Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy Hardcover – Jun 10 2005
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Investment banker Simmons offers a detailed description of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S and our long-standing dependence upon Saudi oil. With a field-by-field assessment of its key oilfields, he highlights many discrepancies between Saudi Arabia's actual production potential and its seemingly extravagant resource claims. Parts 1 and 2 of the book offer background and context for understanding the technical discussion of Saudi oil fields and the world's energy supplies. Parts 3 and 4 contain analysis of Saudi Arabia's oil and gas industry based on the technical papers published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers. Simmons suggests that when Saudi Arabia and other Middle East producers can no longer meet the world's enormous demand, world leaders and energy specialists must be prepared for the consequences of increased scarcity and higher costs of oil that support our modern society. Without authentication of the Saudi's production sustainability claims, the author recommends review of this critical situation by an international forum. A thought-provoking book. Mary Whaley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
“…a must read for anyone concerned with our culture of ‘conspicuous consumption’” (Lobster, Winter 2005/06)
“…a realistic look at the future of Saudi Arabian oil supplies” (Wexus, 7th December 2005)
"The Texas energy specialist, Matthew Simmons, has suggested that the world derives false comfort from the Saudi Arabian assurances of willingness to increase production to meet consumer shortfalls." (Financial Times, 16th September 2005)
"Oil industry expert Matthew Simmons thinks...claims and forecasts are exaggerations and unrepresentative...the book goes into good detail..." (Lloyds List, 26th August 2005)
"...an analyst who is warning that the end of booming oil production is nigh, or already upon us..." (The Business, 4th September 2005)
"This book by Matthew Simmons comes at a timely moment...[and is] therefore essential reading for industry, government, the investment community and academia. It has a message for everyone." (Times Higher Education Supplement, 9th September 2005)
"...there are many valuable insights in Simmons' book. His basic points are right on target." (BusinessWeek, August 1, 2005)
"...This is a ground-breaking book by an analyst of unimpeachable authority..." (New Statesman, 25 July 2005)
In 1956, Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert discovered a grand illusion in the American oil industry. For tax purposes, he noted, American oil companies regularly delayed the declaration of new oil reserves by years and even decades. The result was a false impression that new oil was being found all the time. In fact, discoveries had peaked in 1936.
Based on this observation, Mr. Hubbert predicted that American oil production would peak in 1969. He was wrong by one year. We briefly produced 10 million barrels a day in 1970 but have never hit that level since. Even with the addition of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, American production has slipped to eight million barrels a day -- which is why we import 60% of our oil.
Across the oil industry, the uneasy feeling is growing that world production may be approaching its own "Hubbert's Peak." The last major field yielding more than a million barrels a day was found in Mexico in 1976. New discoveries peaked in 1960, and production outside the Middle East reached its high point in 1997. Meanwhile world demand continues to accelerate by 3% a year. Indonesia, once a major exporter, now imports its oil.
The Saudis claim to have huge oil reserves. Do they really?
Before an uneasy feeling grows into full-blown pessimism, however, one must consider the supposedly vast oil resources lying beneath Saudi Arabia. The Saudis possess 25% of the world's proven reserves. They routinely proclaim that, for at least the next 50 years, they could easily double their current output of 10 million barrels a day.
But is this true? Matthew R. Simmons, a Texas investment banker with a Harvard Business School degree and 20 years' experience in oil, has his doubts. In "Twilight in the Desert" (John Wiley & Sons, 422 pages, $24.95), Mr. Simmons argues that the Saudis may be deceiving the world and themselves. If only half of his claims prove to be true, we could be in for some nasty surprises.
First, Mr. Simmons notes, all Saudi claims exist behind a veil of secrecy. In 1982, the Saudi government took complete control of Aramco (the Arabian American Oil Co.) after four decades of co-ownership with a consortium of major oil companies. Since then Aramco has never released field-by-field figures for its oil production. In fact, no OPEC member is very forthcoming. The cartel sets production quotas according to a country's reserves, so each member has reason to exaggerate. Meanwhile, OPEC nations are constantly cheating one another by overproducing, so none wants to publish official statistics.
As a result, the world's most reliable source for OPEC production is a little company called Petrologistics, located over a grocery store in Geneva. Conrad Gerber, the principal, claims to have spies in every OPEC port. For all we know, Mr. Gerber is making up his numbers, but everyone -- including the Paris-based International Energy Agency -- takes him seriously, since OPEC produces nothing better.
The Saudis, for their part, obviously enjoy their role as producer of last resort and feel content to let everyone think that they have things under control. Yet as Mr. Simmons observes: "History has frequently shown that once secrecy envelops the culture of either a company or a country, those most surprised when the truth comes out are often the insiders who created the secrets in the first place."
Mr. Simmons became suspicious of Saudi claims after taking a guided tour of Aramco facilities in 2003. To penetrate the veil, he turned to the electronic library of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, which regularly publishes technical papers by field geologists. After downloading and studying more than 200 reports by Aramco personnel, Mr. Simmons came up with his own portrait of Saudi Arabia's oil resources. It is not a pretty picture.
Almost 90% of Saudi production comes from six giant fields, all of them discovered before 1967. The "king" of this grouping -- the 2000-square-mile Ghawar field near the Persian Gulf -- is the largest oil field in the world. But if Saudi geology follows the pattern found elsewhere, it is unlikely that any new fields lie nearby. Indeed, Aramco has prospected extensively outside the Ghawar region but found nothing of significance. In particular, the Arab D stratum -- the source rock of the Ghawar field -- has long since eroded in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The six major fields, having all produced at or near capacity for almost 40 years, are showing signs of age. All require extensive water injection to maintain their current flow.
Based on these observations, Mr. Simmons doubts that Aramco can increase its output to anywhere near the level it claims. In fact, he believes that Saudi production may have already peaked. Is he right?
Mr. Simmons's critics say that, by relying on technical papers, he has biased his survey, since geologists like to concentrate on problem wells the way that doctors focus on sick patients. Still, the experience in America and the rest of the world shows that oil fields don't last forever. Prudhoe Bay, which was producing 1.2 million barrels a day five years after being brought on line in 1976, is now down to less than 400,000.
The mystery of Saudi oil capacity bears an eerie resemblance to Saddam Hussein's apparent belief that his scientists had developed weapons of mass destruction. Who are the deceivers and who is the deceived? No one yet knows the answers. But at least Matthew Simmons is asking the questions. (Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2005)
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Now someone with a suspicious mind might suspect that Simmons, a banker, has an interest in leading the market to believe that oil is scarce, because that will put upward pressure on the price, and the oil companies and he, their banker, will benefit. I do have a suspicious mind, but I am convinced by Simmons's meticulous presentation of the SPE data. It is probably the single most important piece of evidence that the world is entering the Hubbert's peak for oil ("peak oil" as it is colloquially and ungrammatically known). He systematically presents the data on every single big Saudi oilfield, from the biggest of all, Ghawar, which as of 1994 still produced 63% of all Saudi oil, through Abqaiq, Safnaya, Berri, Zulaf, Marjan, Shaybah, and smaller fields.
Are there vast untapped reserves in Saudi Arabia? According to the SPE data, the answer is no. No giant fields have been discovered since 1968, despite intensive exploration. Here is a list of crisp facts about world oil, according to Simmons (p. 331):
1) Only a handful of super-giant oilfields have ever been discovered in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East -- they represent a very significant portion of all ME oil, and they are all very mature.
2) All mature giant oilfields peak and decline (production profiles showing the peaks are shown for 8 fields in Texas, Alaska, the North Sea, and Russia). Implication: sophisticated new technology will not prevent or forestall this from happening.
3) There do not seem to be many giant oilfields left to be discovered in Saudi Arabia or the ME.
4) Non-OPEC oil, excluding the FSU (former Soviet Union) seems to be peaking, or has already peaked.
The consequences of all this, needless to say, are grim. It's been increasingly clear in recent years that oil had peaked everywhere else, but there was still supposed to be a vast reserve under the Saudi sands. Apparently this was a mirage. What this means is that we have to make the development of new energy sources the top priority. Of course, in the middle to long-term, it will have to be renewable energy, and the faster we move to solar and wind power the better (See Hermann Scheer's excellent The Solar Economy).
In the transition, which is likely to be a rough ride, other less desirable alternatives are all but inevitable. Balancing available inputs (ie, plentiful coal) with toxic outputs and global warming will be a Faustian bargain. Of course now the move is well under way to mining of tar sands, shale oil, and other unconventional oil, which is more expensive and environmentally catastrophic.
Since the original 2005 review was written the CAFE -- corporate average fuel economy, the standard for fuel efficiency -- has been raised substantially, but the move away from fossil fuels is still painfully slow.
What will happen if the oil fields in Saudi can not keep up with demand? What if the production facilities are almost overmatched at this point and further facilities are difficult to put in place? All of these and more questions are covered in this book. The author also talks about the populations and political situation in Saudi and the picture he presents is another difficult and concerning one at that. One can only hope that the production in Iraq gets up and running or that better technology is hurried into production.
The footnotes and documented sources detailed in the book give it the appearance of a very well documented and accurate study. The details on the production process in Saudi is worth the price of the book alone. It is a rather back handed slight at our news media that the very real issues presented in this book have not yet made it to the talking heads at 6 pm. Overall I enjoyed the book a great detail. It is well written and put together. The reader is never lost in the detail no matter how little previous knowledge the reader has about the oil business. What I found was that the good was a very fast read given that it is difficult to put it down. It is a book that we all need to read.
The book is a little over 400 pages in medium font, and has many maps showing the locations of the oil, schematics showing how the crude oil is actually processed, photographs, and a number of tables. There are about a dozen large oil fields in Saudi Arabia. These fields are discussed, and comparisons are made with other large active oil fields around the world, including the North Sea oil fields started in the early 1970s. The core idea of the book is that we are about to face the reality of limited oil production in Saudi Arabia and in the rest of the Middle East: the situation is not good and projected inventories and extraction rates are too optimistic. The era of growing sources seems to be over, regardless of the political situation in the Middle East. The sources cannot keep up with the demand for oil that is expected to continue to grow.
The book is divided into four sections and then has a very short appendix. The first section is just 69 pages and details the political and historical development of Saudi Arabia as a country, and the introduction of foreign oil companies.
Section two is short, just 50 pages, and covers the subject of how the oil is extracted from the ground, and what has to be done to separate the crude from water, methane, and various other contaminants to get "pure oil". This includes photographs and a number of process schematics. It goes step by step through from the discovery of a field to how the oil is actually extracted and processed, and this can differ for different stages in the life of an oil field.
Section three is the heart of the book. It is a long inventory and description of about a dozen Saudi oil fields with maps and comments. This is one of the biggest sections and takes up 110 pages. He goes through the inventory field by field explaining the size, location, problems, yields, lifetimes, etc. This is a relatively complete description of the Saudi oil situation and oil around the Middle East, in more general terms for the latter and a bit less detailed.
The last section is about 100 pages and he describes the life cycles of various oil fields to show how the oil extraction rate varies with time. Each field goes through a life cycle, sometimes lasting decades, but each has a finite cycle length and each follows a similar production trajectory, i.e.; a slow rise in output at first to a maximum rate, then a peaking, then a drop off. The author has a lot of detailed information on many oil fields from around the world, along with their production histories. Most fields around the globe are on the down slope.
Finally, he has a brief appendix with additional comments to show that the problem with the Saudi fields is an old problem, and he quotes past Congressional testimony and similar, going back from 1974 that back up his present case. The problem is not new. Saudi production is limited and the inventory figures are overly optimistic, and they have a history of being overly optimistic: production is just half of old projections, and raising production levels is not feasible.
The general thrust of the arguments is that the fields are running at near capacity, will peak soon, and then drop off. They will not last centuries or similar. The date is a bit hazy, but with exponential growth in demand it will be sooner rather than later, probably the first decade of the present century, or maybe even this year or in the next few years. At that point we will not be able to meet oil demands, especially for the emerging nations of China and elsewhere.
In summary, once the hype and opinion clears away, and the basic facts are considered, the oil situation is not good. Many economists, most politicians, and the general public have still failed to grasp that an oil based economy cannot be sustained indefinitely because of finite supplies - not taking into account whether carbon dioxide will destroy the atmosphere. Like lung cancer and smoking, there has been a long period of denial and a lack of any real effort to conserve oil or find an alternative. In any case, this book drives the point home - in spades - and with much technical detail. We are about to peak in Saudi oil production, and there are no alternatives. The tap will not be 100% turned off, but supply will peak, decrease, and not the meet demand; our economies and the use of the gasoline, jet fuel, natural gas, or diesel fuel will have to change sooner, not later. Few think that coal is a good solution, and the much promoted two step "clean-coal" has yet to be demonstrated, i.e.: step one works - the high temperature burring of coal, but step two, an effective method of sequestering the carbon dioxide is not proven. The latter is my comment.
This is a well researched and well written book that outlines serious future oil shortages. 5 stars.
Simmons digs into a most important subject, i.e. whether optimists (including the Saudi oil ministry) or pessimists are to be believed. He addresses this issue by combining an extensive overview of Saudi resources, capabilities, and history with an interesting and extensive description of what it actually takes to produce oil (especially today). This makes me feel I (finally) understand oil production at a depth suitable for an informed and technically aware citizen, something no other book has helped me do - before, I had to simply believe (or not) the flat statements of others. I also come away convinced beyond any doubt that worldwide oil production is now or soon will be in permanent decline. This is serious, as most readers of this review will probably already know.
I believe all of us need to read as much as we can on the subject. I have read books with titles as follows: Collapse; Overshoot; Energy and Society (first half); The End of Oil; Blood and Oil; and Beyond Oil. I check EnergyBulletin.net every day. I've looked several times at Matthew Simmons' company Web site, which contains presentations by him. I've started to look into economic issues; I found papers by John Michael Greer and Joseph Tainter thought-provoking here. There's a lot to understand, since peak oil may have consequences across any aspect of our lives. Anyway, Simmons' book fills lots of blanks in the picture.
btw, make sure you read Appendix C. And finally, Simmons is conscientious, neither polemic nor self-promoting. Where there is uncertainty on an issue Simmons is forthright in admitting it; and his claims are stated with enough detail that other experts in the field can argue any point. Because of this honesty, the book is probably going to be "the" basis for political action and public awareness.
Furthermore, it is supposed that estimates by almost all oil producing countries are inflated since such inflation improves their ability to influence the market while allowing them (OPEC members at least) to produce more.
A question that might be asked is how do we know that there are not great fields of oil somewhere waiting to be discovered? Certainly if there are, the twilight of the oil-based world economy is pushed further into the future leaving us with much less to worry about now. Simmons answers this question for Saudi Arabia at least. He makes it clear that the possibility of any great discoveries on the Arabian peninsula "must now be deemed remote" since the land has been so thoroughly explored. (See Chapter 10 "Coming Up Empty in New Exploration.")
Deffeyes answered this question in another way. Using logic from his mentor M. King Hubbert who predicted with startling accuracy when US production would peak (early 1970s) Deffeyes argues that what's left can be inferred from current production curves. Because oil exploration and production has been so extensive world-wide, if the oil were there, it would have been discovered and drilled for. This is not to say that there are not some (small) fields left undiscovered. There are some, no doubt, but like puddles added to a great lake, they won't affect the overall picture.
This same sort of logic can be applied to Saudi Arabia, and Simmons does indeed use such logic. However, he goes beyond that because he believes that oil prediction simulation models (see Chapter 12, "Saudi Oil Reserves Claims in Doubt") can fail. Typically, he writes, an oilfield will yield about 75 percent of its oil during the first half of its producing life. (p. 278) Almost all of the great Saudi fields are decades old.
The strange thing about this book is that while it is touted as another book predicting the end of oil, it actually argues that the situation is not entirely clear. It is possible that there is still a lot of undiscovered oil left in Saudi Arabia in places such as "the land along the Iraq border, an unexplored area almost as large as California" and a couple of other places. (p. 243) World wide such unexplored places are many. Nonetheless even if a lot of oil is discovered say in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or deep in the Antarctic, the cost of producing that oil will be greater than the cost of producing oil from say the great Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia where the oil gushes out of the ground almost effortlessly.
Actually, according to Simmons "effortlessly" is no longer the correct adjective to use. As oil fields grow old some help is needed to get the oil to rise to the top and flow. Water is typically pumped into the field to get the oil to elevate. Simmons reports on the extensive use of saline water in Saudi Arabia--more evidence that there is not as much oil left as the Saudis would like us to believe.
Also a distinction must be made between pure "reserves" (actual oil in the ground) and "recoverable reserves" (oil that is cost-effective to produce). And a further distinction must be made between grades of oil. It may be cost-effective to pump the sweetest, purest grade of oil out of a field whereas lesser grades would not be worth the expense.
A weakness of the book is that, despite the words "and the World Economy" in the subtitle, which suggest an exploration of consequences and what to expect, there is next to nothing about the effect less oil (than expected) will have on the world economy. Clearly, of course, and in the broadest sense, our standard of living will go down as our energy costs rise. The subtitle is probably just a book biz editor's attempt to gain a larger readership.
Twilight in the Desert is long and extraordinarily detailed and gives the typical reader more information than perhaps would be desired. This reader came away convinced that Simmons's main argument, that Saudi oil reserves have been exaggerated, is probably correct, but curiously his extremely balanced and careful delineation left me feeling that there is still plenty of doubt about both Saudi reserves and those world wide. Stay tuned.
Regardless, one thing is clear, soon or late, within twenty years or fifty, we will have to retool our economies to run on something other than fossil fuels. The sooner we get started on that, the better. If we wait too long the sudden economic shock is likely to be catastrophic.
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