Debate or Vendetta?

I sometimes think peak oil has already hit Manhattan as subways become increasingly unpredictable (although surveillance cameras are state-of-the-art) and escalator shut-downs present stair master survival challenges, a kind of perverse underground amusement. Unfortunately, surfacing on Fifth Avenue does not end the scenario, for where once there was excellence and exquisite fashion, now there are bargain stores catering to New Yorkers who are poor, and yes ­ even starving.

So I was particularly fascinated by the opportunity to listen-in to the telephone conference call that JP Morgan held for its clients on April 7 and 8, “Peak Oil: Fact or Fiction“, which I was given exclusive permission to monitor . Maybe there would be answers as to whether or not Manhattan is a harbinger of what’s to come for the rest of the nation, and whether it’s fleeting opulence (not counting all the questionably-financed real estate extravaganzas rising up) is energy-related.

The main speakers faced-off on separate days. First Dr. Colin Campbell, Founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, succinctly gave his position saying that peak oil is “such a geological matter”. Campbell says we’re now at the halfway mark and that “by 2010 volatility comes to an end and then terminal decline” sets in.

The pronouncement is chilling. What’s more, Campbell says that “over the next few years everybody will become aware of this, and in some ways the perception of this growing situation is as serious as the event itself”. Campbell’s a retired geologist with decades of experience in the oil industry in both exploration and executive positions. He compares peak oil to old age ­ saying that a man knows when it has set-in.

Campbell was followed the next day by Michael Lynch, a computer oil and gas modeler for the past 25 years, President/Director of Global Petroleum, Strategic Energy and Economic Research. Lynch came out slugging, informing conference callers that Campbell refuses to appear with him since 1997, saying “you’ll understand why very shortly”. He seems to view Campbell as old school and too tired to be optimistic about the future. Perhaps a bit like Cheney and Rumsfeld having their last hurrahs before retiring into the bed & breakfast business on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Lynch believes the Hubbert model that Campbell’s theory relies on ­ discoveries and production follow a bell curve ­ is not only “incorrectly modeled”, but is “much closer to being junk science”. He says further, that while Campbell and his colleague, Jean Laharrere, have now “stopped saying that” . . . they’ve “never admitted they were wrong”.

Lynch takes the position that URR ­ Ultimately Recoverable Resources ­ is not a static amount and therefore cannot follow such creaming curves. “It grows over time,” he says, “as a result of economic changes, development in an area, but also because of technology, and in some cases, better scientific knowledge.”

Campbell says today’s oil supply is finite and that it all came into being during two periods of global warming 90 million and 150 million years ago when “excessive” algal blooms formed on the seas and lakes, became heavier and heavier, and sank to the bottom of the rifts where they were “preserved” and pressure-cooked. The resulting oil and gas then began leaching its way back up to the surface through the sandstone (in the pore spaces between the grains of sand) and rock.

Campbell is adamant about the peak oil issue not being an economic or political one, but simply a case where we’ve now so depleted our “endowment” that peak oil will occur by 2010, and that soon after there will be a rapid fall-off in oil resources, which will profoundly affect world civilization.

So the conference began with a bit of posturing and name calling ­ with Campbell announcing “no common ground” with the “flat Earth economists” (Lynch et al.), who he says believe there’s an infinite supply of oil. (No one believes this, including Saudi Aramco).

Lynch called Campbell, Laharrere (and investment banker Matt Simmons) Malthusian pessimists, and obliquely referred to Simmons’s upcoming book on peak oil as “content free”.

Fortunately, JP Morgan’s clients pressed speakers for details, which made the conference truly worth listening to. Campbell advised that peak discovery of oil was in 1964 and that it’s been falling for 30 years. He also said that by 1981 the world was using more than it produced ­ 1 barrel is now found for every 6 consumed ­ and that there’s little spare capacity anywhere in the world.

As further proof of peak oil, Campbell adds that the major oil companies are getting out of the business ­ shedding staff, divesting marketing sectors, outsourcing jobs, cutting back on exploration and drilling fewer wells ­ the seven sisters are now four. He notes the majors are also buying back company shares (i.e., BP), and argues that “the value of their past is more important than their future”. He quotes the late Robert Anderson of Arco: “This is a sunset industry and the sun is fairly low in the sky.”

However, Campbell does spare the more “nimble” independent oil companies, who he says will press on producing what’s left, subcontracting to state companies however they can, through initiative, enterprise and bribes. And that oil in the ground will become increasingly valuable.

Lynch argues the oil majors are alive and well, thinking about returns and making their money upstream, just not investing in things like refineries, etc. downstream. He says lack of spare capacity and any pullback from the oil business is not because there’s not enough oil out there. It’s due to economics and politics.

Campbell counters that the picture is far worse than anyone’s thought because he’s “pretty sure” we may have to remove over 200 billion barrels of oil from world estimates as a result of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, and Kuwait misrepresenting their oil numbers. Says Campbell, “If you’re limited to public information and you’re watching reserves grow, you can believe it can go on forever.”

John J. Hoey, who served as President of Atlantic Refining Company as well as Hondo Oil (Robert Anderson was CEO), and is currently founder and Director of Tethys Oil in Stockholm, says the “Peak Oil debate is just that ­ a debate.” Hoey believes the adverse remarks about lack of disclosure and transparency of sovereign entities like Saudi Arabia, Russia, etc. appear self serving and disparaging, that the oil producing countries are not public companies and have no duty or obligation to disclose any more than they deem appropriate. He advises: “Try to get some technical information from a major oil company on a specific ‘tight’ well being drilled or completed in a highly sensitive geological area.”

Moreover, Hoey says he’s listened to all the peak oil arguments (including the JP Morgan call-in) and “gravitates” towards Lynch rather than Campbell or Harvard Business School alumnus and friend, Matt Simmons. He also lived in Saudi Arabia during the 70s and worked closely with Aramco and Petromin; Hoey says he has the “highest respect for the professionalism, integrity and future of their petroleum industry”.

Campbell presents a litany of pessimism on future oil as he deconstructs reserve reporting: He says Iran and Iraq may also have been manipulating their numbers but he’s “less sure”. That UK gas and oil will be “virtually exhausted” by 2020, as acknowledged by the UK government (BBC reports Wood Mackenzie oil consultants described UK North Sea exploration as “the industry’s biggest waste of money over the past five years”). That North American oil and gas is hopelessly depleted ­ it took 40 years for the US to go from peak discovery to peak decline ­ and that “Canada is way into decline”. Norway has the Ecofis “exceptional chalk reservoir,” which has been kept going through technology, but that doesn’t change the overall pattern of decline. Germany has “no hope” and is long past peak. Argentina’s production is down. Colombia has peaked. Egypt, with a teeming population, has hit its peak and has no money for exploration ­ “where will it get its oil from?” Indonesia has “no reason to remain in OPEC”.

The only upbeat pronouncements from Campbell were that Iran will have a “rapid rise” in oil production until 2015 (and then fall), even though a Power Bridge Associates caller told Lynch he’s been studying reserves in southwest Iran’s Khuzestan field and that Iran has about 200 billion barrels of oil and needs capital to develop. He says Iraq holds “north of 300 billion”.

Campbell believes Russia will see a second peak in 2010 ­ the first was under Soviet rule and influenced by OPEC price cutting in the 1980s which made Soviet oil uncompetitive. The increase in OPEC production stemmed from revisions in reserve estimates which allowed OPEC to exceed reserve-connected quotas. Heavy oils of Canada and Venezuela he believes will grow, but so will costs of getting oil out. Canadian oil sands may be a good investment with an expected price of about $20 a barrel, but right now the project is stuck, and is consuming Alberta’s natural gas meant for the MacKenzie pipeline and North America’s gas needs. Polar oil has “uncertain possibilities”. “Deep water booms and goes quickly.” Kashagan field in the Khazakstan sector of the Caspian will produce 10-15 billion barrels, Campbell says, “but not what was hoped for”.

Moreover, Campbell’s bleak scenario includes not only a challenge to home heating and the gas tank. He reminds that the growing of agricultural products (crop nutrients and farm machinery) and their transportation are heavily dependent on petroleum ­ meaning global food shortages.

Lynch’s principal role seemed to be one of resuscitating the audience after Campbell’s address. He backed up the Saudi Aramco claim that its definition of “oil initially in place” (according to Society of Petroleum Engineers, World Petroleum Congress and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists) is the “volume or the amount of oil that’s presently in the subsurface”. Lynch also disclosed during the talk that he has worked off and on for the Saudis and does work in the short sell market, saying “I’m sure there’ll be questions about that.” Curiously, there were none.

Campbell explained the origin of the oil numbers system saying it all began with SEC reporting practices. For financial reasons, US oil company owners were allowed to report both proved producing reserves and proved undeveloped wells. The SEC model then became an international standard. He said “companies found it convenient to be very conservative about what they reported; they effectively reported as much as they needed to give a satisfactory financial result, that meant the build-up of stock of under-reported reserves”.

The Saudi “oil initially in place” numbers, which Lynch refers to, were presented at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) meeting in Washington February 24 by Aramco’s Manager of Reserves Management, Dr. Nansen Saleri, and Mahmoud Abdul Baqi, VP of Exploration. They both said that in the last 20 years Saudi Arabia’s oil in the subsurface has grown by 100 billion barrels and it currently has “in the ground” 700 billion barrels.

Aramco also claims a 52% success rate with 64 exploratory wells drilled in the past 10 years and says that for the fourth year in a row the company reduced its water cut levels with the total company aggregate water cut for 2003 less than 27% (Russia’s is 80%); water cuts pose a problem because while water flushes out some oil, it tends to further seal-in a lot of what remains. Aramco cites reserves at 261 billion barrels ­ reserves defined as “oil that can be recovered commercially with current technology”. Aramco says they expect to produce 12 million barrels of oil a day though 2025.

Lynch also obliquely referenced Matt Simmons’s CSIS presentation, calling him an investment banker who “sort of said I read some technical articles and they describe engineering problems in the field. He made a whole bunch of mistakes which the Saudis corrected. . . . And he admitted he wasn’t an engineer.” Simmons referred to Aramco’s sophisticated “MRC (maximum reservoir contact) wells” with multiple branches and high resolution digital imaging ­ as “bottle brush” wells.

Lynch did not question the Aramco claim that by 2025 Saudi Arabia expects to have 900 billion barrels of oil in the ground; Saudi Aramco’s position is that only 14% of their “tank” has been tapped and that the main field Ghawar (actually many fields in one) is only 48% tapped. Lynch did say Saudi Arabia was virtually unexplored when it comes to oil, backing up Aramco statements regarding plans to push forward to the promising Saudi-Iraqi border (Campbell says you won’t find much there) as well as into the previously inaccessible Rub’al-Khali ­ making use of “intelligent wells” and remote control digital imaging with a 10-million and soon 100-million cell resolution.

OPEC advises its figures also refer to member countries’ remaining reserves and not total discovered, but says it does not ask member countries to verify reported numbers unless there is a major discrepancy. OPEC says its figures are in line with USGS and BP numbers, however this means that they are based on projected demand, which leaves things a bit fuzzy. Matt Simmons has called the very concept of proven reserves “still an art form”.

OPEC’s acting Secretary General and Director of Research is Dr. Adnan Shihab-Eldin, a Berkeley-trained nuclear physicist ­ perhaps the most dynamic personality to emerge at OPEC since Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani. Shihab-Eldin is guiding the organization towards greater transparency in reporting its oil numbers by participating in JODI (Joint Oil Data Initiative) with APPEC (Asian and Pacific Petroleum Exporting Countries), IEA and UNSD. Shihab-Eldin previously served as a director of the International Atomic Energy Association and as Director, Kuwait Institute for Scientific Institute ­ where I first met him in the late 1970s when KISR was developing solar energy projects.

Shihab-Eldin said the following regarding world oil supply:

“In the current scenario of heightened political uncertainty in the Middle East, it is widely recognized that there is a premium on current crude prices, related to these events, of as high as $4-$5/b, rather than any basic lack of supply. . . . Our projections, derived from the OPEC World Energy Model, show world oil demand growing from 76 million barrels per day in 2000 to 89 million barrels per day by 2010, and by over 106 million barrels per day by 2020. Two-thirds of the increase in demand over that 20-year period will come from China and developing countries. This highlights the relevance of such projects as the new multi-billion dollar pipeline which will stretch from Eastern Siberia in Russia to Northeast China ­ with construction due to start in 2003. . . . Non-OPEC production is expected to increase throughout the entire period, with the expected decline in North Sea output more than compensated by increases in developing countries, the CIS and the Caspian region [which he says will add an additional 4 million barrels a day to world supply by 2015 and believes that new discoveries will get a boost from newer technologies]. ” ­ Conference on Oil and Gas Transportation in the CIS and Caspian Region, Vienna, Austria, Oct. 2002

Neither Campbell nor Lynch referred to the JODI figures, but there is little doubt that the time has come for the numbers to be counted. Even Lynch admits that OPEC’s reserves numbers in the past were often referred to as “political reserves”. Lynch says: “I was in Kuwait in 1987 and we were laughing about the reserves numbers. Everyone knew those numbers were not reliable”.

And Lynch still believes “There are no good reserve numbers anywhere in the world ­ especially in the past 30 years.” But he says he’s referring to “proved reserves” not the ultimate amount available. And that proved reserves numbers are not really very important in long-term modeling.

He characterizes Colin Campbell’s and Jean Laharrere’s modeling as”curve fitting” ­ not geological research ­ “like people who look at stock market cycles and try to come up with waves”. Lynch acknowledges that field size is determined by geology but says “the process of discovery is an economic one.”

Lynch also accuses Laharrere of mixing up political and economic events with geological ones in terms of the pause in oil exploration in the Middle East after 1980, when Lynch says there was a world oil glut, and the Saudis and Kuwaitis stopped exploring because they have 100 years of oil left. And then the wars happened, Iran/Iraq and the Gulf War. What’s more, Lynch says the creaming curves Campbell produces are not reliable estimates because field sizes are not stable ­ citing field growth according to the IHS database in Norway (where horizontal drilling is producing results which could never be realized otherwise, he says), in Britain and Canada.

Lynch says that Jean Laharrere told the Abu Dhabis their oil was scarce and he just wasn’t believed and that OPEC doesn’t even want to deal with this “nonsense” but people keep asking them. Says Lynch, “If you look at all their [Campbell, Laharrere] curves, what you find is they’re not doing serious statistical analysis. They’re just drawing curves and then eyeballing then. Just looking at them and saying, does this appear to follow a pattern?”

Lynch looks at slides regarding British North Sea production. He says we were told the big fields have been discovered and the small fields don’t matter and new technology won’t increase recovery. But he says Campbell was wrong about his 1991 predictions of 500,000 barrels a day, citing current production at 2 million b/p/d and that this suggests “you don’t know that the estimate of total resources in the UK is reliable, that it is stable”.

Lynch also claims Campbell is himself raising estimates of URR as well as extending the peak out ­ that Campbell first predicted peak oil for 1989. He says in 2002 Campbell updated a table from his 1997 book increasing the amount of URR by over 100 bb in 5 years, attributing it to countries discovering more oil “than they ever would have in 1997”.

Lynch concludes that the danger in the Middle East is more political when it comes to the supply of oil, and not it’s running out. A Barron’s 4/5/2004 editorial suggests the real scare is that “OPEC producers will stop pricing their oil in dollars and switch to a basket of currencies for both the pricing and settlement of crude-oil transactions”. And Crown Prince Abdullah’s historic visit to Moscow and talks with Vladimir Putin are further proof of politics as oil’s ace card.

Says Lynch, “If you believe resouces are scarce and companies should run up their debt levels, buy up reserves, sign a long-term contract for engineers, do everything they can ­ nobody’s doing that. They’re trying to hunker down against another price collapse because that’s much more likely than prices staying up at $35.”

A caller from Arc Asset Management wanted to know why investments in US public oil companies weren’t being realized in the past 2-3 years, although there had been substantial increases in exploration and development spending. The caller questioned why there was a lack of production response, was it because the decline rates have been getting much steeper? (The 1997 oil hype in Azerbaijan, which took me to Baku, came to mind; after the smoke screen came down there were dry holes, investors threatening to jump off the roof and the gobbling up of Amoco by BP plus the resignation of the US Energy Secretary.)

Lynch responded by saying give Capex time, you haven’t seen the results yet, and that “it’s partly delay because what you’re seeing is companies putting money into big projects like deep water West Africa that take longer to come online than a shallow Gulf of Mexico field.” He said the Chad pipeline took 2- 3 years, and mentioned costs on such projects could go up as much as 30%-40%.

John Hoey of Tethys Oil agrees. “It would be folly,” he says, “to solely rely on the old school theories of recoverable reserves, tertiary recovery methods and technologies, old maps and geological interpretations.” Hoey says the technology is moving too fast; they are now drilling faster, smarter deeper and more effectively, revisiting areas that were abandoned, looking for different plays ­ all helped by the economics of $30/bbl oil. He argues, “The worldwide deepwater drilling market expenditures have been estimated at $40 billion between 2003 and 2007 versus a fraction of this amount 10 years earlier, and were virtually nonexistent 10 years prior to that.”

Lynch’s talk was followed by a presentation by Dr. William Fisher, Director of Geoscience at the University of Texas and an advisor to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. He held up a slide with some Shell figures (odd, considering Shell’s in the hot seat for overstating its reserves by 20%), which looked at the range of conventional vs unconventional oil in terms of a price scenario ­ ultimate at 3 trillion barrels and unconventional at another trillion barrels ­ and said cost probably will come down due to technology.

Fisher says he concurs with USGS “folks in Denver” who project peakings “at either a high demand of 3% a year out to 2025, and at 1% or less, it extends substantially”. Fisher says future trajectory will be demand-defined not constrained by physical shortage.

Fisher also says, fuel reserve growth “has been the biggest dynamic over the past 25 years”. He notes that the USGS “roughly equates reserve growth potential with new field discovery ­ it’s about 650 bb of each”. Fisher says he feels it’s necessary to address this because some “early peakers” think reserve growth is a myth or assume it’s accounted for in “proved reserve base” numbers.

Fisher sees “multicomponent seismic coming along” to deal with complex high density rock, carbonate rocks, and expects there will be a lot more computer imaging. He says 3D seismic works best in sandstone.

Surprisingly there is some common ground with Colin Campbell. Fisher suggests the oil age is pretty much over ­ though not because the world is running out of oil ­ but because oil will have outlived its usefulness (what will replace it is less clear). Fisher and Campbell both think coal-bed methane will be important. Fisher believes we’re at the “threshold of the methane economy”. And he says worldwide stranded pockets of gas will lead to cost-effective LNG (at a stable price of $4.50 to $5 a barrel).

Over the next 30-50 years, he believes natural gas will be the source for any development of the hydrogen fuel cell. Yet nowhere did he acknowledge well-documented recent supply shortages or obstacles to overseas importation. He says further that some of the downward curves on crude oil demand “out here about 20 or 25 years are factoring in a substantial introduction of the hydrogen fuel cell in the transportation mode.” Now we’re talking volatility!

SUZAN MAZUR first visited Saudi Arabia as a guest of the Saudi Arabian National Center for Science and Techology in 1984 researching a television documentary on solar energy and prior to that interviewed scientists at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, then headed by OPEC’s now acting Secretary General, Dr. Adnan Shihab-Eldin. Her reports have appeared in the Financial Times, Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer (partial list), and on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox television programs. Email:








Suzan Mazur is the author of  The Altenberg 16: An Expose’ of the Evolution Industry and of a forthcoming book on Origin of Life.  Her reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur,Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC.  She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs.  For a few years along the way she was a runway fashion model, visiting Iran in 1976 as part of a US bicentennial goodwill tour of the Middle East (former CIA Director Richard Helms was then ambassador to Iran and attended the Tehren fashion gala).