Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Oil Reserve Calculations

It struck me, after posting my recent note on the problem with the unchallenged reserves quoted by the Saudi’s and the members of OPEC in general, that few people outside of the oil industry have a clear understanding of how these reserves are calculated.

Unlike the mining industry, who quite rightly minimize reserve calculation because it is very expensive and needs to be sufficient only to remain several years ahead of production, oil operates against a very different model because the reserves can be calculated early and accurately.

To book a reserve creditably in the oil business, it is necessary to make a discovery well first. That puts you in a field. At that point it is possible to map the confines of the field’s closure with relatively inexpensive seismic. A judicious placement of the next well usually toward the farthest closure boundary confirms continuity. At that point, provided the well is successful, you can do a preliminary reserve calculation that will probably stand up.

In fact it will stand up. That is why a deep discovery with only the discovery well in the pocket can be proclaimed so confidently as a multi billion barrel reserve. A second production well quickly refines the numbers to a level of confidence that permits production planning.

Thus, once such a reserve calculation is made, it is very unlikely that it will ever be upgraded significantly by additional in field drilling. Technology changes will upgrade resources, such as happened with the Alberta Tarsands. Expect additional upgrades driven by the development of THAI. Just remember though that no new oil is been found or even needs to be found in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The resource itself already exceeds a trillion barrels and apparently hugely exceeds that.

Therefore the addition of 150 billion barrels of Saudi reserves, not previously quoted by the pre Aramco discoverers is very suspect. Folks who find fields do brag about them at appropriate industry seminars. And the nature of reserve calculation as I have just described makes it very unlikely those reserves are coming from prior discoveries.

And it is not just the Saudis who are playing bullshit poker, so is the entirety of OPEC. As a result, the world has been gulled into sitting back and behaving like very good customers. The World has not invested aggressively in other resources with the exceptions of Canada in the Tarsands and Europe in the wind business and in nuclear. The US political system chose to sleep as this unfolded and is only now waking up to the dire necessity of action, although business has not been sleeping and has been pushing everywhere for position in the coming race to provide fresh energy.

By the by, if those reserves had a drop of credence, Saudi production would not be sitting at 5,000,000 barrels per day and teetering on the edge of sharp decline. You would have brought those reserves on line and lowered the take on existing fields. Instead they applied water injection to their best field as a method to maintain production volume. In the event, the shoe is overdue to drop. The way they squirmed last summer before they promised to release more oil, surely tells us that their above ground reserve is drawn down and is leaving them with no flexibility to massage the market.

The truth is that the dominos are falling slowly as field after field is in clear decline already, and the last to hit the wall will be the Saudis if it has not happened already.

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