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Matthew Simmons, in his book “Twilight in the Desert,” paints a grim picture of Saudi Arabian oil prospects, arguing that even the giant oil field of Ghawar is depleting and is increasingly cut by water to increase production. Simmons argues that Aramco is going after the “last of the easily produced, free-flowing oil in the most prolific parts of Ghawar.” Simmons’ dire predictions stand in direct contrast to the Saudi’s much more optimistic view.
Saudi Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Al-Naimi told a conference on Saudi oil held in Washington, D.C., in April 2004, that Saudi oil reserves have been dramatically underestimated.
Saudi Arabia now has 1.2 trillion barrels of estimated reserve. 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.
Current Energy Information Administration estimates put Saudi resources at nearly 262 billion barrels of oil as of August 2005, only 20 percent of Al-Naimi’s 2004 estimate. Even Simmons acknowledges how difficult it is to obtain accurate data on Ghawar, the Saudi’s largest field, or on any specific details of Saudi production.
Ghawar is well known as the world’s largest oilfield within the petroleum industry and among analysts and energy journalists. But few people, even among the world’s more knowledgeable energy experts, know anything more about Ghawar beyond its colossal size. Rarely has any data been published that provided details about the performance and parameters of this greatest of all oilfields.
For his discussion of the physical characteristics of Ghawar, Simmons refers not to his own data, but to the data presented on the Internet by oil consultant Greg Croft.
Craig Smith and I wrote “Black Gold Stranglehold: The Myth of Scarcity and the Politics of Oil” to provide you, the reader, with an important counter-argument to the “doom-and-gloom” analyses of “Peak Production” oil theorists such as Matt Simmons. We argue from the abiotic, deep-earth theory of the origin of oil and we contend that “fossil-fuel” theorists such as Simmons look at oil as a finite resource, such that sooner or later we have to pump out all the oil that ever was. If we analyze the geology presented by Greg Croft, we can find excellent support for the abiotic theory and the argument that the Ghawar field may well have been dramatically underestimated as the Saudis now contend.
Simmons’ view is that no matter how huge the Ghawar field is, the oil there must inevitably be pumped dry. Soviet scientists who developed the abiotic, deep-Earth theory might disagree. Their argument would be that fields such as Ghawar might well contain oil in multiple strata of sedimentary rock, down all the way to the bedrock. Drilling through this bedrock “crystalline basement,” the Soviet theorists would expect to find deep-Earth reservoirs of oil that had pooled up from the mantle. The Soviets would further expect a large oil field such as Ghawar to be distinguished by fracture patterns within the underlying rock, such that oil could have more easily seeped up into reservoirs within the more porous sedimentary rock layers near the surface.
Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold, in his 1998 book “The Deep Hot Biosphere: The Myth of Fossil Fuels,” noted “Koudryavtsev’s Rule” as articulated by Russia’s greatest petroleum geologist of the early 20th century, N.A. Koudryavtsev. Simply stated, Koudryavtsev argued that oil-rich areas typical of giant oil fields tend to be oil-rich through all layers of rock down, and often past, the bedrock.
Hydrocarbon-rich areas tend to be hydrocarbon-rich at all lower levels, corresponding to quite different geological epochs, and extending down to the crystalline basement that underlies the sediment.
This leads to the conclusion that continued exploration within the same oil field leads to continued new discoveries of oil reserves:
Even where drilling has penetrated past the sedimentary strata and into the basement rock, evidence of hydrocarbons does not run out. Invasion of an area by hydrocarbon fluids from below could better account for the vertical reach of hydrocarbons than does the chance of successive deposition of hydrocarbon-producing biological sediments in epochs that differ by tens of millions of years and that show no similarities of climate, vegetation, or other relevant characteristics.
In other words, “fossil-fuel” theorists would expect lower lying oil to have come from dinosaurs and ancient forests that died at an earlier time, a phenomenon unlikely to have happened unless different geological epochs with different types of dinosaurs and different kinds of ancient flora still died in the same location under conditions where they produced a strata of earlier oil. “Peak Production” theorists such as Simmons write as if oil were always finite, while the abiotic theorists open their minds to oil seeping up from great depths and creating reservoirs in sedimentary rock strata of different ages as the oil passes to the surface of the Earth.
An important, but neglected, study of the bedrock underlying the Saudi oil fields provided strong evidence that the oil fields resulted from fractures and faults in the basement rock, not from a disproportionately large number of dinosaurs having died for some reason or another uniquely on the Arabian Peninsula. The study, published in 1992 by geologist H.S. Edgell, argued that the Saudi oil fields, including the giant field at Ghawar, were “produced by extensional block faulting in the crystalline Precambrian basement along the predominantly N-S Arabian Trend which constitutes the ‘old grain’ of Arabia.” Precambrian rock dates back geologically some 4.6 billion years, to the origin of the Earth, until some 570 million years ago. Dinosaurs did not roam the Earth until much later, during the Mesozoic Era, beginning 250 million years ago, a considerable distance in time from the Precambrian Era.
Edgell’s study would argue that oil in Saudi Arabia is abundant because the fault patterns in the underlying bedrock permit oil from the Earth’s mantle to seep upward, into the many porous sedimentary strata lying above. Edgell is not shy about advancing this conclusion: “All the known oil fields of Saudi Arabia and its offshore are thus related to four major directions of basement faulting, namely N-S, NE-SW, NW-SE, and E-W.” And again:
Anticlinal or domal structures in the sedimentary sequence of the northeastern Arabian Platform and its offshore extension contain all the known oil and gas fields of Saudi Arabia. These currently comprise some 56 oil fields, all of which owe their origin to deep-seated tectonic movements in the Precambrian crystalline basement.
Translated into simple terms, Edgell is telling us to forget about dinosaurs – Saudi Arabia has abundant oil because the fault pattern under Saudi Arabia permits the abundant oil from the Earth’s mantle to flow upward. Looking through Matt Simmons’ “Twilight in the Desert,” we cannot find a single reference to Edgell’s study or to the possibility that Saudi oil might be abiotic and deep-Earth in origin.
Maybe the secretive Saudi’s are telling the truth when they say their oil reserves are dramatically underestimated. Yes, at $20 a barrel, the Saudis may claim their reserves are only 260 billion barrels. Maybe it makes sense that when oil is over $50 a barrel, the Saudis suddenly find more, now saying their reserves are 1.2 trillion barrels, and growing, depending upon how high the price of oil gets.