America’s Feel-Good Oil Bonanza.
Think back to early 2004. Oil cost around $40 per barrel1—on the high side compared to the previous few decades but not much out of the ordinary. Gasoline still cost under $2.00 a gallon for most of the country. The evening news was more concerned with wardrobe gaffes by Janet Jackson (too little, at the Super Bowl) and President Bush (too much, on the USS Abraham Lincoln) than with energy prices.
In retrospect, these were the last days of “normal.” Most everyone in business, the media, and government assumed that the world had plenty of cheap oil.2 And hardly anyone outside the fossil fuel industry had heard of peak oil, the idea that we were nearing physical limits to global oil production and a new period of oil price and supply volatility.
We now know that the world’s conventional oil production would effectively stop growing the very next year, setting off a sickening global economic rollercoaster ride. The complacency of 2004 would change to worry by 2005 as the price of oil surged past historic highs, and to outright panic in 2008 when it crossed the once-unthinkable $100 barrier. It would spark massively increased investment in alternatives like tight oil, tar sands oil, shale gas, renewable energy, and nuclear power—all while the global economy made painful adjustments to the new normal of $80-plus oil.
By now you’d think we’d be chastened by the last ten years, and would be planning cautiously and conservatively for our nation’s energy future. Instead, almost everyone is once again assuming that we’ve got plenty of (admittedly more expensive) oil, and that there’s nothing to worry about.
Such shortsightedness isn’t necessarily surprising for Wall Street, where only the current quarter’s figures matter; nor for the news media, where energy-literate journalists are sadly few and far between. But it’s quite another matter to see it in a federal government agency, especially one whose most important functions include projecting the future of the country’s energy needs and resources.
In this respect, the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) recently releasedAnnual Energy Outlook 2014 (AEO 2014), which foresees impending and long-term US oil abundance, is not just surprising—it’s a dangerous return to a 2004 way of thinking.
Lest you think the projections issued by a relatively small government agency are immaterial to real-world decisions about the world’s most important resource, consider the case of the Monterey shale. Two years ago the EIA released a 105-page assessment of technically recoverable shale gas and tight oil in the lower-48 states.3 Among other things, it estimated a massive amount of tight oil in California’s Monterey formation: 15.4 billion barrels, or over 64% of the country’s projected total tight oil resource base.
America’s supposed new oil nest egg was quickly accepted as unquestionable fact. The New York Times4, Wall Street Journal5, CNN6, and countless other media outlets reported it uncritically. It became a central argument in the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to influence California’s regulations on drilling and new technologies like fracking.7 And one can only assume that the 15.4 billion barrel worm made its way into the ears of politicians and policymakers across the country, whispering, “We’ll have decades of American energy independence!”
Of course, a deus ex machina like this raised more than a few eyebrows, including here at Post Carbon Institute; so we looked into it.8 We found that the EIA report’s authors9 had tallied up 15.4 billion barrels simply by assuming that every square mile of the Monterey would be more productive than practically all the best areas in America’s two best tight oil plays, the Bakken shale (in North Dakota) and the Eagle Ford shale in Texas. That’s it. No consideration of the Monterey’s significant geological complexity compared to the two plays, nor of data from actual Monterey oil production. In other words, our new cornerstone of energy independence rested on a back-of-the envelope calculation that any first-year petroleum geology student would recognize as unrealistic.
But simply because it was published by the EIA, the 15.4 billion barrel worm went on to influence some of America’s most important policy and planning decisions for over two years—unquestioned and unchallenged.
So, what the EIA says matters—regardless of its veracity or substantiation. In this light, let’s take a look at what the EIA is now saying in AEO 2014.
The most-repeated nugget from AEO 2014 is the projection that US oil production will reach 9.61 million barrels per day (mbd) by 2019, matching its historic peak of 1970.10 Less-repeated but just as important is the projection that after 2021 US oil production will start a very gradual decline, leaving us in 2040 with daily production at a respectable 7.48 mbd (which happens to roughly be 2013’s average daily production).11 It’s an energy patriot’s dream come true—an imminent, rapid rise in domestic production to give a boost to the economy, followed by a gradual tapering-off that will allow for an orderly transition to alternative energy sources.
This rosy projection is driven by significant and sustained production of tight oil from shale formations (enabled by fracking and other technologies)—a cumulative total of 42.8 billion barrels by 2040. Anyone who’s not a petroleum geologist might be forgiven for assuming this means the EIA has a pretty good idea where that 42.8 billion barrels is and how it will realistically be produced. As we’ll see, this is not the case.
Most of America’s tight oil—about 74%—currently comes the aforementioned Bakken and the Eagle Ford plays. These look set to peak as soon as 2016-2017, although they could possibly recover a total of 11 billion barrels by 2035 if 48,000 new wells can be drilled (five times the current total).12 However, the Bakken and the Eagle Ford are the best we’ve got; none of America’s other tight oil plays look to have such high-producing wells over such large areas. Producing an additional 31 billion barrels by 2040 from increasingly marginal (and thus more expensive) plays is a real stretch.
A quick look behind the EIA’s numbers further undermines confidence. According to the assumptions underlying last year’s Annual Energy Outlook (the equivalent background material is not yet available for 2014), the EIA sees total recoverable tight oil resources of 13.7 billion barrels from the Monterey (a recent downward revision from the original 15.4 billion mentioned earlier), 7.3 billion barrels from the Austin Chalk, 5.3 billion barrels from the Permian Basin, and the remainder from a scattering of other plays. They’re impressive numbers…until one remembers the flimsy case behind the Monterey projections.
The EIA also says nothing about the rate of production from wells in these plays, which is critical to profitability and has proved to be an Achilles Heel in other tight oil plays. Production in Eagle Ford tight oil wells, for example, declines 60 percent on average in their first year; in the Bakken it’s 69 percent.13 This means more wells must constantly be drilled to keep overall production from collapsing. But there is a physical limit to the number of wells that can be usefully drilled in an area; once that limit is reached (in the Bakken and Eagle Ford it could be within the next 10-12 years depending on drilling rates14), production will decline sharply.
A perennial argument against such pessimism is that more oil resources will become accessible as rising oil prices make the more technically challenging oil economic to produce. However, in AEO 2014 the EIA actually expects the price of oil to drop to as low as $88 per barrel by 2018, and thereafter rise at a meager 1.5-2.5% per year15—about the rate of inflation the last few years.
Is the forecast that the United States will hit 9.61 million barrels of day of oil in 2019 credible? Perhaps, if everything goes right and capital inflows don’t falter; the forecast is largely driven by measurable results from the most productive areas of the Bakken and the Eagle Ford.16 But once those are tapped out, there’s scant evidence for a future in which the oil produced from the remaining tight oil plays will amount to nearly four times as much as from the Bakken and Eagle Ford—let alone that tight oil production will decline only gradually over the following 20 years. Indeed, one must conclude that the EIA’s projection assumes that future technological innovations will make it economical to produce currently unprofitable oil despite oil prices hardly changing.
A more prudent, conservative US oil forecast would look very different. It would consider that, although surprises are always possible, the most productive fossil fuel resources do tend to be discovered first and produced first. It would take note of the fact that production in fracked wells declines extremely quickly, requiring an accelerating drilling treadmill to maintain—let alone grow—production, with associated collateral environmental impacts. It would assume that most tight oil plays producible at current oil prices have already been discovered and put into production, and that major new resources—if they exist—are unlikely to be forthcoming unless there is a significant rise in oil prices.17 In short, the forecast would be based on actual data from existing and legitimately forthcoming plays, and leave the feel-good speculation about future resource abundance to Wall Street.
This is no small matter. The projected availability and price of future oil directly impacts decisions being made today about everything from factory expansions to multi-billion dollar transportation projects. It influences federal government policy on encouraging (or discouraging) gas mileage standards, electric vehicles, building efficiency, and renewable energy. And it certainly colors the debate around regulating the exploration and production of fossil fuels in communities and public lands across the country.
That last debate is playing out in California right now, as the fossil fuel industry pushes legislators to relax environmental laws to allow more development of tight oil in the Monterey shale via fracking and acidization. The heightened risk of environmental damage caused by developing Monterey tight oil may seem acceptable to legislators who believe 15.4 billion barrels of oil, $24.6 billion per year in tax revenue, and 2.8 million jobs18 are in the offing—though far less so if the recoverable oil is actually a small fraction of that (which our report Drilling California concluded is likely the case19).
The stakes are also sky-high with respect to the national economy. The EIA sees US oil imports remaining relatively low throughout 2040 thanks to the supposed windfall of domestic tight oil production. If they’re wrong, oil imports would have to make up the difference, adding to our already substantial monthly petroleum trade deficit of $20 billion per month.20 And, of course, the price of oil would go up—possibly significantly—until global demand balances with the new, reduced, global supply.21
The EIA’s yearly publication of the Annual Energy Outlook is, without a doubt, an enormously challenging undertaking. Each year’s AEO pulls together projections that involve extremely large sets of data, endless analysis of industries and economies, and—of necessity—significant assumptions and caveats. The EIA’s own retrospectives on the accuracy of its projections reveal, however, that it generally overestimates oil production and underestimates price.22 Nevertheless, once the EIA’s annual projections are released they’re inevitably treated as future fact by the media and the public.
Although few would disagree that the EIA’s data collection and dissemination activities are world-class, its projections in AEO 2014 are, like most of its previous projections, overly optimistic and unlikely to be realized. The risks to long-term American energy security are obvious if the EIA’s projections of low-priced energy abundance don’t work out.
Good news sells, and doesn’t rock any boats, but policy makers and politicians comforted by rosy forecasts are unable to understand the risks and properly prepare the country for long-term energy sustainability. It’s unfortunate—and yes, dangerous—that rosy forecasts are exactly what the government’s premiere energy fortuneteller continues to offer, despite its dismal track record.