For years global oil majors have brushed off speculation that an imminent peak in global oil reserves spells the beginning of the end of the hydrocarbon age. There is a long-term trend of new oil finds and improved recovery outpacing consumption each year, they say, underpinning future output and returns.
BP’s latest benchmark energy review, however, makes this line a tougher sell.
The figures show that, since 2011, the world oil reserves have flatlined and are now dropping. Total proven reserves peaked at 1.7 trillion barrels in 2014 and, had BP not revised its 2013 figure downwards, last year’s 1.698 trillion barrel total would have marked the second consecutive fall since BP’s data began in 1980.
A key metric for future production potential, proven reserves are notoriously a moving target.
By definition they should account for the economic recoverability of the oil at prevailing prices and not everyone uses the same yardstick.
To what extent oil prices affect BP’s proven reserves figures is unclear and the historical correlation is weak. Many countries use opaque reserves accounting criteria and apply less rigorous measures for economic recoverability. Others, including the US and Brazil, use more stringent rules. Brazil wrote down a fifth of its proven reserves last year partly due to lower prices, accounting for most of the outright fall in 2015.
The price impact makes the recent slowdown in proven reserves even more troubling.
Reserves hit their apogee as oil prices surged to all-time highs over $100/b, a move which should make more, not less, oil in the ground worth developing and hence “proven.”
There are political motives why some oil producing countries, particularly within OPEC, may been keen to overstate or fail to update their data as output depletes reservoirs, some market watchers believe.
Michael Jefferson, a former Shell chief economist, believes world proved oil reserves could be overstated by up to half as a result of less scrupulous national reporting and the addition of less valuable, harder-to-produce unconventional oil such as oil sands and bitumen. Moves to curb climate change could put even more of the proven oil out of reach.
The impact of the massive cutbacks in global upstream spending is another key concern.
Exploration drilling has taken a big hit since the 2014 downturn and, although yet to feed through to proven reserves, future discovery rates will likely slow in the coming years as a result.
Tight oil to the rescue?
BP itself remains upbeat over the bigger trend of growing reserves.
Its chief economist Spencer Dale is keen to set aside annual statistical “wiggles” and focus on the “bigger picture” that there’s still plenty of proven oil in the world.
“I would take the message that there are enormous amounts of proved reserves relative to production levels…and that those reserves appear to be going up over time despite the fact that we keep consuming oil,” Dale said while presenting BP’s latest statistical review last week.
The technological breakthroughs that sparked the US tight oil boom are another reason why we should be upbeat over the world’s volumes of remaining oil, according to BP. Recovery rates of US tight oil have risen from around 5% to above 10% in some geological “sweet spots,” Dale said, with further gains still possible.
“This is enormously important because, if the big constraint for how long US tight oil can continue to grow is the size of the resource base…if you increase the recovery rate by 50%, you increase the resource base by 50%, so this is huge,” Dale said.
US proven oil reserves have already jumped 78% since 2009 largely due to tight oil, according to BP. At 55 billion barrels, US reserves now rank as the world’s 9th biggest after the UAE. At current production levels, that would last the US 12 years, about the same as BP’s own proven reserves, but well behind the global average of 50.7 years.
Referred to as the reserves-to-production ratio, the measure of how low long the world’s proven reserve could sustain current production also peaked in 2011, the numbers show.
Even more pressing for global oil majors is that Big Oil only controls a tiny proportion of the world’s remaining oil.
The proven reserves of the world’s biggest five oil and gas majors, for example, account for less than 3% of the total proven oil, Dale notes. By contrast more than 70% of the world’s reserves is mostly off-limits in OPEC member countries and two thirds of OPEC’s oil is in the Middle East.
By Robert Perkins, Senior writer/editor
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 16 September 2019 – Brent: US$69/b; WTI: US$63/b
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