Pessimism and Oil Production

The end of oil and/or peak oil is always just around the corner.  Whether it be at the global, national, state, or geological formation scales, the lack of long-term optimism is the same.  And yet, time after time, history – more precisely, economics coupled with technological advancements – proves the detractors wrong.

In 1980, during Jimmy Carter's last year in office, with the great crises of energy shortages and widespread economic malaise, global proved oil reserves were 683 billion barrels.  Keep in mind that the world price of oil in 1980, accounting for inflation, was the same as during 2013.  By the end of Ronald Reagan's second term only eight years later, global proved oil reserves had already increased by 50 percent to 1.03 trillion barrels, while the corresponding real price of oil fell 72 percent, proving that sometimes you can have your petroleum cake and eat it, too (i.e., economically viable oil reserves can increase despite falling prices for the product).  We currently stand at 1.69 trillion barrels, a 150-percent increase in global proved oil reserves over the past 35 years, even after accounting for all the oil we've produced and used during this time.

Peak oil production hysteria from the 1970s has met reality – a reality based on the optimism of future technological progress and favorable economic cycles.  Since 1965, global oil production has increased by 173 percent, dispelling any gibberish about peak oil from four decades ago.

Proved oil reserves in the U.S. are up almost 60 percent over the past five years alone.  The end of economically and technologically feasible oil?  It is nowhere in sight, and farther away than at any other point during my lifetime.  American field production of crude oil appears poised to set an all-time record in early 2016, assuming politics doesn't get in the way.  Had the Obama administration not purposefully hindered production on federal lands since 2009, there is no doubt the USA would have already set a new oil production record by this time.  Texas appears set to reach a new crude oil production record either late this year or early in 2015.  As the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) notes as part of its latest analysis of petroleum reserves, "in 2012, oil and gas exploration and production companies operating in the United States added 4.5 billion barrels of crude oil and lease condensate proved reserves, an increase of 15.4 percent from 2011 – the largest annual increase since 1970."

The principal tight oil plays in the USA, such as the Eagle Ford in Texas and the Bakken in North Dakota, get a lot of attention – as they should.  The following table shows the U.S. EIA's oil production and reserves growth for the major American tight oil plays between 2011 and 2012.  The Eagle Ford's reserves increased by 170 percent over one year.  The Bakken's reserves increased 58 percent over that year to 3.2 billion barrels.  So when some analyze cumulative production trends in various plays and then compare them to reserves estimates, these generally pessimistic approaches typically overlook the fact that reserves estimates are a moving target over time.  Peak oil/end-of-oil predictions often fail for these basic reasons.  The interplay of technology and economics, which determines reserve estimates, simply cannot be reliably predicted over the medium to long term.

Look at how proved reserves in Texas and North Dakota have increased since 2007.  Was anyone predicting this revolution well before it began?  Generally, peak oil production and reserves was assumed to have been in the past, especially in Texas, where statewide reserves declined by 53 percent between 1977 and 2008 but have rebounded since 2008 all the way back up to the 1977 level.  That's 31 years of continuous (and long believed to be permanent) decline erased within only four years.

Those who see optimism around the recent oil production booms in the Bakken and Eagle Ford, and elsewhere, are accused of ignoring the so-called "Red Queen Syndrome," whereby "shale wells start strong and fade fast, and producers are drilling at a breakneck pace to hold output steady."  This is well-known, and generally foreseen.  The reply to the "Red Queen Syndrome" concern is as follows: so what?  Do the pessimists really believe that fracking will be the last technological revolution in the oil industry?  There are technological revolutions occurring all throughout the conventional and unconventional oil sectors as we speak, and there will certainly be many more to come.

Fracking production may come and go, and even do so relatively quickly in some regions, but production booms have come and gone before, and will do so in the future.  Who knows?  perhaps the next production boom will eclipse the previous one?  The Bakken's history is a case study in this possibility.  Here is daily oil production (top graph) by month in the Bakken since records began in December 1953.  It looks like a flat line until the exponential increase started in 2004. But not so fast.

The Bakken had an initial production boom in the late 1950s through the 1960s (lower left plot) that saw production increase about 20-fold and peak at 3,500 barrels per day in 1966 as the number of producing wells increased by a factor of around 30.  Production then rapidly tailed off, so that by 1971 (i.e., within five years of the peak), the Bakken's production was down to pre-peak levels and stayed this way until late in 1980.

Starting in late 1980/early 1981 (lower right plot), the Bakken saw the beginning of another oil boom coming.  Production increased by about sixfold over the next five years, but then flatlined for a few years before skyrocketing in 1988/1989 up to a production peak of 13,200 barrels per day in April 1991.  Overall, the number of producing wells increased by more than an order of magnitude between 1980 and 1991, and production rose more than 30-fold relative to the pre-boom era.  And once again (just like the previous boom from a quarter-century earlier), it was over as quickly as it began.  Within five years (by 1996), production had declined to pre-boom levels and continued to tail off slightly until late 2004.

Then came another, and the current, oil boom in the Bakken.  During the past decade, production is up almost 600-fold, with a 40-fold increase in the number of producing wells (now at ~7,500 and climbing fast).  Oil production per well is currently double what it was during the late '80s/early '90s boom, and well above what it was during the 1960s boom.

Is production in the Bakken slowing down again?  Certainly.  The production curve clearly went from concave up to concave down in 2009.  If we fit the production curve since 2004 to a Gaussian-type model, similar to what others have done, a production maxima sometime in 2016 is predicted at about 1.13 million barrels per day, or about 20 percent higher than current production.  Then a rapid decline is likely to occur, probably within 5-8 years, back down to pre-boom levels.

So we see a repeating pattern in the Bakken. Every 25 years (1966, 1991, and 2016), a new production peak is reached.  If the current boom peaks in 2016, what is to stop another revolution in oil production technology from taking place in, say, the 2030s or 2040s to yield a new Bakken production peak?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

Furthermore, the media and public often confuse proved reserves with total oil in place.  The former represents "estimated volumes of hydrocarbon resources that analysis of geologic and engineering data demonstrates with reasonable certainty are recoverable under existing economic and operating conditions."  The latter is the real holy grail of opportunity, and the benchmark we should be comparing against when discussing peak oil and true resource depletion.  Total oil resources in the Bakken have been estimated ranging up to 500 billion barrels, and they could be higher.  Reliable sources estimate that "50% of this oil is recoverable (on average, 200 billion barrels of oil)."  Thus, even if the current Bakken boom removes a few billion barrels of oil, there are still hundreds of billions of barrels underground awaiting the next oil technology revolution for a new Bakken production record sometime in the future.

The pessimists clearly don't see the future in this manner, and they appear not to be learning the lessons of petroleum history – especially for unconventional oil resources.  We've only begun to tap our potential oil reserves.  The optimists accept that while there will be oil production lows between the booms – as history has shown us in the Bakken twice already during the past half-century – there is no reason to assume that we won't see new technological developments that enable us to recover and utilize much more of the 99 percent we'll leave in the ground even if the current fracking production peak wanes over the coming decade.