Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Myth of the Oil Crisis by Robin M. Mills

In recent years, it has become the mantra among peak oil believers, the media, and even many industry professionals that "the age of easy oil is over". As William J Cummings, Exxon Mobil's spokesperson in Angola, said, "All the easy oil and gas in the world has pretty much been found. Now comes the harder work in finding and producing oil from more challenging environments and work areas".

This contention does not stand up to investigation. There has never been an age of easy oil, beginning with Colonel Drake's first well in Titusville, Pennsylvania (1859).

William Knox D'Arcy's 1908 discovery at Masjed-e Suleiman in Iran, the first find of oil in the Middle East, was a formidably difficult endeavor:

' At seven in the morning, the temperature was 110 degrees in the shade...and already five of the small band of Europeans, together with a Baghdad mechanic, ha been touched by the sun and one of them was dying. For the last six days grasshoppers swarmed across the country like locusts and devoured every trace of green pasture. The river was full of them and the water stank. Their bodies lay all over the camp and everywhere the men went they trod through a squelching mass of dead insects. Every half-hour they skimmed them from the water tanks. Small pox had broken out at Sekhuan, where they got their food and water. Their dwindling stock of firewood for the boiler was constantly being raided and then the boiler itself collapsed, its tubes corroded by the sulphorous waters. Letters from home, always the consolation of the exile, had failed to arrive because the carrier and his camel had died on route- and to cap it all, some idiot had just dropped a 14-lb. sledgehammer down the well.'

'The development of North Sea oil during the 1970's was the greatest technical challenge the industry ever faced. Entirely new technologies, backed by innovative financing, had to be devised to meet the vast cost of developments in this hostile environment. A series of disasters cost many lives: the sinking of the Sea Gem in 1965, with thirteen deaths, having just discovered the first offshore hydrocarbons in the U.K.; three sailors who died during the evacuation of the Hewett platform during the 1967 blowout; the collapse of the Alexander Kjelland rig in 1980, killing 123; and the fire and explosion on the Piper Alpha platform in 1998, in which 67 people died. Easy oil proponents should try telling a driller who worked the North Sea in the 1970's that this was easy oil- but keep a safe distance."

'The Soviet exploitation of the West Siberian oil fields involved the construction of million strong cities in some of the coldest areas of the planet, such as Novosbirsk (January temperature -19C)
The big Russian gas fields, brought on stream in the 1970's and 1980's, lie north of the limit of continuous permafrost, in which there are only two months per year when rivers are not frozen (and during those months, the area floods to a depth of 1.5-2 meters, a treeless region swept continuously by gale-force winds. Concrete had to be made with steam to prevent it from freezing."

Those who talk about easy oil lack a sense of perspective, because one's own problems tend to loom larger than others, particularly in the past. Alternatively, and in a more Machiavellian way, the industry likes the idea of the end of easy oil because in emphasizes the challenges they face. It also appeals to environmentalists because it promises an end to this nasty black stuff. However, although convenient, the idea of easy oil or an end to it is incorrect.


  1. What Bush didn't understand was that the "global warming hypothesis" and our rapid march towards a hypothetical tipping point- no matter how controversial among scientists (which it actually is)- is manifestly to the advantage of the oil industry. Low Co2 emission mining, refining and utilization is actually the most efficient and profitable way to go and the one mostly likely to keep them in business the longest.

  2. Obviously I have become increasingly frustrated with my inability to comment on the contents of this book with any useful cogency.

    Google "sustainability" and you might soon discover that every catagory of human interest, knowledge and industry can be subsumed under the rubric of sustainability. Every thing, every motion, thought or feeling is becoming schematized as either sustainable or non-sustainable; a rising tide of anti-intellectual manicheism no less destructive than biblical fundamentalism itself. Use of the term is beginning to constitute a significant erasure of meaning in the domain of human communications.

    Well, maybe things arn't quite so bad as that but it certainly has become quite annoying and represents an obstacle to modestly coherent expositions on the matter.

  3. "The stone age did not end for any lack of stones and the oil age will end, but not for lack of oil"

    - Saudi oil minister Sheik Zaki Yamani-

    There have been many advancements in exploration, drilling, heavy oil extraction, coal gasification, biofuel, shale oil,tar-sand development, as well as new opportunities in nuclear, solar and wind power generation of electrical energy.

    I am not in a position to reliably assess the author's contentions in this respect. The fact that pumping Co2 into wells succeeds in extracting more oil from certain kinds of rock than other known methods (e.g. water) and that the Co2 can be subsequently stabilized in those formations without damaging potable water resources seems highly encouraging.

    He also claims that coal can be safely and efficiently gasified without removing it from the ground. Heavy oil deposits in the U.S. exceed conventional deposits in Saudi Arabia and he thinks they can now be exploited much more efficiently with far less damaging emissions than previously. He points out that most of the planet's gas resources remain undeveloped or wasted.

    The supply of fuel for fission power plants is "virtually inexhaustible" and most of the problems of waste can be safely managed. Non-food source biofuels that can be grown in arid regions unsuitable for other crops and produce considerably more energy than is required to generate it are available.

    "Adopting sub-optimal solutions today merely because they are sustainable makes us poorer without any compensating gain"

    Furthermore, some of the putatively "sustainable" alternatives have their problems. Up to this point, for example, the manufacture of photo-voltaic solar panels involves heavy metals and toxic solvents, as do most batteries. Power generating wind farms on a scale sufficient to replace all by a tiny fraction of our energy needs would require vast amonts of land.

    Even if, technologically speaking, the solutions that the author of this book proposals are feasible, within the parameters set by an acceptance of the global warming hypothsis and the environmental threats thus posed, there is still the problem of the political will to put them in place, the willingness to make the long-term investments necessary to see that they occur.

    In regards to that problem books like "Physics for Future Presidents; The Science Behind The Headlines" by Berkeley professor Richard A. Muller is quite useful.

  4. Photo

    The first big gusher in the Middle East was the discovery well in 1908 at Masjed-e-Soleiman (Masjid-i-Suleiman) field in the Meidan Naftoon region of Persia. The well was drilled by William Knox D'Arcy, an Englishman who had made a fortune mining gold in Australia. He managed to secure an exclusive concession for oil exploration in most of what is now modern Iran from the Shah of Tehran in 1901, and began drilling in the southern part of the country in 1903. His big strike came shortly after 4:00 AM on the morning of May 26, 1908 when the Masjed Soleyman No. 1 well blew out at about 1180 feet, sending a column of oil 50 feet above the drilling rig. The following day, Well No. 1 tested at a rate of about 297 barrels of oil a day. The next year D'Arcy organized his holdings into the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which later became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), a predecessor of British Petroleum (BP).