A former British Petroleum (BP) geologist has warned that the age of cheap oil is long gone, bringing with it the danger of “continuous recession” and increased risk of conflict and hunger.
At a lecture on ‘Geohazards’ earlier this month as part of the postgraduate Natural Hazards for Insurers course at University College London (UCL), Dr. Richard G. Miller, who worked for BP from 1985 before retiring in 2008, said that official data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), US Energy Information Administration (EIA), International Monetary Fund (IMF), among other sources, showed that conventional oil had most likely peaked around 2008.
Dr. Miller critiqued the official industry line that global reserves will last 53 years at current rates of consumption, pointing out that “peaking is the result of declining production rates, not declining reserves.” Despite new discoveries and increasing reliance on unconventional oil and gas, 37 countries are already post-peak, and global oil production is declining at about 4.1% per year, or 3.5 million barrels a day (b/d) per year:
“We need new production equal to a new Saudi Arabia every 3 to 4 years to maintain and grow supply… New discoveries have not matched consumption since 1986. We are drawing down on our reserves, even though reserves are apparently climbing every year. Reserves are growing due to better technology in old fields, raising the amount we can recover – but production is still falling at 4.1% p.a. [per annum].”
Dr. Miller, who prepared annual in-house projections of future oil supply for BP from 2000 to 2007, refers to this as the “ATM problem” – “more money, but still limited daily withdrawals.” As a consequence: “Production of conventional liquid oil has been flat since 2008. Growth in liquid supply since then has been largely of natural gas liquids [NGL]- ethane, propane, butane, pentane – and oil-sand bitumen.”
Dr. Miller is co-editor of a special edition of the prestigious journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, published this month on the future of oil supply. In an introductory paper co-authored with Dr. Steve R. Sorrel, co-director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex in Brighton, they argue that among oil industry experts “there is a growing consensus that the era of cheap oil has passed and that we are entering a new and very different phase.” They endorse the conservative conclusions of an extensive earlier study by the government-funded UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC):
“… a sustained decline in global conventional production appears probable before 2030 and there is significant risk of this beginning before 2020… on current evidence the inclusion of tight oil [shale oil] resources appears unlikely to significantly affect this conclusion, partly because the resource base appears relatively modest.”
In fact, increasing dependence on shale could worsen decline rates in the long run:
“Greater reliance upon tight oil resources produced using hydraulic fracturing will exacerbate any rising trend in global average decline rates, since these wells have no plateau and decline extremely fast – for example, by 90% or more in the first 5 years.”
Tar sands will fare similarly, they conclude, noting that “the Canadian oil sands will deliver only 5 mb per day by 2030, which represents less than 6% of the IEA projection of all-liquids production by that date.”
Despite the cautious projection of global peak oil “before 2020”, they also point out that:
“Crude oil production grew at approximately 1.5% per year between 1995 and 2005, but then plateaued with more recent increases in liquids supply largely deriving from NGLs, oil sands and tight oil. These trends are expected to continue… Crude oil production is heavily concentrated in a small number of countries and a small number of giant fields, with approximately 100 fields producing one half of global supply, 25 producing one quarter and a single field (Ghawar in Saudi Arabia) producing approximately 7%. Most of these giant fields are relatively old, many are well past their peak of production, most of the rest seem likely to enter decline within the next decade or so and few new giant fields are expected to be found.”