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Matthew Simmons, author of “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy,” is one of the oil industry’s chief proponents of the “Peak Oil Theory.” Essentially, Simmons argues that Saudi Arabia’s oil production “peaked” during the 1978-1982 Iranian oil crisis, reaching only briefly an unsustainable production level exceeding 10 million barrels of oil per day.
At the core of his analysis are some 200 technical reports which examine Saudi oil wells and production figures, arguing in nearly every case that the oil field under examination is limited and doomed to become depleted.
Craig Smith and I wrote “Black Gold Stranglehold: The Myth of Scarcity and the Politics of Oil” to debate the contentions of Matthew Simmons and other “Peak Production” oil analysts. Central to the argument that oil is fossil fuel is that we are bound to run out of oil. After all, only a finite number of dinosaurs and ancient forests were available to rot into oil.
So, inevitably we must run out of oil, so goes the tautology that is at the heart of fossil-fuel thinking. Mr. Smith and I disagree, arguing instead that oil is an “a-biotic” product that is naturally produced by the Earth on an ongoing basis, such that the world should never run out of oil, despite increasing worldwide consumption of oil.
Our thinking agrees with that of Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold, who in his 1998 book, “The Deep Hot Biosphere: The Myth of Fossil Fuels,” argued that hydrocarbons are formed naturally in our planetary system and beyond. Dr. Gold noted that Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune have large admixtures of hydrocarbons in their atmospheres, chiefly in the form of hydrocarbons, mainly methane. He commented that Titan, a moon of Saturn, has clouds formed of methane and ethane. Dr. Gold doubted that there ever were “stagnant swamps” or dinosaurs on Titan. If hydrocarbons could be formed naturally on other planets, Dr. Gold argued we should assume the Earth also is capable of generating hydrocarbons without the need for the debris of photosynthesized life to decay into oil.
Oil industry experts, like Matthew Simmons, hold to their “Peak Production” views even when evidence contradicts their arguments. The Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy, currently estimates that Saudi Arabia will maintain current production levels of 10.5 to 11.0 million barrels per day and are “easily capable of producing up to 15 million barrels per day in the future and maintaining that level for 50 years,” despite Simmons contention that the Saudis have only been able to exceed 10 million barrels per day for brief periods of time.
The EIA also quotes Khalid al-Falih, Aramco’s senior vice president of gas operations, as stating that by 2006, Saudi Arabia would have 90 drilling rigs in the kingdom, more than double the number of rigs operating in 2004. This is in direct contrast to the pessimistic view painted by Simmons, who sees only depleting Saudi wells and increasing difficulty exploring new oil fields. Aramco estimates that the total depletion for Saudi oil fields is 28 percent, with the giant Ghawar field having produced 48 percent of its proved reserves.
Still, Aramco insists that Saudi oil reserves are underestimated, not overestimated, as outside experts such as Simmons contend. Simmons typically sees more rapid depletion rates and a higher “water cut” than the Saudis report. Saudi Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali Al-Naimi now maintains that the kingdom’s proven oil reserves are more properly estimated at 1.2 trillion barrels, hugely more than the 261 billion barrels of reserves previously estimated. “Saudi Arabia now has 1.2 trillion barrels of estimated reserve,” Al-Naimi told an international conference in April 2004. “This estimate is very conservative. Our analysis gives us reason to be very optimistic. We are continuing to discover new resources, and we are using new technologies to extract even more oil from existing reserves.”
Simmons’ analysis is typically Malthusian. In his famous 1789 essay, Thomas Malthus predicted that population would soon outstrip society’s ability to produce food. Malthus is famous today mostly because he was famously wrong. Thinking pessimistically, Malthus had neglected to take into consideration the human genius for adaptation, invention and technological advancement. So too, Matthew Simmons can only see “twilight in the desert” when he contemplates the future of Saudi oil production. Heading his oil-investment bank Simmons & Co. International, Matthew Simmons maintains, “We’ve run out of good projects.”
Yet, EIA data show that worldwide reserves of oil are currently estimated at 1.2 trillion barrels (estimating Saudi reserves at 260 billion barrels), more than ever reported in human history, reflecting an unbroken progression of increasing numbers over the last quarter century of EIA estimates. ExxonMobil has issued statements recently suggesting that oil reserves worldwide might reach as high as 6 to 8 trillion barrels.
The abiotic, deep-earth theory of oil would suggest even these estimates may be low. The fastest growing segment of the oil industry is offshore exploration. Over 70 percent of the surface of the Earth is covered by water. If we are not relying upon rotting dinosaurs to be responsible for oil, we might ask how much oil there remains to be found where we have never looked – even deeper in the world’s seas, beyond the continental shelves we know are oil-rich.
We invite Mr. Simmons to debate us. These are important issues to the American public at times of escalated oil prices and record oil industry profits. “Black Gold Stranglehold” argues for a national energy policy that will build more refineries and get more oil supply into the economy at a time when worldwide oil reserves have never been estimated higher. Americans are being needlessly scared that the world is running out of oil. Gasoline and heating oil prices can and should come down.