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The Price of Energy Independence

With only about 5 percent of the world’s population, America accounted for 19.9 percent of world oil consumption in 2020.

Many of today’s motorists weren’t around to enjoy the gasoline lines of the 1970s. Until recently, they’ve had little cause to worry about oil shortages, as fossil fuels were abundant during the Trump era. In July at Forbes, chemical engineer Robert Rapier reported that in 2020 the U.S. remained the world’s top oil producer. Not only that, but America had achieved energy independence. Under the current regime, that seems to have changed a bit.

Since the supply of fossil fuels is only partly due to government policy, maybe it’s time to reconsider Peak Oil, a theory that addresses the depletion of petroleum—the end of oil.

Peak Oil predicts the moment when half of recoverable oil has been extracted, after which petroleum production can only decline. The problem with the theory is that the moment keeps getting moved. It had been thought that the U.S. reached its peak of oil extraction in 1970. But in 2018 domestic extractors blew past the 1970 peak, and in 2019 U.S. crude oil production was 2.5 million barrels a day more than in 1970.

Peak Oil’s predictive failure is because geologists discover new oil fields, and revise upwards their estimates of the reserves of known oil fields, like the Bakken Formation. According to B.P., U.S. reserves are well over twice what they were 20 years ago. Also, engineers keep coming up with new technologies for extraction, effectively expanding reserves.

Petroleum production might still be ascending were it not for the shutting down of the economy in response to the pandemic. With workers laid off or working from home and much of the economy on pause, there was less of a need for oil. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIS) reports:

In 2020, the United States consumed an average of about 18.19 million barrels of petroleum per day, or a total of about 6.66 billion barrels of petroleum. This was the lowest level of annual consumption since 1995. The drop in consumption in 2020 from 2019 was the largest recorded annual decline in U.S. petroleum demand. The decrease was largely the result of the global response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

With no Covid restrictions and Trump still president, America might still be flush with energy and setting new production “peaks.” But how long could America have remained energy independent? To get an idea about that, we’d need to know how much oil we normally consume and what our untapped reserves in the ground are. The first number we can pretty well know, but the second number is a projection, and subject to revision.

To get the latest consumption and reserves numbers, let’s use the 70th edition of B.P.’s Statistical Review of World Energy (2021). This 72-page report contains more data than your average reader would care to wade through, but B.P. has organized it so that one can quickly get the vital numbers.

According to the review, in 2020 the U.S. consumed 18,120 thousand barrels per day, or 18.1 million barrels, which jibes with the EIS number above. But for a more normal year, one not racked by a pandemic, review the number for 2019, “20543,” or 20.5 million barrels a day. Meanwhile, at the end of 2020, the U.S. had “total proved reserves” of 68.8 thousand million barrels, or 68.8 billion barrels. Divide reserves by consumption and one gets 3,440 days, or, at the 2019 consumption rate, less than 9.5 years to go through America’s entire reserves.

World reserves at the end of 2020 were 1732.4 thousand million barrels, about 1.7 trillion barrels. The same calculation of reserves divided by consumption yields a timeline to burn through proven world reserves of 47.5 years. That estimate is based on world consumption in 2019, which was 100.3 million barrels per day. With only about 5 percent of the world’s population, America accounted for 19.9 percent of world oil consumption in 2020. We use more oil than any other nation, yet we have only 4 percent of the world’s oil reserves. If the rest of the world consumed petroleum like the U.S., that estimate of 47.5 years would go down dramatically.

Those estimates for running out of oil are pretty grim, but what the B.P. review is counting as petroleum reserves excludes the very resource that made the U.S. energy independent. That is what the oil business calls “unconventional oil,” such as shale oil. Such oil is gotten by fracking and by mining. As the St. Louis Federal Reserve put it in a short report on “The Rise of Shale Oil” in 2018:

Technological advances that allow oil producers to extract crude oil from shale rock formations have reshaped the landscape of U.S. oil production over the last 10 years. Since 2008, shale oil production has increased from around 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) to over 5 million bpd and now accounts for more than half of total U.S. crude oil production.

And in “No Peak Oil For America Or The World,” a lively 2017 article at Forbes, James Conca said that “oil is more plentiful than you can imagine.” Estimates are that there’s several times as much unconventional as there is conventional. Conca wrote: “BP’s Spencer Dale summed it up nicely, ‘For every barrel of oil consumed over the past 35 years, two new barrels have been discovered.’ And this shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. Peak oil has moved to a long time from now.”

If there’s plenty of unconventional oil, enough to get the world through another century or two, then what’s the problem? The problem is that unconventional oil is harder to get at than the conventional variety, and therefore more expensive. But how profitable is unconventional oil? There seems to be a fair amount of disagreement about that, but it all depends on the difference between the upfront costs of extraction and the going market price per barrel; it’s called the “break-even” point.

The break-even points for different shale oil fields can differ significantly. In a short entry at Investopedia, we read that for shale oil “the average break-even point for new wells ranges from $46 to $58, depending on the site, with the higher-cost wells coming in at $90 a barrel.”

In his essay collection Living in the Long Emergency (2020), James Howard Kunstler contends that the recent surge of shale oil was made possible only by “easy money,” which was made possible by the Fed’s “accommodative” policies since the 2008 financial crisis. Kunstler believes that under “normal” interest rates, the shale oil business is not viable.

America was built with cheap energy. But America’s era of cheap oil, when a wildcatter could drill a vertical hole in the ground and then easily suck out “light sweet crude” for decades, is winding down. We’ve now entered the era of expensive oil, wherein we drill not vertically, but horizontally. And as we burn through our “precious fossil fuel,” it will become more and more expensive.

If Americans want to be truly energy independent, they must develop additional sources of energy; nuclear comes to mind.

Jon N. Hall of ULTRACON OPINION is a programmer from Kansas City.

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