Global Oil Production Set to Skyrocket

If you are at all concerned about the effect of the consumption of fossil fuels on climate change, brace yourself. It is inevitably going to grow dramatically, and soon.

By 2020 – just eight years, according to a little-noticed research paper publikshed in June for the UK-based energy company BP by Harvard University’s Leonardo Maugeri, the world will be producing 49 million more barrels per day of crude and natural gas liquids than it is today.

Peak oil, that point when the world reaches its maximum rate of extraction and production begins terminal decline, apparently is nowhere on the horizon, according to the 86-page paper, produced for Harvard’s Belford Center for Science and International Affairs and titled Oil: The next Revolution.

The global implications of Maugeri’s research are frightening. Will Hickey, a Fulbright professor of energy and human resources and associate professor of management at Solbridge International School of Business in Daejeon, South Korea, pointed out in a YaleGlobal article carried in Asia Sentinel on Oct. 12 that arctic ice is melting and altering global weather, with seas rising and wildfires increasing, and governments are simply ignoring the signs. A progressive tax on carbon emissions is absolutely essential, climate scientists say, but no governments are willing to dare the political fallout from instituting one anywhere.

The American environmentalist and journalist Bill McKibben, writing this month in Rolling Stone magazine, pointed out that May was the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 1099, “a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.”

Maugeri is hardly blind to the implications. Indeed, he writes, “A revolution in environmental and emission-curbing technologies is required to sustain the development of most unconventional oils – along with strong enforcement of existing rules. Without such a revolution, a continuous clash between the industry and environmental groups will force the governments to delay or constrain the development of new projects.” There seems to be no impetus for any such revolution, however, as both McKibben and Hickey argue. Instead, there is a wholesale campaign on the part of every country on the planet to find more fossil fuel resources and burn them. And they seem to be exceeding far beyond expectations. Fears at the turn of the century that fossil fuel production would be in terminal decline appear to be unfounded.

Maugeri acknowledges that his analysis could be subject to a significant margin of error, brought on by a possible new worldwide recession, a drastic retraction of the Chinese economy, a sudden resolution of the major political tensions affecting a big oil producer, or a collapse of the price of oil to below US$70 per barrel for benchmark Brent crude, the price at which most new technologies, like shale oil recovery, are viable.

However, the Internattional Energy Agency's mostr recent Mid-term Report on oil through 2017, while less willing to forecast in such specific terms, indicates that so-called unconventional oil in oil shale is growing significantly in North America. The forecast expects aggregate oil supplies to increase by 9.3 milliion barrels per day through 2017, with about 40 percent of liquids growth coming from North American oil sands or light tight oil production.

Maugeri writes that: “This oil revival is spurred by an unparalleled investment cycle that started in 2003 and has reached its climax from 2010 on, with three-year investments in oil and gas exploration and production of more than US$1.5 trillion.” Fossil fuel production, he argues, is in for an unprecedented upsurge, with capacity of 110.6 million barrels of production per day, up from 93 million bpd in 2011.

But production is changing. Hydrological fracturing, horizontal drilling and oil shale exploitation are taking over from traditional deep well drilling. The shale/tight oil boom is not a temporary bubble but rather the most important revolution in the oil sector in decades, Maugeri writes.

While Saudi Arabia will continue to lead the world in both reserves and production, production is shifting back to the west, with interesting political implications. “This is a novelty, because three out of four of these countries are part of the western hemisphere, and one only – Iraq – belongs to the traditional center of gravity of the oil world, the Persian Gulf.”

That raises the possibility that the Western hemisphere could return to its pre-World War II status of theoretical oil self-sufficiency, and the United States could dramatically reduce its oil import needs. Over the next decades, the growing role of these so-called unconventional oils will make the Western hemisphere the new center of gravity of oil exploration and production.

The US in fact has the world’s second highest reserves after Saudi Arabia, followed by Russia. After Iraq, which is fourth, Canada and Brazil are fifth and sixth, with China seventh. All will have more capacity by 2020 than they have today. The four countries showing the highest potential in terms of effective production capacity growth are, in order, Iraq, the United States, Canada, and Brazil.

Only four of the current big oil suppliers – those with more than a million barrels per day of production capacity – face a net reduction of their production capacity by 2020, Maugeri writes. They are Norway, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Iran. For the latter two, the loss of production is primarily due to political factors. All other producers are capable of increasing or preserving their production capacity. In fact, by balancing depletion rates and reserve growth on a country-by-country basis, decline profiles of already producing oilfields appear less pronounced than assessed by most experts, being no higher than 2 to 3 percent on a yearly basis.

“The most surprising factor of the global picture, however, is the explosion of the US oil output,” the report notes. “Thanks to the technological revolution brought about by the combined use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the US is now exploiting its huge and virtually untouched shale and tight oil fields, whose production – although still in its infancy – is already skyrocketing in North Dakota and Texas.”

The Bakken/Three Forks tight oil formation in North Dakota and Montana, could become as big as big as one of the Persian Gulf producers. There are more than 20 big shale oil formations, especially the Eagle Ford Shale, where the recent boom is revealing a hydrocarbon endowment comparable to that of the Bakken Shale. Most of that shale oil is profitable prices ranging from US$50 to $65 per bbl, well below current prices.

Obstacles remain that could significantly reduce the US shale output, among them the inadequate US oil transport system, its refining structure, the amount of associated natural gas produced with shale oil, and environmental doubts about hydraulic fracturing, which is coming under increasing fire from environmentalists for groundwater pollution and other problems.

However, the analysis notes, after considering the risk factors and the depletion of currently producing oilfields, the US could produce 11.6 million barrels per day of crude and natural gas liquids by 2020, making the country the second largest oil producer in the world after Saudi Arabia. Biofuels could push up overall capacity to more than 13 million barrels per day, representing about 65 percent of current US consumption.

“Oil is not in short supply,” he concludes. “From a purely physical point of view, there are huge volumes of conventional and unconventional oils still to be developed, with no “peak-oil” in sight. The real problems concerning future oil production are above the surface, not beneath it, and relate to political decisions and geopolitical instability.”