Jurassic Oil The Energy Editorial, May 2010
Why do we have to drill through a mile of water and then three miles of rock to get oil? Surely there are better options in the world’s geologic resource base than deep, acidic, high pressure deposits that threaten the waters and coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of Guinea, Campos Basin, Barents Sea and the Caspian. Most of this is oil that got deposited even before continental drift started.
Higher prices for oil - hovering around a robust $75 per barrel have expanded the recoverable oil in reserves, made smaller pockets more attractive and permitted more companies to get in the game. Technology has improved our ability to get more oil out of reserves in place. So why run the risks of dangerous, dirty, difficult deposits?
Thirty-five years ago when a couple of Arab oil producers embargoed the US and the Netherlands, international oil companies (IOC) based in industrialized western democracies controlled over 70% of the world’s oil. But already in the 1970s, producing countries were taking control of their oil resources from the international majors. Today, the situation is reversed. International majors in western democracies (this does not include the current Russia) hold less than 25% of world reserves and that level is eroding.
Now world oil is controlled by a disparate category of companies called National Oil Companies (NOC) most of whom operate only in their home country. They range from Norway’s nearly purely commercial Statoil to the largely politicized and destroyed PDVSA in Venezuela. Their efficiencies and agendas - and therefore the security of their supply - vary a great deal as a function of the extent they are tools of their governments" policies - or treated as piggy banks by their governments’ rulers.
IOC access to the oil resource bases of many of these oil countries is limited or non-existent. Nearly 70% of the world’s oil reserves are either entirely off limits to IOCs, or security problems prohibit work or the commercial conditions offered by the country are unacceptable to Boards of Directors or Wall Street. That introduces a lot of instability spread across a lot of the world’s oil as production in these provinces is largely in the hands of NOCs. Happily, instability is not synchronous across all these provinces, so problems in one place are often offset by welcome progress somewhere else.
But the real source of liquidity and agility to respond to stresses or surprises in oil markets is still provided by the IOCs or those national oil companies that have moved offshore and operate in a commercial mode. And it is those companies who are testing the limits of technology to bring difficult oil plays to the market.
In the 1800s, our cities were threatened by the environmental consequences of hundreds of thousands of horses daily leaving 10 kilos each of what we call today - biomass. The internal combustion engine resolved that problem in a few decades. BP’s accident in the gulf is an environmental disaster. It is not the first and will not be the last. Fossil fuels bring with them dangers throughout their fuel cycles. In producing, processing, transporting and consuming them we are suffering daily costs and over time eroding the quality of the very planet we inhabit.
But we live in a world fueled 80% by oil, coal and gas. Just now we need BP and companies like them looking for oil offshore - and clearly we need to do a better job of that. But the accident in the Gulf of Mexico, the coal mine disaster in Russia and the inexorable increase in global carbon emissions are just more reminders of why the world needs to move on from fossil fuels to a generation of carbon free technologies as quickly as our creativity and will can accomplish that. Fossil fuels have only been around for a tiny fraction of the life of mankind. They are not a part of our genetic code.