Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Will the decline of large fields lead to dieoff?

One of the often quoted "truths" spouted by the dieoff doomers is that the decline rate post peak will depend on the world's giant fields and by proxy when the world's giant fields go into decline the world has effectively hit hard depletion. This comes from Ivanhoe L.F., & Leckie G.G's piece in 1993 titled "
Global oil, gas fields, sizes tallied, analyzed" which effectively says that 94% of the world's oil and gas lies in 1500 large fields.

I question this received "wisdom".
For a start, the distribution of virtually every other size plot in the natural world shows a power law.
Take lakes for example: there are only a few dozen giant lakes in the world but there are millions of small lakes. As wikipedia states:
"Small lakes are also much more numerous than big lakes: in terms of area, one third of the world's standing water is represented by lakes and ponds of 10 hectares (25 acres) or less.[citation needed] However, large lakes contribute disproportionately to the area of standing water with 122 large lakes of 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi, 100,000 ha, 247,000 acres) or more representing about 29% of the total global area of standing inland water."

If wikipedia is correct about the distribution of lakes (and we have no reason to doubt it) is it possible that the distribution of oil fields is somehow different than the distribution of lakes given that both were formed by natural processes?

I doubt it. There's something clearly wrong with the analysis. I do not believe that 94% of the world's oil lies in large fields when only 29% of the world's fresh water lies in large lakes. It doesn't make sense. I also note that there has been no update to the 1993 piece and this is the crucial piece on which many of the forecasts of depletion are relying on. If there is nothing to offset the decline from large fields then world depletion EQUALS large field depletion.

One point however: it IS likely that the distribution of the EASY TO DRILL oil fields are disproportionately skewed towards large oil fields simply because of cost vs profit. Large fields are easier to find and compare favorably to the sunk costs and overheads of the majors. Majors simply cannot develop the small fields because their costs do not permit. This is true in every business: a small niche market is not worth doing for the likes of giant corporations like Coca Cola, Lever Brothers etc If this is true (and there's no reason to suspect it isn't), it suggests that small oil fields are disproproportionately likely to not have already been developed compared to the giant fields. If this is true combined with the distribution of lakes being possibly similar to that of oil fields we could deduce that we still likely have the same amount of oil as in the large fields but in smaller fields still remaining to be developed. If this is the case, it's a strong argument that the depletion rate of the large fields will be tempered by the development of the smaller fields to some extent but at much greater cost. It can be argued of course that cost is indeed the issue. It's not. The issue is not greater cost, it's continually increasing cost which cannot be adapted to in a reasonable time frame. If the next tranch of oil fields to be developed are all smaller but more or less of the same cost and similarly for the subsequent tranch there what we are likely to see is a step change in the price of oil rather than a smooth and continous price upwards till the world economy explodes. And if we see step upwards and a plateau at a particular price, the question will be asked: have we yet reached the price at which it's cheaper to move to electric power for most applications that are currently powered by oil? Time will tell.

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