In a recent post (here), I indicated that there were two more recent articles unseriously attempting to persuade readers that all is well in oil-production world. I’ll discuss the second piece today. (There are always more, of course, but these two jumped out at me as “better” examples of misguided attempts to deny that we have any fossil fuel resource problems.)

This Fortune magazine piece describes with near-breathless delight the apparent findings of not just one or two or four, but six “huge” oil fields! The existence of these fields is not exactly new news, but no matter. The good news touted here, however, is that we’re “awash in petroleum.” Such good news!

Let’s jump right in [emphasis added is mine]:

“There are many oil reserves around the globe that remain untapped, and explorers continue to discover new fields deep beneath the earth’s surface. Depending on how the controversy surrounding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge turns out, the U.S. could exploit oil reserves in the area, despite potentially grave environmental consequences.”

“Depending”; “could” … along with “might potentially”, “if” “could be possible”, and an array of similar, carefully-worded utterly-lacking-in-certainty phrases are the apparent stock in trade for those denying those annoying facts about declining world oil production.

Kind of like the “job-killing”, “death panel”-laden health care legislation … these buzz word continuously repeated (without bothering to explain any of the actual facts that the rest of us deal with here on Planet Earth) sooner or later take on a life of their own. Soon enough “could exploit oil reserves” to the many non-discriminating readers simply becomes “lots of easily-accessed oil just waiting for someone to stick a straw in and pump it all out and so-what-the-hell-are-you-all-waiting-for?”

“Depending on how” the “controversy” (?) pans out in the Arctic means … what? Mentioning just the political controversy (my assumption as to the reference) over which nation can lay claim to any possible resources in the Arctic ignores a whole lotta other issues like finding it; getting to it; producing it! Hello! We’re talking about the possibility of finding and extracting fossil fuel resources in the Arctic! The place that’s very, very cold and has a lot of very, very thick ice on top of … everything … most of the time!

Realistically, full production is several decades away, and the total isn’t likely to meet even 5% of our needs. “Cheap, easy, soon” are words one will never hear when discussing the “potential” oil in the Arctic. Damned facts….

And what’s with the “despite potentially grave environmental consequences”? That actually sounds vaguely serious. Perhaps reporter Shelley DuBois might have lingered for just a moment on that phrase and explained … anything about it? “Grave” and “consequences” in the same sentence rarely lead to good things. But hell, if that’s just going to slow down the process of skipping past facts, then by all means, ignore away!

“Elsewhere there are even more reserves, but they’re often in places that are either geologically or politically difficult to access. Some of them come with dangerous security risks to drilling.”

Well that’s a relief! Still reeling from the whole “grave consequences” thing, for a moment I thought there might be some more problems. But since there’s no explanation, I guess not! That was a close one … whew!

This piece then provides brief statements about these 6 “huge” oil fields. [NOTE: all statistics to follow are taken from this Fortune article unless indicated otherwise.] I’ll touch on just a few points.

Mexico’s Chicontepec Basin has 10 billion “estimated” barrels of recoverable crude oil. Wonderful … that’s four month’s worth of world demand, and all from a country whose oil production has tanked in recent years. Hard to imagine a lot of money has been poured into the infrastructure during this decline, so one should wonder about the capacity to extract the fossil fuels, but let’s give Mexico the benefit of the doubt.

Mentioning the recent decline in production in passing at least counts for something, even if there is no tie-in to how this off-setting depletion in existing fields might diminish the attractive estimates from Chicontepec Basin. I guess there’s not much to be concerned about.

The big kahuna in this article is Venezuela’s Orinoco Basin, “a huge chunk of reserves inland, in a stretch of about 20,000 square miles” that is estimated to hold more than 500 billion barrels of oil. Very impressive to be sure. In fact, a 2006 article from petroleumworld.com suggested reserves of more than a trillion barrels, although only about 25% – 30% was then deemed recoverable. I have seen similar figures elsewhere, but I’ll go with Fortune’s figures for this discussion. (About a year ago, I wrote a post devoted to Venezuela and issues relating to its oil production capabilities. You can get more info’ here.)

What the 2006 article was thoughtful enough to provide (perhaps space limitations precluded Fortune from supplying this innocuous fact) is an explanation that producing Venezuela’s “heavy oil” is … well, what you might imagine producing heavy oil to be like:

“Coaxing marketable oil out of the extra-heavy sludge and coal-like deposits of the Orinoco is extremely expensive, labor- intensive, and has required both the technological muscle and cash of Big Oil.”

There goes any possibility of “cheap, easy, soon”! And let’s keep in mind that that country’s leader, Hugo Chavez, is not what anyone would consider to be a fan of ours. We should not expect lots of oil favors from him. As the author of this Fortune article states: “U.S. relations with Venezuela have been tense.” Relations between loony Tea Party extremists and far left bloggers here have been similarly “tense.” I’m not seeing much in the way of better scenarios any time soon.

“The country estimates a substantial jump in production from the area, claiming that the Orinoco will add another 400,000 barrels per day to its production by 2016.
“There’s some debate over whether they’ll make that goal — and even over how much oil Venezuela currently produces. Venezuela claims that its national oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA produces 2.96 million barrels per day. U.S. estimates are generally lower, around 2.09 million barrels per day.”

Let’s give Venezuela the benefit of the doubt, round up to 3 million barrels per day, and then tack on 400,000 more per day. My math says that’s 3.4 million barrels per day, or almost 1.25 billion barrels per year. Very impressive. Gonna take a while to squeeze out 500-plus billion barrels at that rate (completely ignoring the fact that a one-third recovery is a good ballpark figure for production from most fields.) Of course, this assumes (I can do that, too) infrastructure and investment/economic/production considerations remain supportive, and that those pesky “extra-heavy sludge” factors don’t prove too daunting. I’m sure someone will invent something soon to take care of that—ideally at very low cost, easily utilized, and one that restores the oil fields and basins to pristine environmental conditions in no time at all.

The next source of magic are Brazil’s Santos and Campos Basins, estimated to hold “up to” 123 billion barrels of crude oil. Certainly not a pittance!

But like Jeremy Bowden’s article which I discussed last week, curious facts about the efforts to produce these fields popped up in the DuBois article:

“East of Rio de Janiero, Brazil’s Santos and Campos Basins contain tremendous oil reserves in something called a pre-salt layer. The oil and other petrochemicals are trapped under about two miles of salt and rock layers, which starts about a mile deep in the Atlantic Ocean.”

So … a few hundred bucks worth of investment, coupla weeks off the coast of sunny Brazil, a little bit of work here and there, and presto, we have 123 billion barrels of oil, right? (I’m just supplying “facts” about production … the Fortune article didn’t get around to that. Perhaps, however, I underestimate the challenge? Ya’ think?)

The other 3 fields mentioned in this article are first, an estimated 45-100 billion barrels superfield in Iraq—a real hot-bed of civility, sound infrastructure, solid government, and all the economic wherewithal any oil producer might need, right? And let’s just ignore this little bump in the road:

“The problem with Iraqi oil production is in the refining process. Right now there aren’t enough refineries with capacity to process so much crude. There’s also a paucity of fresh water in the region–a key resource for petrochemical processing.”

The “refining process” is the only problem? Seriously? All by itself that’s an enormous challenge and one not likely to be successfully resolved any time soon. And fresh water in the desert to fix that other problem will come from … ? Sure hope none of the Iraqi citizens get to those limited supplies of water before the oil companies do. They might drink it, or something!

DuBois then discusses the (estimated) 11 billion barrel offshore Kashagan field in Kazakhstan. Slight issue, easily resolved I’m sure:

“Offshore Kazakhstan is tricky to develop. The oil is sulphurous, and it’s combined with a high quantity of high-pressure natural gas. Also, drilling platforms have to be incredibly sturdy to weather the harsh conditions in the Caspian Sea.”

I’m not seeing “cheap, easy, soon” there, either. Also not seeing any facts to explain how those challenges might be handled—easily, cheaply, or soon.

And finally, the jaw-dropping, whopping 1.8 billion barrel (estimated, of course) Jubilee field off the coast of Ghana. That is, Jubilee “could ultimately produce” [my emphasis] that much oil. Pigs could fly, and we all could win the lottery tonight, too. But 1.8 billion barrels of oil is 1.8 billion barrels, enough to satisfy world demand for damn near … 3 whole weeks!

We’re well past the time when we need those in the know about the oil industry to speak the truth and only the truth. We who are not in the know need to better understand the facts and consider the sources of information supplied, and of perhaps greater importance: what’s not being explained. Motivations for disseminating various levels of information can be complicated.

Might not be a bad idea for our leaders to consider this strategy of telling the truth and offering us a heads-up, too.

Our work is cut out for us—all of us.