Last Updated: Wed Feb 16, 2011 14:05 pm (KSA) 11:05 am (GMT)

Peak oil believers put their faith in leaky arguments

Robin Mills

Are Saudi oil reserves Wikileaking away? Last Tuesday, The Guardian newspaper in the UK continued its releases from the whistle-blowing website with a US diplomatic cable quoting Dr Sadad al Husseini, a Saudi oil expert, as saying he believed the kingdom's oil reserves were overstated by 40 per cent.

 Yet these doubts about Saudi oil capacity are shaky in three ways 

Dr al Husseini was the executive vice president for exploration and production at Saudi Aramco until his retirement in 2004, a move allegedly triggered by a failed attempt to elevate himself to chief executive.

His view, expressed to a US diplomat, was apparently that Aramco would be unable to meet its target of 12.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in sustainable capacity but with a huge investment effort, it could possibly produce 12 million bpd for some 15 years before inevitable decline set in.

So, at first sight, the leaked allegations give credence to those who argue the world is nearing "peak oil", the point at which reserves will become insufficient to keep production growing. Declining output in mature non-Opec areas such as the North Sea and Mexico leads most analysts to believe the world will become increasingly dependent on Opec supplies.

After Russia, Saudi Arabia is the world's largest producer, with almost 10 per cent of global output. And it holds the biggest conventional reserves, its official 265 billion barrels representing a fifth of the world's proved total.

If Opec's largest producer is unable to step up production significantly, then, so the argument goes, global oil output must be near a relentless decline. Thus the leaks have been hailed by peak oil believers. Yet these doubts about Saudi oil capacity are shaky in three ways.

First, the story is nothing new. Dr al Husseini has been perfectly open about his views since a 2002 conference in Jakarta. In 2004, he made similar points in The New York Times. In The Guardian's case, there simply is no leak, no cover-up, no revelation. What comes next - shock reports that North Korea is undemocratic?

Around 2004, others were also casting doubts on Saudi oil capacity. The most high-profile was the late Matthew Simmons, a US investment banker, who argued in his book Twilight in the Desert that the Saudis were facing serious technical problems in their fields.

The then Bank of Montreal analyst Don Coxe opined that "the kingdom's decline rate will be among the world's fastest as this decade wanes". Paul Roberts, a resources journalist, focused on alleged problems at the Saudis' largest field, Ghawar, in his book The End of Oil.

The writings of the three men were littered with elementary technical errors and misunderstandings of the industry that a professional could easily have corrected. Nor did they present much evidence, beyond cherry-picked anecdotes of ordinary problems that are faced and solved every day in oilfields around the world.

Experts such as the economist Michael Lynch convincingly rebutted their arguments. But the idea of Saudi oil decline entered the popular imagination, and has not been dislodged. Since oil prices did not jump on the Wikileaks story, it is clear that either the market already knew of these worries about Saudi reserves or does not believe them.

Second, Dr al Husseini's own views are much more complicated and nuanced than sensationalist headlines suggest. In 2004, in the respected Oil & Gas Journal, he wrote: "My staff and I were confident that Aramco could sustain even higher rates of production, if necessary." His concern about higher production was whether it was economically optimal, not technically feasible.

"The kingdom can certainly increase its production to 15 million bpd, based on its existing reserves," he added. Dr al Husseini said sustaining that level would require finding more reserves and using new technologies, which on past form seems certain to be achieved.

Third, Saudi Aramco's behaviour is not that of a company in crisis. When Oman's production went into decline in 2002, the sultanate stepped up exploration drilling, brought in new companies to reduce the near-monopoly of the state-controlled Petroleum Development Oman, started developing large heavy-oil fields, and launched a major effort in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) - a group of advanced technologies used to extract more oil from old fields

By contrast, Saudi Arabia has just started some limited pilot projects in heavy oil and EOR. Even at full capacity, Saudi Arabia would be producing less than 2 per cent of its reserves a year - Oman's peak extraction rate was more than three times higher.

Exploration has recently been diverted away from looking for oil to focus on discovering more gas. Other experts, such as the now retired Abdullah al Saif, Dr al Husseini's successor, as well as Dr Nansen Saleri, the former head of Saudi reservoir management, have expressed great confidence in the kingdom's oil production.

And in 2009, the huge Khurais field started up, producing 1.2 million bpd of high-quality light oil at a reported cost of US$10 billion (Dh36.72bn). That sounds expensive - but consider that, at current prices, the investment would be recovered in less than three months.

Khurais and other expansions took Saudi capacity to the 12.5 million bpd mark mentioned by Dr al Husseini. The only reason the kingdom is not at that level today is because of its production cuts to support prices during the economic crisis.

And that is the pointer to Saudi production policy. Not a lack of reserves, but the desire to manage oil markets to maximise revenues. Having spent so lavishly to build unused capacity, the Saudis are naturally wary of launching new projects until they are sure of demand.

As they so often do, peak oil believers are ascribing too much importance to geology, and too little to economics.

*Published in the UAE-based THE NATIONAL on Feb. 15, 2011

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