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Behind the oil boom lurks oil well depletion

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Jim Urquhart/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A mixture of oil, diesel fuel, water and mud sprays as roughnecks wrestle pipe on a True Company oil drilling rig outside Watford, N.D. Production from "tight oil" wells has risen, Cobb writes, but not enough to offset declines elsewhere.

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With the media awash in stories telling us how much oil is being discovered around the world, there is one word which the optimists quoted in these stories refuse to utter: Depletion.

The simple fact is that depletion never sleeps. It starts as soon as an oil well begins production and goes on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Furthermore, it is not exactly news that oil is being discovered all around the world. The industry has been spending record amounts to find it.

What’s critical is the difference between the annual additions to oil production capacity and the annual decline in the rate of production from existing wells, a decline which is running anywhere from 4 to 9 percent depending on whom you talk to.

Even at the low end of decline rate estimates, the world must find and put into production the equivalent of what is currently coming out of the entire North Sea, one the world’s largest finds, and we must do so EVERY SINGLE YEAR before worldwide production can rise. So difficult has this task become, that we’ve only just been able to keep global production on a bumpy plateau since 2005. For now, the oil industry is on a treadmill which requires ever more drilling just to keep production even. 

(Many regular readers will wonder why I continually emphasize the flat trajectory of world oil production since 2005. It’s so new readers will be introduced to this central fact about oil supplies—an indisputable trend which the industry simply refuses to talk about and even tries to obscure by changing the definition of oil to include things which are not oil. This trend has ominous implications for our society if it continues or, even worse, turns downward.)

To the untrained observer the quantities of oil recently discovered sound large. But, when put into the context of how much we consume, they won’t extend the oil age by much. Norway, which produces oil from the North Sea, recently announced its largest find since 2000, a field with nearly 1.8 billion barrels. How long would the oil in that field last the world at the current rate of consumption? About 24 days.

The math looks like this. The world currently consumes about 27.4 billion barrels a year of crude oil including lease condensate—which is the definition of oil. So, just divide 1.8 billion by 27.4 billion and multiply the fractional result by 365 days in a year, and you’ll get the number of days such a discovery could supply the world if we could pump it out at any rate we want to (which we can’t).

Well, there are larger discoveries in Brazil, you may say. If we accept the government’s figures on their face (and we really ought to be a little skeptical), then the Tupi field has 5 to 8 billion barrels and the Sugarloaf field has 33 billion. (The truth is no one really knows because there hasn’t been enough drilling.)

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Let’s take the top end of the estimates and call it 41 billion barrels. If we do the above calculation for just one billion barrels, we find that it will last about 13 days. And so, a little multiplication tells us that two of the most massive finds ever (if they actually pan out) will give us 41 X 13 days of oil or 533 days, which is about a year and a half. It’s nothing to sneeze at; but it doesn’t exactly change the overall picture that much.

And, of course, this number holds only if the world does NOT increase its rate of oil consumption. But economic growth is dependent on ever increasing supplies of oil, a fuel central to every economy on the globe. India, China and many other developing countries have consistently increased oil consumption to fuel their economic growth. But because worldwide production has been flat since 2005, consumption in places such as the United States has had to fall in order to make room for growing demand from Asia.

This has happened because American and European consumers aren’t willing or aren’t able to pay as much. Oil analyst Steven Kopits has explained the counterintuitive idea that poor Asians are willing to pay more for oil and oil products than rich Westerners because poor Asians get so much more economic productivity out of the marginal barrel of oil than rich Westerners who consume many times more barrels of oil per person. The result has been that developed countries in North America and Europe have seen very little growth in their economies as Asian economies continue to sprint ahead.

Of course, the optimists have been telling us (and telling us and telling us) that so-called tight oil—the kind that comes from hydraulically fractured wells—will now finally move the needle on worldwide production. Well, so far, the net result is nada, nothing, zilch. Production from such wells has risen, but not enough to offset declines elsewhere.

And, as it turns out, fracked oil wells are now the poster children for the problem of production decline. Average annual oil production decline rates for two of the most well-developed tight oil plays, Bakken in North Dakota and Eagle-Ford in Texas, are 38 percent and 42 percent, respectively. That means that drillers in those plays must replace 38 to 42 percent of their current production EACH YEAR before they can increase production. It’s a ferociously high decline rate, some 10 times the rate worldwide. And, this is the oil that the optimists tell us is going to raise global production!

Humans evolved to be optimistic risktakers. That genetic heritage has served us well up to this point. But, sometimes that trait makes us incautious and gullible. And, the oil industry is taking advantage of a natural human inclination to believe the presumed experts, especially when they offer an optimistic tale that is designed to make us comfortable with the status quo.

In truth, unprecedented disruptions and changes in our worldwide energy system have been underway for more than a decade. We can ignore that fact, but only at our peril.

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