Monday, April 25, 2011

Oil's Future

Here are some bits from a WSJ interview with the CEO of Chevron:
The Chevron CEO is a rare breed these days: an unapologetic oil man. For decades—going back to Jimmy Carter—politicians have been peddling an America free of fossil fuels. Mr. Obama has taken that to an unprecedented level, closing off more acreage to drilling, pouring money into green energy, pushing new oil company taxes, instituting anticarbon regulations. America is going backward on affordable energy, even as oil hits $110 a barrel.

Enter the tall, bespectacled Mr. Watson, who a little more than a year ago stepped into the shoes of longtime CEO David O'Reilly. An economist by training, soft-spoken by nature, the 53-year-old Mr. Watson is hardly some swaggering wildcatter. Yet in a year of speeches, he has emerged as one of the industry's foremost energy realists. No "Beyond Petroleum" (BP) for him. On energy, he says, America "has a lot to learn."

Starting with the argument—so popular among greens and Democrats—that we are running out of oil. "Peak oil"—the theory that global oil production will soon hit maximum levels and begin to decline—is a favorite among this crowd, and it is one basis for their call for more biofuels and solar power. Mr. Watson doesn't dismiss the idea but explains why it remains largely irrelevant.

In theory, he says, "we've been running out of oil and gas for a long time," yet technology creates new opportunities. Mr. Watson cites a Chevron field long in decline down the road in Bakersfield—to the point that for every 100 barrels of oil "in place," the company was extracting only 10 or 20. But thanks to a new technology called steam flooding, Chevron is now getting 70 to 80 barrels. "Price creates incentive, and energy will be developed if there's demand for it at the price you can develop it," Mr. Watson says. In that sense, "oil and gas are plentiful."

Don't believe it? Over the past 30 years, even as "peak oil" was a trendy theme, the world's proven reserves of oil and natural gas increased 130%, to 2.5 trillion barrels.

Or consider America's latest energy innovation: hydrofracking for abundant and cheap natural gas. This advance, says Mr. Watson, took even the industry "by surprise"—as evidenced by the many U.S. ports to import liquid natural gas that are now "sitting idle." Chevron last year paid $3.2 billion to buy natural-gas producer Atlas Energy as its foray into this new market.

Mr. Watson has little time for the Beltway fiction that America will soon be able to do without, or nearly without, fossil fuels. Yes, "we need all forms of energy." But the world consumes 250 million barrels of energy equivalent today, only a "tiny fraction of which" is wind and solar—and even those "are not affordable at scale," he says.

As for biofuels, "we would need to consume land the size of states" to hit the country's current ethanol targets. Chevron is investigating biofuels, but Mr. Watson says the "economics aren't there" yet. Unlike many CEOs, Mr. Watson insists on products that can prosper without federal subsidies, which he believes are costly and lacking in transparency when "consumer pockets are tight, government pockets are tight."

Bottom line: "We're going to need oil and gas and coal for a long time if America wants to keep the lights on."


But what about the BP Gulf spill? Mr. Watson blames the "cultural aspects and behavioral aspects" of the particular drilling rig that exploded. He roundly disagrees with the finding of Mr. Obama's spill commission that the "root causes" of the spill were "systemic" to the industry.

"There is no evidence to support that. I don't know how that conclusion was reached. I know the industry has drilled 14,000 deep water wells without having this sort of problem." As for the moratorium, "I can understand taking a pause. I can't understand shutting down a whole industry for a better part of a year."

Chevron has three deep water rigs in the Gulf, so the ban cost it millions of dollars in idle rigs and lost jobs. For the country, says Mr. Watson, it means "less oil." Offshore drilling takes years of lead time. Mr. Watson cites Chevron's Gulf "Tahiti" project, which started producing about 18 months ago. It has taken "the better part of a decade to do the seismic work, drill the exploratory wells, evaluate those wells, drill other development wells, to delineate it, to build the facilities and to place the oil wells online," he explains.

The endless moratorium has already meant that "if you go out to the middle of the decade, there are already 200,000 to 300,000 barrels a day of oil that aren't going to be produced that year. . . . That won't be retrieved." And the lost production number is getting larger, since the new Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management is still dallying on permits—and those primarily for backlogged projects, not new leases.

Democrats are now arguing, as Mr. Obama did in his speech, that the oil industry already "holds tens of millions of acres of leases where it's not producing a drop." Some are advocating "use it or lose it," calling for the government to strip oil companies of their leases if they don't immediately start producing.

Mr. Watson explains why this is bogus. Only one-third of Chevron's offshore leases are classified as "producing" oil and gas today. The other two-thirds either are "unsuccessful" (they don't hold viable oil or gas) or "are in varying stages of development—seismic work, drilling wells, constructing facilities." Mr. Watson says companies would be crazy to sit on productive lands, since leases require costly bonus payments and annual rental payments to the government.

If Washington institutes Mr. Obama's "use it or lose it" policy, Mr. Watson says, it will mean less U.S. oil production. And how does this help Mr. Obama with his goal of reducing imported oil?

As for soaring oil prices, Mr. Watson blames growing demand, tighter supply, Mideast uncertainty and inflation. He doesn't predict future price trends, though during a recent analyst call he warned that the drilling moratorium would only make them higher. Lost production in the Gulf is "going to represent a sizable chunk of the spare capacity that the industry expects to see. And that will impact prices, and that will retard economic growth."

The economy is also why Mr. Watson won't pay the usual energy CEO lip service to new carbon regulations. The cap-and-trade bill the House passed in 2009 was "poorly conceived and it collapsed under its own weight for good reason," he notes.

The EPA move to regulate carbon is no better: "It's not why the Clean Air Act was put in place, and it doesn't seem to be the right way to attack concerns about greenhouse gas emissions," he says. The EPA is "placing huge new regulatory burdens on industries that are import sensitive." The regulations will place burdens on refineries, putting "their competitiveness at risk, and ultimately we'll produce less gasoline here and end up importing it from refineries that are less energy efficient overseas."
There is more material in the WSJ article. Go read the whole thing.

I got a chuckle out of my father who during the 1970s "oil shortage" told me that when he was a kid in the 1920s the schools taught him that America would "soon run out of oil". It will. But not in my lifetime and probably not during the 21st century. Definitely by the early 22nd century oil will be mostly gone, but there will still be lots of coal and lots of methane clathrate waiting to be "produced" and used as an energy source. The CEO of Chevron said there was 2.5 trillion of known oil reserves. I think he is undercounting. Canada alone has over 1 trillion barrels of oil sands. The far north of Canada has not been explored and the Russians are getting very nationalistic and aggressive in the Arctic ocean because there will probably be several trillion barrels of oil there waiting to be produced.

Since I think the "dangers" of global warming are based on bad models that over-estimate the greenhouse effect of CO2 and under-estimate the other feedback loops in dynamic weather, I'm not as concerned as most with the exploitation of all this oil. But it if does prove to be a problem, within a decade a crash program could shift 80% of energy over to nuclear reactors with all personal transportation shifted to electricity and not fossil fuel (saving the fossil fuel for long haul transportation).

I'm a pessimistic optimist. I think technology holds lots of promise. But I'm realistic enough to know that humans will mostly try to dodge the tough choices as long and hard as possible and create all kinds of crises before the every "solve" the energy crisis or get on top of "global warming". It is like democracy. Democracy is well understood to be the worst possible form of government, except that all the other choices are in fact far worse. Humanity will muddle through. That's my pessimistic optimism speaking.

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