Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Crude oil, future and past

We have gone mad, Your Majesty, and only you can cure our affliction

An open letter to the leader of Opec's biggest oil producer, the one man who can force Britain to cut its carbon emissions

George Monboit

Guardian 27 May 2008

King Abdaullah of Saudi Arabia

Your Majesty,

In common with the leaders of most western nations, our prime minister is urging you to increase your production of oil. I am writing to ask you to ignore him. Like the other leaders he is delusional, and is no longer competent to make his own decisions.
You and I know that there are several reasons for the high price of oil. Low prices at the beginning of this decade discouraged oil companies from investing in future capacity. There is a global shortage of skilled labour, steel and equipment. The weak dollar means that the price of oil is higher than it would have been if denominated in another currency. While your government says that financial speculation is an important factor, the Bank of England says it is not, so I don't know what to believe. The major oil producers have also become major consumers; in some cases their exports are falling even as their production has risen, because they are consuming more of their own output.

But what you know and I do not is the extent to which the price of oil might reflect an absolute shortage of global reserves. You and your advisers are perhaps the only people who know the answer to this question. Your published reserves are, of course, a political artefact unconnected to geological reality. The production quotas assigned to its members by Opec, the oil exporters' cartel, reflect the size of their stated reserves, which means that you have an incentive to exaggerate them. How else could we explain the fact that, despite two decades of furious pumping, your kingdom posts the same reserves as it did in 1988?

You say that you are saving your oil for the benefit of future generations. If this is true, it is a rational economic decision: oil in the ground looks like a better investment than money in the bank. But, reluctant as I am to question your Majesty's word, I must remind you that some oil analysts are now wondering whether this prudence is a convenient fiction. Are you restricting supply because you want to conserve stocks and keep the price high, or are you unable to raise production because your fabled spare capacity does not in fact exist?

I do not expect an answer to this question. I know that the true state of your reserves is a secret so closely guarded that oil analysts now resort to using spy satellites to try to estimate the speed of subsidence of the ground above your oil fields, as they have no other means of guessing how fast your reserves are running down.

What I know, and you may not, is that the high price of oil is currently the only factor implementing British government policy. The government claims that it is seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, by encouraging people to use less fossil fuel. Now, for the first time in years, its wish has come true: people are driving and flying less. The AA reports that about a fifth of drivers are buying less fuel. A new study by the Worldwide Fund for Nature shows that businesses are encouraging their executives to use video conferences instead of flying. One of the most fuel-intensive industries of all, business-only air travel, has collapsed altogether.
In other words, your restrictions on supply - voluntary or otherwise - are helping the government to meet its carbon targets. So how does it respond? By angrily demanding that you remove them so that we can keep driving and flying as much as we did before. Last week, Gordon Brown averred that it's "a scandal that 40% of the oil is controlled by Opec, that their decisions can restrict the supply of oil to the rest of the world, and that at a time when oil is desperately needed, and supply needs to expand, that Opec can withhold supply from the market". In the United States, legislators have gone further: the House of Representatives has voted to bring a lawsuit against Opec's member states, and Democratic senators are trying to block arms sales to your kingdom unless you raise production.

This illustrates one of our leaders' delusions. They claim to wish to restrict the demand for fossil fuels, in order to address both climate change and energy security. At the same time, to quote Britain's Department for Business, they seek to "maximise economic recovery" from their remaining oil, gas and coal reserves. They persist in believing that both policies can be pursued at once, apparently unaware that if fossil fuels are extracted they will be burnt, however much they claim to wish to reduce consumption. The only states that appear to be imposing restrictions on the supply of fuel are the members of Opec, about which Brown so bitterly complains. Your Majesty, we have gone mad, and you alone can cure our affliction, by keeping your taps shut.

Our leaders, though they do not possess the least idea of whether the oil supplies required to support it will be sustained, are also overseeing a rapid expansion of our transport infrastructure. In the UK, we are building or upgrading thousands of miles of roads and doubling the capacity of our airports, in the expectation that there will be no restriction in the supply of fuel. The government's central forecast for the long-term price is just $70 a barrel.
Over the past few months, I have been trying to discover how the government derives this optimistic view. In response to a parliamentary question, it reveals that its projection is based on "the assessment made by the International Energy Agency in its 2007 World Energy Outlook".

Well, last week the Wall Street Journal revealed that the IEA "is preparing a sharp downward revision of its oil-supply forecast". Its final report won't be released until November, but it has already concluded that "future crude supplies could be far tighter than previously thought". Its previous estimates of global production were wrong for one simple and shocking reason: it had based them on anticipated demand, rather than anticipated supply. It resolved the question of supply by assuming that it would automatically rise to meet demand, as if it were subject to no inherent restraints.

Our government must have known this, but it has refused to conduct its own analysis of global oil reserves. Uniquely among possible threats to the economy and national security, it has commissioned no research of any kind into this question. So earlier this year, I asked the Department for Business what contingency plans it possesses to meet the eventuality that the IEA's estimates could be wrong, and that global supplies of petroleum might peak in the near future. "The government," it replied, "does not feel the need to hold contingency plans." I am sure I do not need to explain the implications if its forecasts turn out to be wildly wrong.
Your Majesty, I recognise that this is not among your usual duties as the ruler of Saudi Arabia. But I respectfully beg you to save us from ourselves.

Yours Sincerely,

George Monbiot

See also the many comments: many good ones http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/may/27/carbonemissions.energy

Black gold rush: boom and bust and boom again in Pennsylvania

In the oilfields where John D Rockefeller drilled his way to a fortune, business is booming once more. Rupert Cornwell reports

Independent 27 May 2008

"I feel like I'm taking care of a herd of cows," says Bill Huber as he gently nudges his pick-up truck along muddy, gouged-out tracks to check on his precious charges, scattered through the woods. "Every day there's something to be done. A problem with a drill pipe, a bearing to replace, or something wrong with a pumping jack."
Which is not surprising, given that some of the venerable contraptions in question first started to extract oil a century or more ago, and have now been pressed back into service, even though they yield just a few gallons a day. "You get one well going again, it may give you 10 to 15 barrels a day straight off. Then it tapers off. But even if it keeps going at just a third of a barrel a day, it's still pretty good."

Americans may wince at the ever-rising cost of petrol, a daily reminder of the grinding economic crisis that grips the country. But Bill Huber and the other "mom-and pop" producers in this part of the world aren't complaining, not when a 42-gallon barrel now sells for $135 (£68) or so, double what it fetched only a year ago, when every day seems to bring a new record price – and when the first commercially exploited oil field on the planet is enjoying a late-life renaissance.
These steep, wooded hills of north-western Pennsylvania are the cradle of the modern, trillion-dollar, global oil industry. Here, on the edge of the stream called Oil Creek, a well drilled by Edwin Drake first coughed up the black stuff on 27 August 1859. A couple of years later, the world's oldest continuously producing well – the McClintock No 1, housed a couple of miles north of Oil City in what looks like an ancient garden shed – went on stream, and a few years after that, the world's first commercial oil pipeline was laid. Here too the first oil boom-and-bust cycle happened. From the fledgling industry, fragmented and unorganised, John D Rockefeller ruthlessly forged the monopoly of Standard Oil and became the richest man of his era.

Then came a long, genteel decline of an ancient family fallen on hard times, long surpassed by brash upstarts in Texas, the Middle East and beyond. The last refinery in the area was pulled down a few years ago. But the past lives on, not only in the rickety wells hooked up by rusty brown pipes, snaking through the mud and dead leaves to storage tanks from which trucks pick up the crude for refining. There are the town names like Oil City and Oleopolis, thoroughfares called Petroleum Street, opulent late 19th century houses built by the world's first oil moguls, even in the title of Oil City's daily paper – you've guessed – The Derrick.

With his slow way of talking, and oil-splatched overalls – not to mention the kennels behind his modest house – Mr Huber, 67, is no Rockefeller. But he has his own small place in the venerable history of Pennsylvania's oil patch. His great-great grandfather, a cooper by trade, came to the area in the mid-19th century and made some of the barrels used by the early local oil industry. Mr Huber's grandfather got into the production business proper at the start of the 20th century, drilling more than 50 wells. Now the third generation oilman has inherited the business, and even expanded it. Over the years he has bought up scores of other wells, mostly during the barren years when Pennsylvania's oil industry seemed doomed. In the late 1980s, the oil price sank to $10 a barrel, before recovering, only to plummet again amid the financial crises in Asia and Russia a decade later. "Many people round here said, 'we're done and that's it'. But me and three others stayed and bought up some of the wells, dirt cheap."

Even so, Mr Huber often needed the income from his kennels to balance his books. But now he has his petroleum herd, 230 low-volume "stripper" wells of which some 45 are in production, yielding "70 or 80 barrels a month, maybe 100 in a good one". Northwest Pennsylvania isn't Kuwait. But 100 barrels a month provides a decent income. Not that Mr Huber is living it up. He's put a new roof on his house in the woods, a few miles north-east of Oil City, and bought a new (or rather new-er) pick-up truck. Soon he may get round to doing up the kitchen. But that's it.

Elsewhere, however, the boom is unmistakeable. The big energy companies are back in Pennsylvania, seeking oil and, more importantly, gas. Already Pennsylvania has more stripper natural gas wells than any other state, and its proven gas reserves are half the US total. In the woods new wells are being drilled. Farmers who own the "OMG" (oil, mineral and gas) rights are leasing land to the companies for $2,500 an acre a year, compared with $25 a decade ago, and get production royalties on top of that.
In five years, production of the waxy, paraffin-rich crude from Pennsylvania's Appalachian basin field has shot up 50 per cent to 3.8 million barrels. But experts reckon that two-thirds of the oil that was there when Drake drilled his way into history is still in the ground. Once it wasn't worth bothering with, but no longer. Rock Well Petroleum, a Canadian company, has plans not only to drill scores of new wells, but to dig huge underground caverns to collect the oil and pump it to the surface.

There's just one problem, however: what to do with the brine that comes with the oil, especially from older wells. McClintock No 1, for instance, now delivers 300 barrels of brine for every barrel of oil, says Barbara Zolli, the director of the state oil museum in nearby Titusville, at the site of Drake's first well.

The museum is about to be given a massive facelift, to mark next year's 150th anniversary of Drake's find. A replica has been built at that spot, but the hole in the ground is the original. "This place has relevance for everyone's life. People come here from all over the world to see it, they want to know where the oil industry started," Ms Zolli says. "Even now, you look at that hole and you feel goose-bumps."

And now this Indian summer for the industry. "It's never been as good as this," says Mr Huber, who remembers the bad times when he had to call the buying companies to collect oil even when the tanks weren't full, to get money to pay his bills. "Maybe the present sky-high prices won't last, but from what I can see, what with the Middle East troubles and China's huge demand for oil, they'll never go back down too far. And they keep telling us there's only so much oil left." He has had some offers, but isn't selling. One reason is history, a sense of obligation to his forebears. A fourth generation Huber, Bill Jr, is set to take over the family business, and such father-to-son traditions are hard to break. And then, of course, there's the money. "You may have just 20 wells and get a third of a barrel a day from each of them," Mr Huber notes. "But as my dad used to say, 'It all mounts up.'"

But you can't miss the caution in his voice. Good times are not eternal. Drake might have launched a giant industry, but spent his later years in ill-health and poverty. And as this tiny corner of the petroleum universe proves, booms are invariably followed by busts. The day the Drake well came in, world production doubled. By 1861, oil had hit $20 ($600 in today's dollars) a barrel, before crashing to 10 cents, equivalent to $3 now.

And then there was the story of Pithole, an incredible tale even by the wild standards of the American frontier. Oil first gushed along Pithole Creek in January 1865. By October the settlement was producing a then gigantic 6,000 barrels a day, delivered to barges by a new-fangled, five-mile-long pipeline. From nothing grew a town of 15,000 people, with 54 hotels, oyster houses, and a theatre that put on Shakespeare, most notably a louche version of Macbeth.
But in three years Pithole was gone. The forest of wells were pumping oil from the same deposit, which ran dry just as other fields in Pennsylvania came on stream. In 1866, the town's land was valued at $2m. A dozen years later, the local authority bought the lot for $4.37 – a real estate collapse beside which today's sub-prime mortgage crisis pales. The biggest hotel in town, costing $40,000 ($1.2m today) to build, was sold for firewood for $16. Today, not a stone, not a shard, remains; only a grid of mown strips between the trees, denoting where Pithole's streets had briefly stood.

In the modern history of big oil, Pennsylvania merits little more than a similar footnote. But in its day it taught the world. In the 1880s, engineers from Oil City went to Baku in the southern Russian empire to develop the industry there, in the process undercutting their own business.
And a Russian connection persists. Out inspecting Mr Huber's wells one recent morning, we ran into John Cubbon. An oil engineer and scion of an established Pennsylvania oil and lumber company, he has crude (or "maybe kerosene") in his blood. He worked with Shell in Russia, married a Russian woman, and was now with BP on another Russian project. Waiting for the Russian government to give him a visa, he had come home to take a look at the mini-boom. Pitholes come and go. But, Cubbon noted, "there's never been an oil field that's been totally abandoned".


Blogger john said...

Defensive Driving Florida offers Florida online defensive driving courses.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Coach Factory said...

kate spade handbags, prada outlet, nike air max, louis vuitton, nike air max, louis vuitton outlet online, burberry outlet online, burberry outlet online, tiffany and co jewelry, michael kors outlet, gucci handbags, tory burch outlet, louis vuitton outlet, chanel handbags, jordan shoes, longchamp outlet online, nike shoes, louboutin shoes, red bottom shoes, coach outlet store online, kate spade outlet online, polo ralph lauren outlet, oakley vault, coach outlet, prada handbags, coach purses, louis vuitton handbags, longchamp handbags, christian louboutin outlet, oakley sunglasses, cheap oakley sunglasses, michael kors outlet online, michael kors outlet online, louis vuitton outlet, polo ralph lauren, christian louboutin shoes, michael kors outlet online, ray ban outlet, nike free, longchamp outlet, michael kors outlet store, michael kors outlet online, coach outlet, true religion, ray ban sunglasses

2:55 AM  
Blogger Coach Factory said...

abercrombie and fitch, longchamp pas cher, north face, vans pas cher, nike free, nike air max, longchamp, tn pas cher, hollister, air max pas cher, michael kors canada, chaussure louboutin, oakley pas cher, sac vanessa bruno, ray ban uk, louis vuitton uk, hollister, new balance pas cher, lululemon, nike free pas cher, north face pas cher, scarpe hogan, nike trainers, air max, nike roshe, ralph lauren pas cher, barbour, nike huarache, burberry pas cher, guess pas cher, nike air max, true religion outlet, longchamp, lacoste pas cher, sac michael kors, ralph lauren, louis vuitton pas cher, michael kors uk, nike blazer pas cher, mulberry, nike air force, air jordan, hermes pas cher, louis vuitton, nike roshe run, timberland, sac louis vuitton, ray ban pas cher, converse pas cher, true religion outlet

2:57 AM  
Blogger Coach Factory said...

herve leger, soccer jerseys, uggs outlet, jimmy choo shoes, lululemon outlet, nfl jerseys, canada goose pas cher, vans outlet, soccer shoes, roshe run, valentino shoes, moncler, rolex watches, chi flat iron, uggs on sale, canada goose, north face outlet, ghd, new balance outlet, north face jackets, mcm handbags, ugg soldes, moncler, canada goose uk, mont blanc pens, beats headphones, canada goose outlet, celine handbags, instyler ionic styler, ferragamo shoes, ugg boots, bottega veneta, ugg, moncler outlet, abercrombie and fitch, ugg outlet, wedding dresses, mac cosmetics, birkin bag, reebok outlet, canada goose outlet, insanity workout, moncler, giuseppe zanotti, asics shoes, hollister, canada goose outlet, babyliss pro, marc jacobs outlet, p90x workout

2:59 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home