A Race for Another Kind of Cure

Some say that the future of oil shale is upon us, while others say “not so fast.” The extraction process to attain oil from shale is no simple task, which is why vast reserves remain undeveloped. Estimated U.S. oil shale reserves total an astonishing 1.5 trillion barrels of oil, or more than five times the stated reserves of Saudi Arabia. This energy bounty is simply too large to ignore any longer, assuming that the reserves are economically viable, which places it in competition with the cheaper oil production on the other side of the planet.

For example, shale reserves are locked 1,000 feet underground in the Colorado dessert, which entails a more costly process of extraction. This process, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, two advanced extraction techniques, has fueled a boom in shale oil and gas production across the US.

Optimism tells us that advances in thermally conductive in-situ conversion may enable shale-derived oil to be competitive with crude oil at prices below $40 per barrel. If this becomes the case, oil shale development may soon occupy a very prominent position in the national energy agenda.

Further optimism tells us that this is why the US is expected to lead the world in oil production between 2015 and the early 2030s, according to IEA.(International Energy Agency) U.S. oil imports will rapidly drop on increased production and greater consumer efficiency, pushing the country toward “meeting all of its energy needs from domestic resources by 2035.”

Now enter the pessimism. Some industry experts say that the shale oil and gas boom radically redefines how much oil and gas is recoverable across the globe. China (of course) leads the world in shale gas resources with an estimated 1,115 trillion cubic feet, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Russia stands to dominate in supplies of oil from shale, with an estimated 75 billion barrels in technically recoverable resources. This is not surprising either, as Putin has a hand in about 4 of the top 10 oil producing companies around the world.

In the meantime, the Middle East, the only large source of low-cost oil, remains the center of the longer-term oil outlook,” IEA’s report reads. “The role of OPEC countries in quenching the world’s thirst for oil is reduced temporarily over the next ten years by rising output from the U.S., from oil sands in Canada, from deep water production in Brazil and from natural gas liquids from all over the world. However, by the mid-2020s, non-OPEC production starts to fall back and countries in the Middle East provide most of the increase in global supply.”

OPEC says it is simply a wave, not a revolution, and all of the excitement from the shale oil will soon be nothing more than a fond memory of independence. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries also states that there is a maximum five years to go on this “bounty”, and then OPEC says the curtain officially falls on the performance.

Forever tied to the “American way” is the fact that necessity is the mother of invention. Therefore, I would also venture to say that the process of extraction becomes much more cost efficient over the next 5-7 years. So, while OPEC is throwing stones at our so-called “American shale energy revolution”, we find a way to give it “fresh legs” and keep running the race.

Waving our flag in honor of our new found independence from the stairs of the White House, the U.S. boldly predicts cutting oil imports by a third over the next ten years as well as increasing domestic extraction of hydrocarbons. So, how are we doing? Can we back this up? Well, last November the production of oil in the USA exceeded its import for the first time in 20 years. Take that OPEC! They in turn say, soon your fortune will fail, let us back this with our own research. Well, apparently their forecasts have some basis behind them. The cartel’s research has revealed that the volume of production is already going down at many of the shale oil deposits in the U.S. At some facilities the drop in production is pretty sharp at around 50%. OPEC admits that non-traditional sources will additionally give the USA up to 5 million barrels per day, but by 2018 only illusions will be left of that effect.

The bottom-line for OPEC’s pessimism is that in the long run we simply cannot compete with their lower production costs, making it nothing more than a short-term solution. We on the other hand know that this “new program” threatens revenues for OPEC’s 12 members, whose production is at its lowest in two years amid political unrest in Libya and theft in Nigeria.

Looking at a worst case scenario, let’s say they are correct, and shale extraction dries up in even just a few years due to our lack of innovative technology, where do we stand with our oil independence? If we had absolutely no foresight, in an emergency, the U.S. oil strategic petroleum reserve in Louisiana only holds about 800 million barrels of oil, enough to get the country through about 90 days of regular oil usage. I don’t see that “whoops!” in our future. Meantime, in the big picture, OPEC turned its focus to China and India who are increasingly driving world energy demand. China is close to becoming the world’s largest oil importer, while India will turn into the leading importer of coal in the next decade to lead the Asian surge, the Paris-based IEA said in its 2013 World Energy Outlook.

Speculation, it’s what defines the conversations surrounding oil. In the end, let’s just hope it’s a “win-win” for everyone. We get our independence, and OPEC gets China’s new demands to fill the gap left by our bounty. Optimism, coupled with innovation, is expected to take U.S. oil production to 11.6 million barrels a day in 2020, (from 9.2 million in 2012), and after that, nobody really knows where we stand.

By Bob Brewer, Staff Writer