Monday, January 30, 2006

Oil, Ethanol, PHEVs

Boy, I used to write about oil and energy issues a lot more than I have since the election started.

One of the more interesting recent hits has been this piece by Jerome-a-Paris, a diarist at DailyKos, by whose accounting the 4 largest oil fields ever discovered are in decline:
The 4 biggest fields on the planet are now in decline, 3 officially....

Pemex now expects production to reach 1.9mb/d in the coming years, and to decline to 1.4 mb/d by 2010. With Cantarell providing close to two thirds of Mexico's production, Pemex needs to replace this ultra cheap oil...

Next, we can talk about Samotlor, the largest Russia oil field, and the second largest ever found. From a peak of close to 2mb/d, its production is now down to less than 0.5mb/d....

KUWAIT: It was an incredible revelation last week that the second largest oil field in the world is exhausted and past its peak output.

Yet that is what the Kuwait Oil Company revealed about its Burgan field. The peak output of the Burgan oil field will now be around 1.7 million barrels per day, and not the two million barrels per day forecast for the rest of the field's 30 to 40 years of life, Chairman Farouk Al-Zanki told Bloomberg....

(Note that all these fields were n°2 at some point, whether in production or reserves. They are each super giant, no such large fields will ever be found again, and they are all in decline.

Which brings us, of course, to the uncontested largest field on the planet, Saudi Arabia's Ghawar. This is the only one (yet) for which there has been no official announcement of decline, but there are lots of people that are talking about it.
The combined output of Ghawar, Cantarell, and Burgan is something on the order of 9 million barrels per day, making the combined total of just those three fields greater than the oil output of the United States. Put another way, if the three biggest super-giants were all one producer, they'd be the third-largest producer in the world, after Saudia Arabia and Russia. Throw in the .5 mbd from Samotior and they'd be the largest producer, period.

And two of the big three are unquestionably in decline, with Ghawar coming on fast. This is depressing, to say the least. One of the nastier things about the oil industry is how concentrated the resource is - the vast majority of the oil that has ever been discovered (90%+) has been found in a tiny fraction of the number of oil fields discovered, essentially the top 100. For example, Ghawar on it's own probably contained about 10% of all the oil on Earth in the 20th century. When the largest fields go into decline, we're seeing a very, very worrying trend.

The good news is that it appears the case for ethanol is stronger than even I'd thought. An article published in Science last week went over the most important studies of ethanol's net energy balance (is there a surplus or deficit of energy when we make it?) and found that, even with conventional methods there is a small net benefit. If we use cellulosic ethanol, the surplus is huge - 2-3 times conventional methods.

The main contribution of the recent science article wasn't original research, but rather re-jigging old studies so that they all (more or less) agreed on the same parameters and assumptions, and running the simulations again. The biggest difference was that this study counted the products that are left over after the ethanol is produced which also have a market value. The most pessimistic models had ignored these products and had thus underestimated the potential energy surplus. It's like paying for everything in $20 bills, but forgetting to take your change. Everything looks a lot more expensive than it is.

The good news with ethanol is that existing cars can be retrofitted to take E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) quickly and cheaply, meaning that we don't have to replace the entire car stock in North America to start seeing results. If we can produce large volumes of ethanol cheaply, a lot of people will start refitting their cars with or without government help.

The one last problem with ethanol is that even if we can produce it cheaply and energy-efficiently, we probably can't make enough of it to fuel all conventional cars. Which is why it's good to see that the push for plug-in hybrids continues to gather steam. I feel kind of dirty agreeing with James Woolsey, but he's right when he says:
If I were to leave you with six words to remember from what I’m saying here...[they would be] forget hydrogen, forget hydrogen, forget hydrogen.

Massive changes in the energy infrastructure and in the transportation vehicle infrastructure would be necessary, whereas for a plug-in hybrid, we need a bigger battery, and yes, there is an infrastructure investment: an extension cord. Each family would need an extension cord.
(For background on plug-in hybrids, see here.)

A quick turnover in the US and Europe to E85 vehicles - andespecially E85 plugins - could potentially save oil faster than production could decline, bringing some much-needed slack to the global economy, until Chinese and Indian demand catches up again. We're not there yet, but there's reason to hope.

1 comment:

Ronald Brak said...

If the cost of producing ethanol can be reduced then it might be worthwhile to make some, but I don't understand why the U.S. would make E85 when unmodified cars can run off gasoline that contains 10% ethanol. Or does U.S. gasoline already contains a lot of ethanol?