly into South South Africa’s steel sector, including production and consumption, main...
Construction 2016: A review of South Africa's construction industry (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Construction 2016 Report examines South Africa’s construction industry over the past 12 months. The report provides insight into the business environment; key participants; local demand; geographic diversification; corporate activity; black economic...
This Week's Magazine
The two spent-fuel pools at Eskom’s 1 800 MW Koeberg nuclear power station, in the Western Cape, will be full by 2018, increasing the urgency on the State-owned utility to begin pursuing alternative storage options. Koeberg has, over the past 32 years, accumulated a...
South Africa lacks the skills necessary to implement the government’s plan to build 9.6 GWe of new nuclear energy capacity, warns nuclear-qualified Quality Strategies International CEO David Crawford. “Apart from the concern about the affordability of the programme,...
Cybersecurity multinational Check Point has released its latest 700-series cybersecurity systems for small businesses, which draw on its international threat intelligence to provide up-to-date cybersecurity, says Check Point South Africa country manager Doros...
Daimler Trucks and Buses Southern Africa (DTBSA) saw a marked slip in new-vehicle sales in 2015 compared with 2014, with sales dropping from 5 897 units to 5 300 units. The decline came as the South African new truck and bus market declined from 31 558 units in 2014...
Group of 20 (G-20) economies threatened to penalise havens that don’t share information on their banking clients after the leak of the Panama Papers provoked a global uproar over tax evasion. The G-20 will consider “defensive measures” against financial centers and...
Next ArticleThe arithmetic of compound growth