Minnesotans For Sustainability©
Sustainable Society: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
Peaking Of World Oil Production:
Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management
Hirsch, Bezdek, and Wendling
Part V. Lessons From The Natural Gas Experience
V. Learning From The Natural Gas Experience
A dramatic example of the risks of over-reliance on geological resource projections is the experience with North American natural gas. Natural gas supplies roughly 20 percent of U.S. energy demand. It has been plentiful at real prices of roughly $2/Mcf for almost two decades. Over the past 10 years, natural gas has become the fuel of choice for new electric power generation plants and, at present, virtually all new electric power generation plants use natural gas.
Part of the attractiveness of natural gas was resource estimates for the U.S. and Canada that promised growing supply at reasonable prices for the foreseeable future. That optimism turns out to have been misplaced, and the U.S. is now experiencing supply constraints and high natural gas prices. Supply difficulties are almost certain for at least the remainder of the decade. The North American natural gas situation provides some useful lessons relevant to the peaking of conventional world oil production.
B. The Optimism
As recently as 2001, a number of credible groups were optimistic about the ready availability of natural gas in North America. For example:
C. Today’s Perspectives
The current natural gas supply outlook has changed dramatically. Among those that believe the situation has changed for the worse are the following:
Canada has been a reliable U.S. source of natural gas imports for decades. However, the Canadian situation has recently changed for the worse. For example: “Natural gas production in Alberta, the largest exporter to the huge U.S. market, slipped 2 percent last year despite record drilling and may have peaked in 2001, the Canadian province's energy regulator said on Thursday … Production peaked at 5.1 trillion cubic feet in 2001. … (EUB) forecast flat production in 2004 and an annual decline of 2.5 percent through at least 2013.”59
D. U.S. Natural Gas Price History
EIA data show that U.S. natural gas prices were relatively stable in constant dollars from 1987 through 1998.60 However, beginning in 2000, prices began to escalate —they were roughly 50 percent higher in 2000 compared to 1998.61 Skipping over the recession years of 2001 and 2002, prices in late 2003 and early 2004 further increased roughly 25 percent over 2000.62
While it is often inappropriate to extrapolate gas or oil prices into the future based on short term experience, a number of organizations are now projecting increased U.S. natural gas prices for a number of years. For example, CERA now expects natural gas prices to rise steadily through 2007.63
E. LNG –Delayed Salvation
With North American natural gas production suddenly changed, hopes of meeting future demand have turned to imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG).64 The U.S. has four operating LNG terminals, and a number of proposals for new terminals have been advanced. Indeed, the Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board recently called for a massive buildup in LNG imports to meet growing U.S. natural gas demand.
But the construction of new terminals demands state and local approvals. Because of NIMBYism and fear of terrorism at LNG facilities, a number of the proposed terminals have been rejected. There are also objections from Mexico, which has been proposed as a host for LNG terminals to support west coast natural gas demands.65 In the Boston area there is an ongoing debate as to whether the nation’s largest LNG terminal in Everett, Massachusetts, ought to be shut down, because of terrorist concerns.66 Decommissioning of that terminal would exacerbate an already tight national natural gas supply situation. Public fears about LNG safety were heightened by an explosion at an LNG liquefaction plant in Algeria that killed 27 people in January 2004. Alternatively, some are considering locating LNG terminals offshore with gas pipelined underwater to land; related costs will be higher, but safety would be enhanced.
F. The U.S. Current Natural Gas Situation
U.S. natural gas demand is increasing; North American natural gas production is declining or poised for decline as indicated in references 53, 54, and 55. The planned U.S. expansion of LNG imports is experiencing delays. U.S. natural gas supply shows every sign of deteriorating significantly before mitigation provides an adequate supply of low cost natural gas. Because of the time required to make major changes in the U.S. natural gas infrastructure and marketplace, forecasts of a decade of high prices and shortages are credible.
G. Lessons Learned
A full discussion of the complex dimensions of the current U.S. natural gas situation is beyond the scope of this study; such an effort would require careful consideration of geology, reserves estimation, natural gas exploration and production, government land restrictions, storage, weather, futures markets, etc. Nevertheless, we believe that the foregoing provides a basis for the following observations:
If experts were so wrong on their assessment of North American natural gas, are we really comfortable risking that the optimists are correct on world conventional oil production, which involves similar geological and technological issues?
If higher prices did not bring forth vast new supplies of North American natural gas, are we really comfortable that higher oil prices will bring forth huge new oil reserves and production, when similar geology and technologies are involved?
Practical mitigation of the problems associated with world oil peaking must include fuel efficiency technologies that could impact on a large scale. Technologies that may offer significant fuel efficiency improvements fall into two categories: retrofits, which could improve the efficiency of existing equipment, and displacement technologies, which could replace existing, less efficient oil consuming equipment. A comprehensive discussion of this subject is beyond the scope of this study, so we focus on what we believe to be the highest impact, existing technologies. Clearly, other technologies might contribute on a lesser scale.
From our prior
discussion of current liquid fuel usage (Chapter III), it is clear that
automobiles and light trucks (light duty vehicles or LDVs) represent the largest
targets for consumption reduction.
Future U.S. use of diesels in LDVs has been problematic due to increasingly more stringent U.S. air emission requirements. European regulations are not as restrictive, so Europe has a high population of diesel LDVs – between 55 and 70 percent in some countries.67
A new technology in early commercial deployment is the hybrid system, based on either gasoline or diesel engines and batteries. In all-around driving tests, gasoline hybrids have been found to be 40 percent more efficient in small cars and 80 percent more efficient in family sedans.68
For retrofit application, neither diesel nor hybrid engines appear to have significant potential, so their use will likely be limited to new vehicles. Under business-as-usual market conditions, hybrids might reach roughly 10 percent on the-road U.S. market share by 2015.69 That penetration rate is based on the fact that the technology has met many of the performance demands of a significant number of today’s consumers and that gasoline hybrids use readily available fuel.
Government-mandated vehicle fuel efficiency requirements are virtually certain to be an element in the mitigation of world oil peaking. One result would almost certainly be the more rapid deployment of diesel and / or hybrid engines. Market penetration of these technologies cannot happen rapidly, because of the time and effort required for manufacturers to retool their factories for large-scale production and because of the slow turnover of existing stock. In addition, a shift from gasoline to diesel fuel would require a major refitting of refineries, which would take time.
Nation-scale retrofit of existing LDVs to provide improved fuel economy has not received much attention. One retrofit technology that might prove attractive for the existing LDV fleet is “displacement on demand” in which a number of cylinders in an engine are disabled when energy demand is low. The technology is now available on new cars, and fuel economy savings of roughly 20 percent have been claimed.70 The feasibility and cost of such retrofits are not known, so we consider this option to be speculative.
It is difficult to project what the fuel economy benefits of hybrid or diesel LDVs might be on a national scale, because consumer preferences will likely change once the public understands the potential impacts of the peaking of world oil production. For example, the current emphasis on large vehicles and SUVs might well give way to preferences for smaller, much more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The fuel efficiency benefits that hybrids might provide for heavy-duty trucks and buses are likely smaller than for LDVs for a number of reasons, including the fact that there has long been a commercial demand for higher efficiency technologies in order to minimize fuel costs for these fleets.
Hybrids can also impact the medium duty truck fleet, which is now heavily populated with diesel engines. For example, road testing of diesel hybrids in FedEx trucks recently began, with fuel economy benefits of 33 percent claimed.71 On the other hand, there appears to be limits to the fuel economy benefits of hybrid engines in large vehicles; for example, the fuel savings in hybrid buses might only be in the 10 percent range.72
On the distant horizon, innovations in aircraft design may result in large fuel economy improvements. For example, a 25 to 50 percent fuel efficiency improvement may be possible with a new, blended wing aircraft.73 Such benefits would require the purchase of entirely new equipment, requiring a decade or more for significant market penetration. Innovations for major liquid fuel savings for trains and ships may exist but are not widely publicized.
B. Improved Oil Recovery
Management of an oil reservoir over its multi-decade life is influenced by a range of factors, including 1) actual and expected future oil prices; 2) production history, geology, and status of the reservoir; 3) cost and character of production enhancing technologies; 4) timing of enhancements; 5) the financial condition of the operator; 6) political and environmental circumstances, 7) an operator’s other investment opportunities, etc.
Improved Oil Recovery (IOR) is used to varying degrees on all oil reservoirs. IOR encompasses a variety of methods to increase oil production and to expand the volume of recoverable oil from reservoirs. Options include in-fill drilling, hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, advanced reservoir characterization, enhanced oil recovery (EOR), and a myriad of other methods that can increase the flow and recovery of liquid hydrocarbons. IOR can also include many seemingly mundane efficiencies introduced in daily operations.74
IOR technologies are adapted on a case-by-case basis. It is not possible to estimate what IOR techniques or processes might be applied to a specific reservoir without having detailed knowledge of that reservoir. Such knowledge is rarely in the public domain for the large conventional oil reservoirs in the world; if it were, then a more accurate estimate of the timing of world oil peaking would be possible.
A particularly notable opportunity to increase production from existing oil reservoirs is the use of enhanced oil recovery technology (EOR), also known as tertiary recovery. EOR is usually initiated after primary and secondary recovery have provided most of what they can provide. Primary production is the process by which oil naturally flows to the surface because oil is under pressure underground. Secondary recovery involves the injection of water into a reservoir to force additional oil to the surface.
EOR has been practiced since the 1950s in various conventional oil reservoirs, particularly in the United States. The process that likely has the largest worldwide potential is miscible flooding wherein carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen or light hydrocarbons are injected into oil reservoirs where they act as solvents to move residual oil. Of the three options, CO2 flooding has proven to be the most frequently useful. Indeed, naturally occurring, geologically sourced CO2 has been produced in Colorado and shipped via pipeline to west Texas and New Mexico for decades for EOR. CO2 flooding can increase oil recovery by 7-15 percent of original oil in place (OOIP).75 Because EOR is relatively expensive, it has not been widely deployed in the past. However, in a world dealing with peak conventional oil production and higher oil prices, it has significant potential.
Because of various cost considerations, enhanced oil recovery processes are typically not applied to a conventional oil reservoir until after oil production has peaked. Therefore, EOR is not likely to increase reservoir peak production. However, EOR can increase total recoverable conventional oil, and production from the reservoirs to which it is applied does not decline as rapidly as would otherwise be the case. This concept is notionally shown in Figure IV-1.
Figure VI-1. The Timing of EOR Applications
This category of unconventional oil includes a variety of viscous oils that are called heavy oil, bitumen, oil sands, and tar sands. These oils have potential to play a much larger role in satisfying the world’s needs for liquid fuels in the future.
The largest deposits of these oils exist in Canada and Venezuela, with smaller resources in Russia, Europe and the U.S. While the size of the Canadian and Venezuela resources are enormous, 3-4 trillion barrels in total, the amount of oil estimated to be economically recoverable is of the order of 600 billion barrels.76
This relatively low fraction is in large part due to the extremely difficult task of extracting these oils.77
Canadian oil sands production results in a range of products, only a part of which can be refined into finished fuels that can substitute for petroleum-based fuels. These high quality oil-sands-derived products are called synthetic crude oil (SCO). Other products from oil sands processing are Dilbit, a blend of diluent and bitumen, Synbit, a blend of synthetic crude oil and bitumen, and Syndilbit, a blend of Synbit and diluent. Current Canadian production is approximately 1 million bpd of which 600,000 bpd is synthetic crude oil and 400,000 bpd is lower grade bitumen.78
The reasons why the production of unconventional oils has not been more extensive is as follows: 1) Production costs for unconventional oils are typically much higher than for conventional oil; 2) Significant quantities of energy are required to recover and transport unconventional oils; and 3) Unconventional oils are of lower quality and, therefore, are more expensive to refine into clean transportation fuels than conventional oils.
Canadian oil sands have been in commercial production for decades. During that time, production costs have been reduced considerably, but costs are still substantially higher than conventional oil production. Canadian oil sands production currently uses large amounts of natural gas for heating and processing. Canada recently recognized that it no longer has the large natural gas resources once thought, so oil sands producers are considering building coal or nuclear plants as substitute energy sources to replace natural gas.79 The overall efficiency of Canadian oil sands production is not publicly available but has been estimated to be less than 70 percent for total product, only a part of which is a high-quality substitute transport fuel.80
In addition to needing a substitute for natural gas for processing oil sands, there are a number of other major challenges facing the expansion of Canadian oil sands production, including water81 and diluent availability, financial capital, and environmental issues, such as SOX and NOX emissions, waste water cleanup, and brine, coke, and sulfur disposition. In addition, because Canada is a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol and because oil sands production results in significant CO2 emissions per barrel, there may be related constraints yet to be fully evaluated.
The current Canadian vision is to produce a total of about 5 MM bpd of products from oil sands by 2030. This is to include about 3 MM bpd of synthetic crude oil from which refined fuels can be produced, with the remainder being poorer quality bitumen that could be used for energy, power, and/or hydrogen and petrochemicals production. 5 MM bpd would represent a five-fold increase from current levels of production.82 Another estimate of future production states that if all proposed oil sands projects proceed on schedule, industry could produce 3.5 MM bpd by 2017, representing 2 MM bpd of synthetic crude and 1.5 MM bpd of unprocessed lower-grade bitumen.83 It should be noted that not everyone supports this expansion. For example, the executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, calls tar sands “… the world's dirtiest source of oil."84
Venezuela’s extra-heavy crude oil and bitumen deposits are situated in the Orinoco Belt, located in Central Venezuela. There are currently a number of joint ventures between the Venezuelan oil company, PdVSA, and foreign partners to develop and produce this oil. In 2003, production was about 500,000 bpd of synthetic crude oil. That is expected to increase to 600,000 bpd by 2005.85 While the weather in tropical Venezuela is more conducive to oil production operations than the bitter winters of Alberta, Canada, the political climate in Venezuela has been particularly unsettled in recent years, which could impact future production.
In closing, it is also worth noting that the bitumen yield from oil sands surface mining operations is about 0.6 barrels per ton of mined material, excluding overburden removal. This is similar to the yield from a good quality oil shale, but is less than Fisher-Tropsch liquid yields from coal, which is about 2.6 barrels per ton of coal.86
D. Gas-To-Liquids (GTL)
Very large reservoirs of natural gas exist around the world, many in locations isolated from gas-consuming markets. Significant quantities of this “stranded gas” have been liquefied and transported to various markets in refrigerated, pressurized ships in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Japan, followed by Korea, Spain and the U.S. were the largest importers of LNG in 2003. LNG accounted for an important fraction of all traded gas volumes in 2003, and that fraction is projected to continue to grow considerably in the future.87
Another method of bringing stranded natural gas to world markets is to disassociate the methane molecules, add steam, and convert the resultant mixture to high quality liquid fuels via the Fisher-Tropsch (F-T) process. As with coal liquefaction, F-T based GTL results in clean, finished fuels, ready for use in existing end-use equipment with only modest finishing and blending. This Gas-To-Liquids process has undergone significant development over the past decade. Shell now operates a 14,500 bpd GTL plant in Malaysia. A number of large, new commercial plants recently announced include three large units in Qatar —a 140,000 bpd Shell facility, a 160,000 bpd ConocoPhillips facility, and a 120,000 bpd Marathon Oil plant. Projects under development and consideration total roughly 1.7 MM bpd, but not all will come to fruition. Under business-as usual conditions, 1.0 MM bpd may be produced by 2015, in line with a recent estimate of 600,000 bpd of GTL diesel fuel by 2015 —the remaining 400,000 bpd being gasoline and other products.88
E. Liquid Fuels from U.S. Domestic Resources
The U.S. has three types of natural resource from which substitute liquid fuels can be manufactured: coal, oil shale, and biomass. All have been shown capable of producing high quality liquid fuels that can supplement or substitute for the fuels now produced from petroleum.
To derive liquid
fuels from coal, the leading process involves gasification of the coal, removal
of impurities from the resultant gas, and then synthesis of liquid fuels using
the Fisher-Tropsch process.
The U.S. is endowed with a vast resource of oil shale, located primarily in the western part of the Lower 48 states with lesser quantities in the mid Atlantic region. Processes for mining shale and retorting it at high temperatures were developed intensively in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, when oil prices decreased in the mid 1980s, all large-scale oil shale R&D was terminated.92
The oil shale processing technologies that were pursued in the past required large volumes of water, which is now increasingly scarce in the western states. Also, air emissions regulations have become much stricter in the ensuing years, presenting additional challenges for shale mining and processing. Finally, it should be noted that the oil produced from shale retorting requires refining before it can be used as transportation fuels.
In recent years, Shell has been developing a new shale oil recovery process that uses insitu heating and avoids mining and massive materials handling. Little is known about the process and its economics, so its potential cannot now be evaluated.93 (See Appendix VI for notes on shale oil).
Biomass can be grown, collected and converted to substitute liquid fuels by a number of processes. Currently, biomass-to-ethanol is produced on a large scale to provide a gasoline additive. The market for ethanol derived from biomass is influenced by federal requirements and facilitated by generous federal and state tax subsidies. Research holds promise of more economical ethanol production from cellulosic (“woody”) biomass, but related processes are far from economic. Reducing the cost of growing, harvesting, and converting biomass crops will be necessary.94 In other parts of the world, biomass-to-liquid fuels might be more attractive, depending on a myriad of factors, including local labor costs. Related projections for large-scale production would be strictly speculative. In summary, there are no developed biomass-to-fuels technologies that are now near cost competitive. (See Appendix VI for notes on biomass).
F. Fuel Switching to Electricity
Electricity is only used to a limited extent in the transportation sector. Diesel fuels (mid-distillates) power most rail trains in the U.S.; only a modest fraction are electric powered. Other electric transportation is limited to special situations, such as forklifts, in-factory transporters, etc.
In the 1990s electric automobiles were introduced to the market, spurred by a California clean vehicle requirement. The effort was a failure because existing batteries did not provide the vehicle range and performance that customers demanded. In the future, electricity storage may improve enough to win consumer acceptance of electric automobiles. In addition, extremely high gasoline prices may cause some consumers to find electric automobiles more acceptable, especially for around-town use. Such a shift in public preferences is unpredictable, so electric vehicles cannot now be projected as a significant offset to future gasoline use.
A larger number of train routes could be outfitted for electric trains, but such a transition would likely be slow, because of the need to build additional electric power plants, transmission lines, and electric train cars. Since existing diesel locomotives use electric drive, their retrofit might be feasible. However, since diesel fuel use in trains is only roughly 0.3 MM bpd,95 electrification of trains would not have a major impact on U.S liquid fuel consumption.
There are no known near-commercial means for electrifying heavy trucks or aircraft, so related conversions are not now foreseeable.
G. Other Fuel Switching
It is conceivable that consumers who now use mid-distillates and LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) for heating could switch to natural gas or electricity, thereby freeing up liquid fuels for transportation. Analysis of this path is beyond the scope of this study, but it should be noted that these uses represent only a few percent of U.S. liquid fuel consumption. Such switching on a large scale would require the construction of compensating natural gas and/or electric power facilities and infrastructure, which would not happen quickly. In addition, freed-up liquids would likely require further refining to meet market and environmental requirements. Related refining would require refinery construction, which would also be time consuming.
Hydrogen has potential as a long-term alternative to petroleum-based liquid fuels in some transportation applications. Like electricity, hydrogen is an energy carrier; hydrogen production requires an energy source for its production. Energy sources for hydrogen production include natural gas, coal, nuclear power, and renewables. Hydrogen can be used in internal combustion engines, similar to those in current use, or via chemical reactions in fuel cells.
The Department of Energy is currently conducting a high profile program aimed at developing a “hydrogen economy.”96 DOE’s primary emphasis is on hydrogen for light duty vehicle application (automobiles and light duty trucks). Recently, the National Research Council (NRC) completed a study that included an evaluation of the technical, economic and societal challenges associated with the development of a hydrogen economy.97 That study is the basis for the following highlights.
A lynchpin of the current DOE hydrogen program is fuel cells. In order for fuel cells to compete with existing petroleum-based internal combustion engines, particularly for light duty vehicles, the NRC concluded that fuel cells must improve by 1) a factor of 10-20 in cost, 2) a factor of five in lifetime, and 3) roughly a factor of two in efficiency. The NRC did not believe that such improvements could be achieved by technology development alone; instead, new concepts (breakthroughs) will be required. In other words, today’s technologies do not appear practically viable.98
Because of the need for unpredictable inventions in fuel cells, as well as viable means for on-board hydrogen storage, the introduction of commercial hydrogen vehicles cannot be predicted.
I. Factors That Can Cause Delay
It is extremely difficult, expensive, and time consuming to construct any type of major energy-related facility in the U.S. today. Even assuming the expenditure of substantial time and money, it is not certain that many proposed facilities will ever be constructed. The construction of transmission lines, interim and permanent nuclear waste disposal facilities, electric generation plants, waste incinerators, oil refineries, LNG terminals, waste recycling facilities, petrochemical plants, etc. is increasingly problematic.
What used to be termed the “not-in-my-back-yard” (NIMBY) principle has evolved into the “build-absolutely-nothing-anywhere-near-anything” (BANANA) principle, which is increasingly being applied to facilities of any type, including low-income housing, cellular phone towers, prisons, sports stadiums, water treatment facilities, airports, hazardous waste facilities, and even new fire houses.99
Construction of even a single, relatively innocuous, urgently needed facility can easily take more than a decade. For example, in 1999, King County, Washington, initiated the siting process for the Brightwater wastewater treatment plant, which it hopes to have operation in 2010.100
The routine processes required for siting energy facilities can be daunting, expensive, and time consuming, and if a facility is at all controversial, which is almost invariably the case, opponents can often extend the permitting process until sponsors terminate their plans. For example, approval for new, small, distributed energy systems requires a minimum of 18 separate steps, requiring approval from four federal agencies, 11 state government agencies, and 14 local government agencies.101 Opponents of energy facilities routinely exercise their right to raise objections and offer alternatives. Intervenors in permitting processes may delay decisions and in some cases force outright cancellations, although cases do exist in which facilities have been sited quickly.
for U.S. homeland-based mitigation of world oil peaking are troubling. To
replace dwindling supplies of conventional oil, large numbers of expensive and
environmentally intrusive substitute fuel production facilities will be
For the U.S. to attain a lower level of dependence on liquid fuel imports after the advent of world oil peaking, a major paradigm shift will be required in the current approach to the construction of capital-intensive energy facilities. Federal and state governments will have to adopt legislation allowing the acceleration of the development of substitute fuels projects from current decade time-scales. During World War II, facilities of all types were constructed on a scale and schedules that would have previously been inconceivable. In the face of the 1973 energy crisis, the Alaska oil pipeline was approved and constructed in record time.102
While world oil peaking poses many dangers for the U.S., it also offers substantial opportunities. The U.S. could emerge as the world’s largest producer of substitute liquid fuels, if it were to undertake a massive program to construct substitute fuel production facilities on a timely basis. The nation is ideally positioned to do so because it has the world’s largest coal reserves, and it could muster the required capital, technology, and labor to implement such a program.
However, unless a process is developed to expedite plant construction, this opportunity could easily slip away. Other nations, such as China, India, Japan, Korea, and others also have the capabilities needed to construct and operate such plants. Under current conditions, other countries are able to bring such large energy projects on-line much more rapidly than the U.S. Such countries could conceivably even import U.S. coal, convert it to liquid fuels products, and then export finished product back to the U.S. and elsewhere.
The U.S. has well-developed coal mining, transportation, and shipping systems that move coal to the highest bidders, be they domestic or international. As recently as 1981, 14 percent of U.S. coal production was exported.103 While that number has declined in recent years, the U.S. could easily expand its current coal exports many fold to provide feedstock for coal liquefaction plants in other nations. Not only would the U.S. be dependent on foreign sources for conventional oil, which will continue to dwindle in volume after peaking, but it could also become dependant on foreign sources for substitute fuels derived from U.S. coal.
MFS: Please use "back key" or "Up" icon to return to previous page.
Please send mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments about this web site. Minnesotans For Sustainability
(MFS) is not
affiliated with any government body, private, or corporate entity.
Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2004
Minnesotans For Sustainability