The myth of a new oil & gas-driven economic boom
by Nafeez M. Ahmed
Economic peak oil - when the costs of supply exceed the price economies can pay without major disruption - will arrive around 2014-15
Headlines about the World Energy Outlook report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), released in November 2012, would lead you to think we are literally swimming in oil. That report forecast that the United States will outstrip Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer by 2017, becoming "all but self-sufficient in net terms" in energy production. That notion was reported verbatim by media agencies worldwide.
The IEA report's general conclusions were backed up by several others in 2012. Exxon Mobil's 2013 Energy Outlook projected that demand for gas will grow by 65 percent through 2040, with 20 percent of worldwide production from North America, mostly from unconventional sources. The shale gas revolution will make the US a net exporter by 2025, it concludes. The US National Intelligence Council also predicted US energy independence by 2030. A similar chorus of headlines attended the release of a Harvard University report by Leonardo Maugeri (former executive with an Italian oil major). The gist of it all..."peak oil" is now an irrelevant meme -- out of touch with the data, disproven by the new abundance of cheap unconventional oil and gas.
Burning our Bridges
On the one hand, it's true: There are more than enough fossil fuels in the ground to drive an accelerated rush to the most extreme scenarios of climate catastrophe. The increasing shift from conventional to unconventional forms of oil and gas - tar sands, oil shale, and especially shale gas - heralds an unnerving acceleration of carbon emissions, rather than the deceleration promised by those who advocate shale as a clean 'bridge fuel' to renewables.
According to the CO2 Scorecard Group, contrary to industry claims, shale gas "cannot be credited" with US emissions reductions over the last half decade. Nearly 90 percent of reductions were caused not by switching to shale gas, but by a "decline in petroleum use" linked to the replacement of coal by wind, hydro and other renewables. To make matters worse, where natural gas saved 50 million tons of carbon by substituting for coal in electricity, increased gas use in commercial, residential and industrial sectors generated 66 million additional tons of carbon.
In fact, studies show that when methane leakages are incorporated into an assessment of shale gas' CO2 emissions, natural gas could even surpass coal in terms of overall climate impact. As for tar sands and oil shales, emissions are 1.2 to 1.75 times higher than for conventional oil. No wonder the IEA's chief economist Fatih Birol remarked pessimistically that "the world is going in the wrong direction in terms of climate change."
Scaling the Peak
Delving deeper into the available data shows that despite being capable of triggering dangerous global warming, we are already in the throes of a global energy transition: the age of cheap oil is well and truly over. For most serious analysts, far from signifying a world running out of oil, "peak oil" refers simply to the point when, due to a combination of below-ground geological constraints and above-ground economic factors, oil becomes increasingly and irreversibly more difficult and expensive to produce. That point is now.
US Energy Information Administration (EIA) data confirms that despite the US producing a "total oil supply" of 10 million barrels per day (up by 2 mbd since January 2005) world crude oil production remains on the largely flat, undulating plateau it has been on since it stopped rising in 2005 at 74 million barrels per day (mbd). According to John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil, "flat production for the most part" over the last decade has dovetailed with annual decline rates for existing fields of about "4 to 5 million bpd." Combined with "constant growing demand" - particularly from China and emerging markets - he argues, this will underpin higher oil prices for the foreseeable future.
The IEA's World Energy Outlook actually corroborates this picture - but the devil is in the largely-overlooked details. Firstly, the main reason US oil supply will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia is because Saudi and Russian output is projected to decline, not rise as previously assumed. So while US output creeps up from 10 to 11 mbd in 2025, post-peak Saudi output will fall to 10.6 mbd and Russia to 9.5 mbd.
Secondly, the report's projected increase in "oil production" from 84 mbd in 2011 to 97 mbd in 2035 comes not from conventional oil, but "entirely from natural gas liquids and unconventional sources" (and half of this from unconventional gas including shale) - with conventional crude oil output (excluding light tight oil) fluctuating between 65 mbd and 69 mbd, never quite reaching the historic peak of 70 mbd in 2008 and falling by 3 mbd sometime after 2012. The IEA also does not forecast a return to the cheap oil heyday of the pre-2000 era, but rather a long-term price rise to about $125 per barrel by 2035.
Thirdly, oil prices would be much higher if not for the fact that governments are heavily subsidizing fossil fuels. The WEO revealed that fossil fuel subsidies increased 30 percent to $523 billion in 2011, masking the threat of high prices. Therefore, world conventional oil production is already on a fluctuating plateau, and we are now increasingly dependent on more expensive unconventional sources. The age of cheap oil abundance is over.
Fudging the Figures
But there are further reasons for concern. For how reliable is the IEA's data? In a series of investigations Lionel Badal exposed in 2009 how key data was deliberately fudged at the IEA under US pressure to artificially inflate official reserve figures. Not only that, but Badal later discovered that as early as 1998, extensive IEA data exploding assumptions of "sustained economic growth and low unemployment," had been systematically suppressed for political reasons, according to several whistleblowers. With the IEA's research under such intense US political scrutiny and interference for 12 years, its findings should perhaps not always be taken at face value. The same goes, even more so, for Maugeri's celebrated Harvard report. This was funded by two oil majors - Eni and British Petroleum (BP), was not peer-reviewed and contained a litany of errors.
What the Scientists Say
In contrast to the blaring media attention generated by Maugeri's report, three peer-reviewed studies published in reputable science journals in 2012 offered a less than jubilant perspective. A paper published in the premier scientific journal Nature by Sir David King, the UK's former chief government scientist, found that despite reported increases in oil reserves, tar sands, natural gas and shale gas production via fracking, depletion of the world’s existing fields is still running at 4.5 percent to 6.7 percent per year. They firmly dismissed notions that a shale gas boom would avert an energy crisis, noting that production at shale gas wells drops by as much as 60 to 90 percent in the first year of operation. The paper received little, if any, media fanfare.
Sir David King's team at Oxford University published another peer-reviewed paper in 2012, in Energy Policy. It concluded that the industry had overstated world oil reserves by about a third. Estimates should be downgraded from 1150-1350 billion barrels to 850-900 billion barrels. As a consequence, the authors argued: "While there is certainly vast amounts of fossil fuel resources left in the ground, the volume of oil that can be commercially exploited at prices the global economy has become accustomed to is limited and will soon decline." The study was largely blacked out in the media - bar a solitary report in the Daily Telegraph, to its credit.
In June 2012 - the same month as Maugeri's deeply flawed analysis - an extensive analysis of oil industry data published by US financial risk analyst Gail Tverberg, found that since 2005, "world conventional oil supply has not increased," that this was "a primary cause of the 2008-2009 recession" and that the "expected impact of reduced oil supply" will mean the "financial crisis may eventually worsen." But all the media attention was on oilman Maugeri's oil-funded report - Tverberg's peer-reviewed study in a reputable science journal, with its somewhat darker message, was ignored.
What Happens When Shale Boom Goes Boom?
These scientific studies are not the only indications that something is deeply wrong with the IEA's assessment of prospects for shale gas production and accompanying economic prosperity. Business Insider reports that far from being profitable, the shale gas industry is facing huge financial hurdles. "The economics of fracking are horrid," observes US financial journalist Wolf Richter. "Production falls off a cliff from day one and continues for a year or so until it levels out at about 10 per cent of initial production." The result is that "drilling is destroying capital at an astonishing rate, and drillers are left with a mountain of debt just when decline rates are starting to wreak their havoc. To keep the decline rates from mucking up income statements, companies had to drill more and more, with new wells making up for the declining production of old wells. Alas, the scheme hit a wall, namely reality."
By the last quarter of 2012, Exxon's CEO, Rex Tillerson, complained that the lower prices due to the US natural gas glut, although reducing energy costs for consumers, were depressing prices and, thus, dramatically decreasing profits. This problem is compounded primarily by the swiftly plummeting production rates at shale wells, which start high but fall fast. Although in shareholder and annual meetings, Exxon had officially insisted it was not losing money on gas, Tillerson candidly told a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations: "We are all losing our shirts today. We're making no money. It's all in the red."
The oil industry has actively and deliberately attempted to obscure the challenges facing shale gas production. A seminal New York Times investigation last year found that despite a public stance of extreme optimism, the US oil industry is "privately skeptical of shale gas." According to the Times, "the gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying, according to hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents and an analysis of data from thousands of wells." The decline rates for shale gas reserves are are incredibly high.
Chesapeake Energy recently found itself in exactly this situation, forcing it to sell assets to meet its obligations. "Staggering under high debt," reported the Washington Post, Chesapeake said "it would sell $6.9 billion of gas fields and pipelines - another step in shrinking the company whose brash chief executive had made it a leader in the country’s shale gas revolution." The sale was forced by a "combination of low natural gas prices and excessive borrowing." The worst-case scenario is that several large oil companies find themselves facing financial distress simultaneously.
The eventual consequences of the current gas glut, in other words, are more than likely to be an unsustainable shale bubble that collapses under its own weight, precipitating a supply collapse and price spike. Rather than fueling prosperity, the shale revolution will instead boost a temporary recovery masking deeper, structural instabilities. Inevitably, those instabilities will collide, leaving us with an even bigger financial mess, on a faster trajectory toward costly environmental destruction.
So when is crunch time? According to a new report from the New Economics Foundation, the arrival of economic peak oil - when the costs of supply "exceeds the price economies can pay without significantly disrupting economic activity" - will be around 2014-15. Black gold, it would seem, is not the answer to our problems.
Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It