Towards a more technological oil

An oil field can be exploited only during a limited period of time. The production of an oil field starts by increasing, then reaches a production plateau and finally declines over a period of time which can be of variable length.

The moment when the maximum of the world oil production might be reached ('peak oil') is often debated and has been frequently highlighted as an imminent risk by ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas).

By considering the evolution curve of the quantity of oil discovered over the past years, the American geologist King Hubbert was able to show that production followed the same curve with a time shift of 33 years.

As the peak of discoveries occurred in the USA in 1937, he predicted in 1956 that the production peak would occur in 1970, that is to say fourteen years later, which is what effectively happened [78].

Since that time, numerous attempts have been made to apply this method on a world scale level, resulting in many predictions concerning the date of the future peak oil [82]. However, this method, which was very successfully used for predicting the peak oil in the USA, is difficult to apply on a world scale level.

The date when the world production of oil will reach a ceiling is not only a function of the absolute level of resources, but also of technical and financial means which can be used for exploiting them. It must be stressed that the concept of peak oil is much more complex on a world scale than on a regional scale. The increase of prices which will result from such a situation will lead to an increase in production from nonconventional sources, which are not presently taken into account.

Different predictions concerning a more or less imminent peak oil have been published recently.

ASPO estimates that peak oil will occur towards 2010, with a production ceiling around 90 million barrels per day [81]. The DouglasWestwood Company predicts peak oil in 2016 [81] and the oil company Total, in a report published in 2003, predicts about 2025 [83].

Taking into account the large fluctuations observed concerning the worldwide production of crude oil, which depend upon the economic conditions observed at a given time, the exact date of the production 'peak' represents a somewhat theoretical issue.

At the approach of the maximum of production, the oil market is likely to become very unstable and rather than a peak, a strongly undulating plateau might be observed.

This is perhaps what is already happening but very unstable economic conditions would make it difficult to observe such a peak even when it happens effectively.

It seems likely that a maximum level of production, at around 95 billion barrels per year, will be reached within the next twenty to thirty years. Since world production is already about 87.5 billion barrels per day, the potential increase of this production level is fairly limited.

The growth in oil demand will be the key factor. If it continues to grow at the present rate, it will be difficult to ensure a supply at the corresponding level. The main problem stems from the necessity to ensure the investments needed to maintain the required production level. There is a risk of a gap between supply and demand that no other energy source is able to compensate rapidly.

Figure 7.3 Pushing forward the envelope of oil production (Source: IFP). Reproduced with permission from Energie & Climat: Réussir la transition énergétique by Alexandre Rojey, Editions Technip, Paris, 2008

In order to avoid a crisis in the comparatively short term, it is therefore necessary to push forward the limits of oil production.

For maintaining world production at the required level over several decades, it will be necessary to discover new fields and to exploit the existing fields in an optimal way in order to maintain the life of fields as long as possible. 'Technological' oil is going to play a growing role in the years to come.

As can be seen from the diagram in Figure 7.3, an increased use of high performance technologies makes it possible to push forward the limits of oil production by around twenty years. These technologies contribute by:

- Making possible new discoveries, through the use of more and more sophisticated exploration technologies, such as elaborate seismic imaging methods of the subsurface.

- Improving the recovery yield, by applying on a large scale enhanced oil recovery methods: water and gas injection (secondary recovery), injection of CO2, steam, polymers or surfactants (tertiary recovery).

- Increasing the productivity of oil wells; technologies currently exist for drilling deviated, horizontal or even 'fish bone' well architectures, in order to improve drainage of oil deposits.

- Developing offshore oil production, including deep offshore and areas which have not been widely explored until now, such as the

Arctic zone. The exploration of new areas has to be undertaken carefully, in order to protect the environment. Progress in the area of offshore production has been spectacular: oil can be produced now at water depths reaching or even exceeding 2000 m. Further progress is still expected; it is estimated that 40 % of deep offshore reserves still to be discovered are located between 2000 m and 3000 m, and 30 % are between 3000 m and 4000 m water depth. The global volume of the reserves still to be discovered in the deep offshore and in the Arctic zone is estimated at around 100 Gb [77].

- Putting into production nonconventional oil fields (heavy and extra-heavy oils). The future potential oil production which might result from the exploitation of these fields is very significant and the future impact of these prospects will be presented below.

These different means will be effectively deployed only if the oil price remains high enough over a long period and if the required investments are provided, involving the use of the required advanced technologies. The further delay which might result from the use of these innovative technologies should help to manage the transition. It should not be used for postponing the other actions which need to be undertaken. On the contrary it must be considered as an opportunity for deploying them actively.

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