On March 4, David Frum, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, published an article on CNN.com titled "Peak Oil doomsayers proved wrong" in which he not only claimed there was no danger of a shortage of oil, but also that "our oil problem is that we're producing so much of the stuff that we are changing the planet's climate." Mr. Frum is only the most recent contributor to a growing list of luminaries to declare that we need not worry about any future shortage of crude oil. The only problem with these reassuring proclamations is that the physical evidence does not support them, and does in point of fact, warn of a looming imbalance between supply and demand with troubling implications for the U.S. economy.
Last month, the standard-bearer for those arguing the U.S. will soon be awash in domestically produced oil testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Daniel Yergin, Chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, told Members of Congress in his prepared remarks, "Owing to the scale and impact of shale gas and tight oil, it is appropriate to describe their development as the most important energy innovation so far of the 21st century" and "the unconventional oil and gas revolution has already had major impact in multiple dimensions. Its significance will continue to grow as it continues to unfold."
Yet the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and independent analysis confirm that far from the "energy revolution" of the century, the increase in domestic oil production represents a temporary bump in production that will be short-lived. If we recognize the probability the impressive increases we've seen in shale gas and "tight oil" production are of limited volume and duration and set policies accordingly, we can reap great benefit; pretend these increases herald a new and ever-increasing permanent condition and we risk setting ourselves up for an avoidable economic contraction when the expected drop in production occurs. Geologist David Hughes, a 32-year veteran of the Geological Survey of Canada, recently conducted a detailed examination of the years-long performance of 65,000 shale gas and tight oil wells. The results were telling.
In the February 21 issue of Nature Magazine, Mr. Hughes reported that "much of the oil and gas produced [in shale formations] comes from relatively small sweet spots within the fields. Overall well quality will decline as sweet spots become saturated with wells, requiring and ever-increasing number of wells to sustain production." More ominously, he notes, "high-productivity shale plays are not ubiquitous, as some would have us believe. Six out of 30 plays account for 88% of shale-gas production, and two out of 21 plays account for 81% of tight-oil production." Even the typically optimistic EIA echoed the concerns about sweet spots and the likelihood high levels of production cannot be sustained.
In a little-noted press release last December, the EIA projected there would be a considerable increase in tight oil production in the next few years, but then conceded, "The growth results largely from a significant increase in onshore crude oil production, particularly from shale and other tight formations. After about 2020, production begins declining..." But as Mr. Hughes points out, evidence is growing that the production is not likely to rise as high as hoped, and his analysis indicates the drop in production could begin by 2017.
In late February, the EIA reported that "Saudi Aramco's CEO Khalid al-Falih warned that rising domestic energy consumption could result in the loss of 3 million barrels per day (bbl/d) of crude oil exports by the end of the decade if no changes were made to current trends." The New York Times reported that Chinese consumption by 2020 could be almost two-thirds greater than it was in 2011, resulting in a 6 million barrels per day (mbd) increase. Thus, viewed in context evidence indicates that U.S. domestic oil production could max out as early as 2017 and then begin a slow decline -- just as Saudi Arabia could be exporting 3 mbd less and China could be needing 6 mbd more. The consequences to the U.S. economy of such a confluence could be drastic.
The idea of oil "independence" understandably appeals to Americans. It is likewise understandable that individuals and groups who have a financial interest in the American oil industry would argue and lobby for the investment in the means of producing energy for the U.S. that would most benefit them. But at some point America's leaders must recognize the physical evidence indicates the alleged "energy revolution" is likely to be merely a relatively short-term bump. If we fail to acknowledge the likely realities, we may be setting the stage for an energy crisis in the near term that might have been minimized. The consequences of such a failure are difficult to predict, but given the already weakened health of the U.S. economy, they would likely be severe and long-lasting.