Once more I’d like to detour away from my next planned post and discuss a news item that received a fair amount of media attention last week: the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) assessment that Venezuela’s Orinoco Oil Belt now contains a bit more than 500 billion barrels of “technically recoverable” oil.

There’s certainly no question that if this report is true, the opinion enhances Venezuela’s status as a major player in the international oil market. (According to the Energy Information Agency—citing the Oil and Gas Journal—Venezuela had 99.0 billion barrels of proven oil reserves in 2009. That’s the largest amount in South America.)

The EIA reported that as recently as two years ago, the United States received more of Venezuela’s petroleum exports than any other nation. That amount continues to decline annually. (According to the EIA, we import more than a million barrels of crude oil and petroleum products from Venezuela per day.)

As is almost always the case, however, things are not as simple as they appear.

Unlike the light sweet crude oil produced by the U.S. and the light oil which has made Saudi Arabia such a force, the Orinoco oil is “heavy oil” found in oil sands—similar in characteristics to the tar sands bitumen found in Alberta, Canada. (See my prior post here.) The Venezuela oil is thus much harder to extract and refine, making it more costly. Significant investments of time and money are required to provide adequate refinery capabilities. Needless to say, extracting this heavy oil is a much more energy-and time-intensive effort than is the process for extracting the more familiar light crude. It is not anyone’s answer in the next few years.

Lead researcher and USGS geologist Chris Schenk admitted that their report is not asserting that the “technically recoverable” oil is in fact “economically recoverable.” That’s a significant distinction, and one that needs to be emphasized. All the presumed underground reserves in the world won’t mean much if it makes no sense to invest the time, effort, and money to try and extract them.

The USGS nonetheless estimates that a stunning 40 – 45% of that resource will be ultimately recoverable. One prominent geologist (and a former board member of Petroleos de Venezuela SA—Venezuela’s state oil company) is already on record as doubting anywhere near that amount can be recovered, and stated that much of what might actually be recoverable would in fact be too expensive to produce.

Merely stating that 40% or 45% is recoverable is not the answer. Those who dispute Peak Oil may fervently wish that merely uttering that remote possibility is enough to curtail discussions on the topic, but the optimism of “possibility” is insufficient in and of itself. The reality is that like with most other oil reserves, final production levels will be nowhere near that high a percentage. If experts already on record are correct, Venezuela simply does not have production capabilities or financial resources needed to meet that projection.

Aside from the political turmoil normally associated with President Hugo Chavez’s regime, Venezuela is suffering the effects of a poor investment environment. Rolling blackouts, drought, a high murder and crime rate and the social upheavals those factors spawn are all contributing to serious oil production challenges—among other political and economic difficulties.

Thousands of highly qualified oil company employees were fired by Chavez several years ago and many have left the country, so the state oil company is suffering a severe shortage of qualified personnel. Any outside oil company successfully bidding on these reserves will be called up to expend tens of billions of dollars to create infrastructure in the drilling/mining regions while simultaneously being obliged to deal with the political, industrial, and social problems unfolding in that nation. There is no easy or quick solution on the horizon.

Oil production has declined by about one-third in the last five years in that country, and exports continue their drop month after month. In the midst of its ongoing power crisis, Venezuela is being called upon to produce more energy in an economic climate that is hardly conducive to producing more of anything. (Many stores, malls, and businesses have been resorting to generators in order to stay in business, and the country’s infrastructure is in seemingly perpetual decline.)

And let’s not forget one key political factor about Venezuela and its oil production: it is no fan of the United States. By most accounts Chavez is pursuing agreements with other nations in no small part because it means less Venezuelan oil for America. The million or so barrels of Venezuelan oil we receive daily are amounts Chavez is no doubt hoping soon find their way elsewhere. That’s not an insignificant shortfall to make up. With Mexican production also crashing, we need to recognize the likelihood that past supplies of foreign oil are not guaranteed for the future. We receive an average of a couple of million barrels of oil every day from those two nations. If they are unavailable to us in just a few years, that’s an enormous energy hit for us to take.

Does all this mean we’re facing a catastrophe tomorrow? Of course not. But the problems within Venezuela and its precarious relationship with our nation are factors we must consider in any long-range energy planning or expectations about supply. Peak Oil is indeed about much more than just geologically-premised declining rates of production.

The sooner we pay attention to these vital issues and plan accordingly, the less disruption to our ways of life we’ll be obliged to endure.

Sources:

http://scitizen.com/future-energies/venezuela-may-yield-twice-as-much-oil-as-was-thought-_a-14-3350.htmlVenezuela May Yield Twice as Much Oil as was Thought. 25 Jan, 2010

http://www.frumforum.com/chavez-strike-out – January 2010

http://www.frumforum.com/lights-out-in-chavez-land – January 2010

http://www.energybulletin.net/node/51298 – January 2010

http://caps.fool.com/Blogs/ViewPost.aspx?bpid=332210&t=01003417101430356940Revisiting the 4 Horsemen of the Oil Boom – January 2010

http://english.eluniversal.com/2010/01/25/en_eco_esp_energy-crisis-threat_25A3336133.shtmlEnergy crisis threatens Venezuelan exports of fuel oil and diesel. Energy

http://www.ogj.com/index/article-display/4235916720/articles/oil-gas-journal/exploration-development-2/reserves/2010/01/usgs-pegs_orinoco.htmlUSGS pegs Orinoco’s recoverable figure at 513 billion bbl. Jan 22, 2010. Alan Petzet. OGJ Chief Editor-Exploration

http://ca.news.finance.yahoo.com/s/22012010/2/biz-finance-venezuela-s-orinoco-area-holds-vast-supply-crude.htmlVenezuela’s Orinoco area holds vast supply of crude, US Geological Survey says. Fri Jan 22 By Ian James, The Associated Press

http://www.aspousa.org/index.php/2010/01/top-ten-peak-oil-stories-of-2009/Top Ten Peak Oil Stories of 2009 By Tom Whipple • January 4, 2010