Energy Outlook

U.S. the New Saudi Arabia? Peak Oilers Scoff


Crude oil being extracted from a well outside South Heart, North Dakota, on Feb. 10, 2012

Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Crude oil being extracted from a well outside South Heart, North Dakota, on Feb. 10, 2012

The U.S. is set to increase oil production so much that it will overtake Saudi Arabia and become the world’s biggest producer by around 2017, the International Energy Agency said today.

The reaction from “peak oil” theorists? Not a chance. They continue to argue that the surge in U.S. production coming from shale oil and shale gas is a flash in the pan. Before long, they say, U.S. output will start falling again—as will global output. The price of oil will skyrocket and the industrial economy will be brought to its knees, they argue.

I first reached Kjell Aleklett in Sweden. He’s president of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and a physics professor at Uppsala University. Aleklett acknowledged that peak oil theorists didn’t predict the U.S. output increase, but he said the jump doesn’t undermine their main case. “We were wrong that it was not possible for the U.S. [production] to swing back again. But we don’t know how high the swing will be,” Aleklett said.

“The shale production we are talking about now relies on thousands of wells drilled every year. If the drilling capacity should go down, or for some reason it becomes too expensive, then the production will go down very fast,” Aleklett said.

What’s more, he said, the U.S. success is not being duplicated in other countries. In densely populated Europe, Aleklett said, the best shale happens to be beneath the city of Paris, making it off-limits to production (unless the Eiffel Tower is converted into a production platform).

Aleklett also pointed out that the U.S. Energy Department’s own outlook contradicts that of the Paris-based International Energy Agency. In 2035, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, imports of crude oil, liquid fuels, and other petroleum, plus natural gas will still total about 24 quadrillion BTUs a year, nearly triple the level of exports.

Mark your calendar, by the way: Aleklett said the next meeting of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil is in Austin, Tex., on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

I then reached Jeremy Leggett, a British solar energy entrepreneur who is chairman of a company called Solarcentury and who writes about energy issues, including peak oil. His talking points were more polished than Aleklett’s, but he hit the same arguments. Like the Swede, he said he doesn’t think production from unconventional sources such as shale is sustainable for long.

“On the massive balance of probabilities, not withstanding the U.S. phenomenon, there’s going to be a descent of global production and much higher prices, by 2015 at the latest,” Leggett said.

I asked him if it’s harder for him to persuade people now than it was before the surprising resurgence in U.S. output. Yes, he said. “It’s a comfortable narrative, and people are desperate to believe comfortable narratives. It has set back the perception of the risk.” Dependence on oil and gas, said Leggett, “will blow up in our face.”

Coy_190
Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

Reviving Keynes
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW
 
blog comments powered by Disqus