As WikiLeaks’s trove of diplomatic dispatches continues to trickle out, one recent release has caused quite a stir: a cable from an American diplomat who said he was told by a Saudi oil executive that both official estimates of Saudi oil reserves and their ability to meet global demand in the long run have been vastly exaggerated. In turn, many proponents of "peak oil" theory, the idea that the global rate of oil production has entered a terminal decline, have insisted that the cable confirms their view on resource scarcity.
Actually, it does nothing of the sort. The Saudi executive, Sadad al-Husseini, a former head of exploration for the Saudi oil monopoly Aramco, has been making such claims for years. Finding them repeated in a confidential cable is news only to those unfamiliar with the field.
More important, his claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, according to the cable, Dr. Husseini said that estimates of Saudi "reserves" were exaggerated by some 300 billion barrels. But this is impossible, as the Saudi government’s estimate of proven reserves is actually less than that amount -- roughly 267 billion barrels.
More likely, Dr. Husseini was referring to claims by some Saudi oil executives that, over the long term, they expect to find 900 billion barrels in the ground, and that 51 percent of it will be recoverable. So the dispute has nothing to do with current reserves, but with projections that are speculative by definition. Aramco’s numbers may be an educated guess, but experts in the field know they are just a guess.
And, in fact, they are hardly an unreasonable estimate. While peak-oil advocates have in the past ridiculed optimistic industry expectations, the evidence continues to confound them. Over recent decades, the consensus estimates of the amount of recoverable oil on the planet have roughly doubled. And recovery rates -- the percentage of those reserves that we are technologically able to collect -- have grown from 10 percent a century ago, to 25 percent a half-century ago, to an estimated 35 percent now. In some areas, like the North Sea, the figure is above 60 percent.
There are several other reasons to remain calm about Saudi reserves. Officials there have discovered approximately 70 major oil fields that they have left untapped over concerns that increased Saudi production would cause global oil prices to collapse.
And while Aramco is hardly likely to find anything on the scale of the Ghawar oil field, the world’s largest, they haven’t been looking very hard. The Saudis drilled about 500 wells last year; some 11,000 are drilled every year in the United States alone.
So why is this a big deal? Because advocates of peak-oil theory love to latch on to such press reports to push their political and environmental agenda.
Monday, February 28, 2011
Peak Oil Nonsense Peaked?
From Michael Lynch's op-ed in the February 25th New York Times: