Oil Expert Maugeri: 21st Century Will See Increased Crude Oil Supplies
The theory of peak oil, developed in the 1950s by Dr. M. King Hubbert, a geoscientist at the Shell Corporation, can be explained like this: what goes up must come down. According to Hubbert, global oil production will someday reach an apex, after which oil wells will yield less crude than before. As with empires, oil’s reign is a matter of rise and decline, something that Hubbert describes with a simple bell curve. When exactly we will reach peak oil—whether it is today or ten years from now—is up for debate, but since the emergence of the theory, most people have agreed that if the industrial world is not to fall along with oil production, something must be done.
Here to dismiss that notion is Leonardo Maugeri, senior executive vice president of the Italian oil company Eni and author of The Age of Oil (2006). In an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal, Maugeri argues that peak oil is a mere fantasy, a tale told only by doom-sayers and the ill-informed. In fact, Maugeri says there is more than enough oil to go around for a long, long time, even if that idea “offends conventional wisdom.” For this hopeful proclamation he offers three good reasons.
First, no one knows how much oil there really is. According to the US Geological Survey, there are at least seven to eight trillion barrels of oil trapped underground. More than two trillion of these have been deemed “recoverable,” while “proven” reserves are around 1.2 trillion barrels. However, Maugeri argues that these data are unreliable, as current estimates don’t take into account unconventional oil resources (like ultra-heavy oils, tar sands, shale oils, etc), which would double the overall figure. To Maugeri, it’s simple: if you don’t know how much oil you have, it’s impossible to calculate the curve of future supply.
Second, new technologies will enable us to extract much more oil than Hubbert (and other doom-sayers) assumed. If this seems like a bit of cheery science-fiction, just look at the past thirty years: Today, we are able to recover 35 percent of the oil contained in known reserves, up from 20 percent in 1980. As oil-retrieving technologies improve, that figure is sure to go up. Maugeri is quick to point out that such technologies already exist. Generally known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR) technologies, they entail injecting an oil reservoir with chemicals, heat, steam, and heavy gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen. EORs have produced fantastic results, leading to the revival of many oil fields that had been considered exhausted.
Third, only one third of our planet has been sufficiently explored for new oil deposits. This means that there might be quite a bit more oil out there than we think. Maugeri argues that until recently it has not been “economical or technically feasible to undertake big and sophisticated exploration campaigns when oil was abundant and cheap, as it was for most of the past century.” In other words, before everyone started clamoring about peak oil, the big oil producers had no reason to develop the technology needed to thoroughly search the globe for oil. As these technologies become affordable, oil companies will begin to plumb new depths in search of crude.
When more oil reserves are found, and new ways to reach them are acquired, “today’s difficult oil will turn into tomorrow’s easy oil.” That is, what seems impossible now will be tenable soon. Again, Maugeri uses a historical example: in the 1970s, North Sea oil was considered all but impossible to reach, and drilling for it was almost prohibitively expensive. Yet a mere decade after initial production began, the cost of extracting the oil had been cut in half.
With these reasons in mind, Maugeri makes a few daring predictions. “By 2030, more than 50% of the known oil will be recoverable. At the same time, the amount of known oil will have significantly grown…and a larger portion of unconventional oils will be commonly produced, bringing the total amount of recoverable oil reserves to something between 4.5-5 trillion barrels.” That is, Maugeri thinks that in the next twenty years, we will more than double our available oil reserves.
Of course, whether or not Maugeri’s optimism is attributable to his professional stake in the Eni oil corporation is—like peak oil theory itself—up for debate.