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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

An America self-sufficient in oil? Don't bet on it.

A new forecast that the US will surpass Saudi Arabia in oil production is unrealistically optimistic. Oil prices would have to rise far too much for unconventional oil to meet forecast levels.

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The problem of diminishing returns also seems to hold for renewables. The first biofuel developed was ethanol from corn, since the process of making alcohol from corn has been known for ages. Newer approaches, such as ethanol from biomass and biofuel from algae, tend to be much more expensive. As a result, when we add new biofuel production, it is likely to be more expensive, and thus harder for the customer to afford. If we want it, we will need increasingly high subsidies.

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Gail Tverberg, an actuary with a background in math, analyzes energy and financial matters from a perspective that the world has limited resources. For more of Gail's posts, click here.

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Wind energy is also subject to diminishing returns. Onshore wind was developed first, and it is far less expensive than offshore wind, which was developed later. Early units of wind added to an electric grid do not disturb the electric grid to too great an extent. Later units of wind energy add increasingly large costs: long distance transmission lines, electrical storage, and other balancing–something that is generally overlooked in making early cost analyses.

Diminishing returns seem even to happen for energy efficiency. We have been working on energy efficiency a very long time. We have a tendency to pick the low-hanging fruit first. Later expenditure for efficiency may be less cost-effective.

Why Light Tight Oil Won’t Increase as in Figure 1 

Tight oil, also referred to as “shale oil,” is supposed to be the United States’ oil savior, if we believe the IEA. The Bakken and Eagle Ford plays are the best known examples.

Rune Likvern of The Oil Drum has shown that drilling wells in the Bakken already seems to be reaching diminishing returns. The choicest locations appear to have been drilled first, and the locations being drilled now give poorer yields. He has also shown that the average well in the Bakken now requires a price of $80 to $90 barrel, which is close to the recent selling price. If increased production is desired, the price of oil will need to start increasing (and keep increasing) to provide the incentive needed to drill wells in less-choice location.

There are other issues as well. If there is a need to drill an increasing number of wells just to stay even, or an even larger number, to increase the amount of oil produced,  we start to reach limits on many kinds: number of rigs available, number of workers available, miles driven for water to be used for fracking. Perhaps the issue that will limit production first, though, is limits on debt available to producers. Rune Likvern has also shown that cash flows from tight oil extraction tend to run “in the red,” so an increasing amount of  debt financing is needed as operations ramp up. At some point, companies hit their credit limit and have to stop adding new wells until cash flow catches up.

Evidence Regarding Rate of Growth of Oil Extraction Costs

Bernstein Research recently published information showing that the marginal cost of oil production was $92 barrel in 2011 for non-OPEC, non Former Soviet Union oil producers at the 90th percentile of production. This cost is increasing at 14% per year (or about 12% a year in inflation adjusted terms). Even at the median marginal cost level, costs appear to be increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 9% (or about 7% in inflation adjusted terms). See also this FTAlphaville post.

If we take the $92 barrel cost in 2011 at the 90th percentile of production and increase it by 7% a year (arguably we should be using 12% per year), the real cost will be $169 barrel in 2020, and $467 a barrel in 2035. These are far in excess of the IEA oil price estimates  shown on Figure 2. There is no reason to believe that Bakken and other tight oil production costs would be substantially cheaper.

Other Issues That Appear Not to be Handled Well by IEA WEO 2012

There are three other issues that the IEA has not handled well, in my opinion.

1. Rising Real Need for Fuels of Some Sort

WEO 2012 shows falling “demand” for fuel. Demand, as economists define demand, has to do with how much customers can afford. It is quite possible that demand will fall because people can’t afford the fuel.

It seems to me would be better to start by analyzing how the real need for fuels is changing. Once this is determined, adjustments can be made to reflect other ways the same benefits can be provided, assuming this is possible.

Regarding the real need for fuel, if we look at species that are in some ways similar to humans, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, we find that these animals have no need for fuels, because they live in the way that they are  biologically adapted: There are only a relatively small number of them (less than 1,000,000 per species) living in territory which is restricted to their biological adaptation. They do not need their food cooked, or spears or other tools to keep away predators, or shelter from the elements.

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