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Revisiting “The End of Cheap Oil"

Prior to writing the article “The End of Cheap Oil” for the March 1998 issue of Scientific American magazine, we wrote four important oil and gas studiesi,ii,iii,iv totaling about 1350 pages. Colin also had written a splendid book called The Coming Oil Crisis (Feb 1997).

During September of 1997, we were approached by Wayt Gibbs with SciAm to write an article. It took several months, many mailings and lots of faxes to finalize the article with Wayt (my file contains over 90 pages of mail exchanges, excluding graphs). We were paid the grand sum of $500 each —half a good consultant’s daily rate—but the work was worth it. In our collaboration, Colin was the writer and I was the draftsman.

After publication, our article was chosen as one out of 25 stories in the book Censored 1998, published by Sonoma State University. Their write-up describing the article included the following note:

21. Global Oil Reserves Alarmingly Overestimated
Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrere, two independent oil-industry consultants, predict that global production of conventional oil will start to decline within the next 10 years and be unable to keep up with demand thereafter. Their analysis contradicts oil-industry reports which suggest we have another 50 years worth of cheap oil to sustain us. As the independent report points out, economic and political motives cause oil-producing companies and countries to publish inflated figures, and this affects all of us.

As the price of oil went down to $10/barrel by year’s end, we were considered crazy to proclaim the end of cheap oil!

Then Colin created ODAC [the London-based Oil Depletion Analysis Center] with the Astor family. He subsequently created ASPO with the help of retired oil geologists and key individuals from European universities. ASPO provides the logistical support for organizing an annual international conference (Uppsala, Paris, Berlin, Lisbon, Pisa, Cork). Then, between 2005 and today, the number of ASPOs around the world grew steadily to over 30. At each annual ASPO conference, Colin and I keep wondering when we will see the peak of ASPO, and we still wonder.

The strongest argument in the article was the huge difference between the confidential technical backdated mean reserves and the published political current proved reserves as shown in Figure 1 for conventional oil. Nine years later, the updated data (Figure 2) confirms the trend we forecast, despite the fact that the political data now includes some unconventional oil (tarsands). Our guesses, indicated by the two arrows, were not too bad, despite the fact that the growth in political reserves was more than anticipated, thanks to the changed definition of oil. Figure 2 helps explain why many economists, who have no access to the technical data, are wrong; it is not bad analysis on their part, but bad data.

The solution to this problem is to push the oil producing countries to publish their field-by-field technical data as the UK and Norway are doing: annual production of the major oil fields from their start-up dates. Before that is done, the SEC’s definition of proved reserves, written back in 1978, has to be changed. OPEC’s proved reserve figures should also be removed from the computation of each nation’s production quota. As Sadad Al-Husseini (retired Aramco VP) stated recently, “the 300 billion barrels of reserve growth in OPEC [during the 1980s]…are speculative resources because of the quotas.”

The main weakness of our article was that we only addressed conventional reserves and conventional oil production. Oil demand includes all liquids because “oil” is any liquid which can burn. The main change in the USDOE/EIA reports is that they have replaced oil with liquids. Oil supply must fill the oil demand and must include all liquids. All oil forecasts must be tied to the present oil supply as reported by the EIA and IEA for about 85 million b/d for the last two years. The fact that we in ASPO are not using the same definitions for oil shows that it is difficult to reach agreement if there is not an official statement. Ambiguity is the rule in the oil domain!

The thing that we did not anticipate is the position of some IOCs (e.g., ExxonMobil) and outer oil outfits (CERA) to deny the peak of oil production before 2030, while acknowledging that the peak of oil discovery is recognized by everyone to have occurred during the 1960s.

Jean H. Laherrere, working for Total, participated in discovery of two supergiant oil fields in the Sahara: Hassi Messaoud and Hassi R'Mel. He went to explore Central, Southern and Western Australia plus parts of Canada. Later he went to TOTAL headquarters in Paris where he was in charge successively of new ventures negotiation, technical services and research, basin exploration departments and finally deputy exploration manager. After 37 years of worldwide exploration with TOTAL, he retired in 1991. He now participates with ASPO-France, writes articles and gives lectures.

Notes

(i) Perrodon, A., J.H. Laherrere, C.J. Campbell, “The World’s Non-Conventional Oil and Gas,” Petroleum Economist, March 1998, p. 113.

(ii) Laherrere, J.H., A. Perrodon, G. Demaison, „The World’s Gas Potential,“ Petroconsultants report, July 1996, p. 200.

(iii) Campbell, C.J., J.J. Laherrere, “The World’s Oil Supply: 1930 – 2050,” October 1995, Petroconsultants report, 650 report.

(iv) Laherrere, J.H., A. Perrodon, G. Demaison, „Undiscovered Petroleum Potential,“ Petroconsultants Report, p. 383.

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent ASPO-USA's positions; they are personal statements and observations by informed commentators.)

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