NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 12, 2009

Forecasts that global oil production will soon start to decline and that most oil will be gone within a few decades may be overly pessimistic, says Leonardo Maugeri, group senior vice president for corporate strategies and planning at the Italian energy company ENI.

For example:

  • When Kern River Oil Field of California was discovered in 1899, analysts thought that only 10 percent of the crude was recoverable.
  • In 1942 after more than four decades of modest production, the field was estimated to still hold 54 million barrels of recoverable oil, a fraction of the 278 million barrels already recovered.
  • In the next 44 years, the field produced 736 million barrels, and it had another 970 million barrels remaining.
  • Today the field, operated by Chevron, still puts out 80,000 barrels per day, and its remaining reserves are estimated to be about 627 million barrels.
  • By 2030, thanks to advanced technologies, wells will be able to extract half of the oil known to be underground, up from the current average of 35 percent.

How did the Kern field stay ahead of the experts? New drilling methods and new technology, says Maugeri:

  • Chevron began to increase production in the 1960s by injecting steam into the ground, a novel technology at the time.
  • Later, a new breed of exploration and drilling tools -- along with steady steam injection turned the field into a kind of "oil cornucopia."

The Ken River in California is not an isolated case, as most of the world's oil fields have revived over time.  This is in defiance to the common wisdom that suggests that a field's production should follow a bell-shaped trajectory (known as the Hubbert curve) and peak when half of the known oil has been extracted.  Advanced technologies have been identified as the real cornucopia here.  Together with new discoveries, the increased productivity could make oil last at least another century, says Maugeri.

Source: Leonardo Maugeri, "Squeezing More Oil from the Ground," Scientific American, October 2009.

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