2019 has been a fairly good year for big hydrocarbon discoveries. After several years of depressed activities, a slew of major upstream finds were announced this year as oil and gas companies recovered from the slump in oil prices to begin drilling once again. Despite the onshore shale revolution, the US Gulf of Mexico keeps giving, with Shell landing a huge oil discovery in the Perdido Corridor. In Russia, Gazprom hit payday with a 17 tcf gas find in the Dinkov and Nyarmeyskoye fields in the Yamal Peninsula. Beyond established upstream basins, large finds have also come in from new frontiers. In South Africa, Total made a huge discovery at Brulpadda that could transform the economy, while in Guyana, ExxonMobil and Tullow keep adding on to a long list of major oil finds dating back to 2015. Up to 8 tcf of gas was hit in Cyprus – though that lies in disputed waters claimed by Turkey – while Kosmos Energy announced the largest gas discovery of the year at the Orca-1 well in Mauritania.
And then there is Iran. Hammered by US sanctions that have severely curbed its oil exports – and scaring off international investors – Iran has continued to go alone in exploration work within its borders. Just last week, Iran announced that it had struck a new field in its southwest that contains up to 53 billion barrels of oil. This single field would increase Iran’s proven oil reserves by a third. In any other scenario, this would be a trigger for a swathe of investment. But in this geopolitical climate, the question instead is: can Iran even develop this field?
To be fair, the Khuzestan field isn’t actually new. Named Namavaran, the reservoir was first probed in 2016, when the relationship between Iran and the West had thawed with the nuclear agreement deal, with an initial 33 billion barrels proven. Since then, additional test wells recently revealed that Namavaran is far bigger than expected. Stretching over 2,400km from Bostan near the Iraqi border to the Omidiyeh province, an additional 20 billion barrels or so were identified, increasing the total figure to 53 billion barrels. Some of this would have been siphoned off from existing assets that were thought to be standalone – including the Ab Teymour, Mansouri, Soosangerd, Darkhovin, Jofeir and Sepehr fields – but even so, the estimated new exploitable reserves from Namavaran number in the 22-27 billion barrel range.
The problem is who will help Iran tap into this. Initially lured by the promise of the geopolitical cooldown, major players such as Total have since abandoned their assets in Iran in the wake of the new US sanctions. Even China is not immune; CNPC also exited the giant South Pars gas project this year while the imposition of sanctions on China Ocean Shipping threw the global tanker market into disarray in October. But it is apparently on China (and Russia) that Iran is depending on. News in the market suggests that Iran is in talks with Chinese companies to develop and commercialise Namavaran, as part of the latter’s Belt and Road global plan. The same news also suggests that a few international firms – hinted to include Shell and Total – are also interested in participating. But given the current tension between Iran and the US and its Middle East allies, foreign participation is a huge question mark at the moment.
A few months ago, it looked like war was imminent in the Middle East. Today, it seems as if the situation has thawed slightly. Some experts even believe that the US may begin easing sanctions – particularly with the exit of ultra-Iran-hawk John Bolton as National Security Advisor. If this happens (and it is a big if), there are many willing parties waiting at Iran’s doors to help exploit the giant Namavaran field. Even if the door is shut, Iran is ready to go ahead alone, not least because it needs a fair amount of oil for its own domestic use. And when this happen, it will spin a new problem: in a world where OPEC is trying desperately to control prices, how will it deal with an Iran whose oil reserves have just increased by a third?
The Namavaran field in Iran:
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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