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From Scarcity to Glut?

Fracking has led to more gas being burned for power generation - at the expense of coal... The industrial countries practice a lifestyle of non-sustainability and consume the resources of the earth too quickly. This is true for energy, raw materials and metals. Still the knowledge of oil's finiteness cannot be evaded. We should use this time to develop alternative energy infrastructures.

Fracking, Tar Sands and the New Fossil Energy Optimism

By Norbert Nicoll

[This article published in FORUM Wissenschaft 9/5/2014 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet,  http://www.linksnet.de/de/artikel/31628. Dr. Nicoll is a Belgian political scientist and economist who researches growth criticism and sustainable development at the University of Duisberg-Essen.]]

Crude oil was and is the central fuel of the world economy. But will that be true in the future? Three years ago an oil scarcity was expected beginning gradually around 2015. [1] Many studies predicted the imminent appearance of Peak Oil. In the meantime the picture has changed. Instead Norbert Nicoll sees a new energy optimism based on the introduction of new production methods.

Slightly simplified, Peak Oil means half of the crude oil is consumed. As a consequence, oil production cannot be increased any more. Sooner or later, it falls.

A growing world economy relies on growing oil consumption and a growing oil production. If the "black gold" becomes scarce, the prices could soar and stifle all economic growth.

In the last years, followers of the Peak Oil theory who predicted a rapid decline of oil production and understood the wars in Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011) as resource wars sustained a few scratches.

In 2013 the world consumed 89 million barrels of oil daily. [2] Oil production increased. One essential reason is so-called hydraulic fracturing (in short, fracking) that increased oil- and gas production in the US to a surprising extent. Another cause is found further north on the map. The tar sands in the Canadian province of Alberta cause a sensation. Canada has become an energy power.

In addition, oil consumption in industrial countries is falling. This has to do with advances in energy efficiency and energy savings. The demand growth comes almost exclusively from threshold- and developing countries led by China. [3]

In an unexpected development in 2005, the International Energy Agency (IEA) with headquarters in Paris estimated the oil demand in 2030 at 130 million barrels daily. In 2007 the IEA forecast an oil need of 116 million barrels per day in 2030. In its most recent report World Energy Outlook 2013, the IEA estimates the daily worldwide oil need for 2035 at 101 million barrels. [4]

An increasing supply faces a lower demand. Do we face an oil glut as some representatives of the oil industry euphorically claim and no longer an era of oil scarcity?

This article will try to illuminate this question. The time of cheap oil available in abundance is definitively over. However an oil scarcity cannot be expected in the short- or medium-term - assuming the world remains spared political crises in important producer countries.


The distinction between conventional and unconventional oil is important. Conventional oil is the oil that can be brought to the surface in liquid form with classical production methods [5]... Unconventional oil includes tar sands, heavy oil, oil shale and synthetic oil from biomass, natural gas and coal as well as the so-called tight oil, oil brought to the earth's surface by fracking. The reserve estimates of unconventional oil are extremely different.

Reserves are not everything. For Peak Oil, the quantity of oil reserves in the ground plays an important role. However two questions are far more important: At what speed can crude oil be produced? What are the costs of this production?

The mammoth conventional oil fields release less and less black gold. This is controversial. Different conventional oil fields are in operation. Most of these are much smaller and less productive than the enormous elephant fields.

A gap exists between the oil demand and the oil supply from conventional oil wells. The International Energy Agency quantifies this gap in its latest outlook for 2035 at 14 million barrels per day. Is this reason for alarm? No, the IEA says, this gap will be completely closed by unconventional oil wells. [6] Critics regard this estimate as too optimistic. [7]


For five years, unconventional oil resources have been among the favorites of Wall Street. Some time ago Citigroup launched a study that declared the end of Peak Oil. "The Peak Oil concept is buried in North Dakota," the bankers exclaimed euphorically. In the first sentence of their analysis [8], North Dakota was called the new Mecca of the oil industry.

Another giant of the financial branch blows the same horn. In a recent study, Price Waterhouse predicted a rich oil supply in the future. The price of oil will fall, not rise by 2035. Economic growth will be stimulated by a new energy revolution. [9]

The reason for the euphoria is hydraulic fracturing. This process is not new but was not counted in the past. Hydraulic fracturing was first used for shale gas resources. Shale gas lies in a very thick rock. This rock releases the gas under great effort. In a simplified way, the process can be described as follows. First, the spacious deposits are drilled horizontally. Then extreme high pressure water mixed with a chemical cocktail is introduced. The pressure of the water bursts the stone so the gas can escape.

In the US, fracking has led to more gas being burned for power generation - at the expense of coal. The official US emission balance has improved because less coal is burned. Many question marks should be attached to this statement. Massive quantities of methane gas are released in bursting the stone. How much methane reaches the atmosphere is unclear since this release process is not monitored. The scientific studies on this theme are rather thin but many findings indicate fracking does not contribute to protection of the atmosphere. [10]

On the other hand, the conclusions regarding groundwater are very clear. In the US, important environmental standards in water pollution control were abandoned before fracking could be used on a broad front. This was not without consequences. Impurities of the groundwater occurred. Fracking damages the health of humans and animals. Remnants of heavy metals have been found in frack waste water that flusters up the hormone content. Endocrine studies are underway. The first results are alarming.

Given these risks, citizen initiatives against the oil- and gas industry are springing from the ground like mushrooms. Despite all the resident protests, there are more and more drillings. The results are simply too good from the view of industry - so good that some industry representatives fall into boundless euphoria. "By opening up unconventional gas, the global provisions are multiplied and ensure provisions for around 300 years. Thanks to shale gas, the US is on the best way to energy autonomy," said Stephan Reimelt, CEO of General Electric Energy in Germany. [11]

For some years, hydraulic fracturing has been a bearer of hope in the oil industry. Oil reserves are in extremely dense rocks that cannot be produced conventionally. Experts speak of tight oil. [12]

That tight oil should be forced out by hydraulic fracturing. Oil fracking projects in shale formations have been successful in some states like North Dakota. In the last years, they were expanded on a large scale prompting Citigroup economists to forecast the death of Peak Oil theory. The Price Waterhouse Coopers' study authors believe 14 million additional barrels of oil will come to the oil market by 2015.


A great mass of material opposes this estimate. The new resources will be exhausted very quickly, so quickly there cannot be any comparison to conventional oil- and gas fields operating for many decades. In addition, opening unconventional oil- and gas resources by fracking is difficult and costly.

In the allegedly very successful gas-fracking, production decline on average 60 to 90 percent within a year after the start of production, experiences in the US show. [13] Other authors speak of a production-decline of 80 to 95 percent after three years. [14]

Experiences with released tight oil are similar. In North Dakota, production from new drill holes fell 50 percent on average after one year. After four years, only a tenth of initial production was left. This production course is a direct consequence of the fracking technology and the rupture in the stone that it created or expanded. The artificially created cracks are greatest in the first moments after the hydraulic "fracking." [15]

"Economically fracking is a catastrophe," the US financial journalist Wolf Richter writes in Business Insider. "The drillings destroy capital at an astonishing speed. When the fatal production decline started, the operators sat on a mountain of debts. So this decline did not damage the balance sheet, the loss of the old wells had to be replaced by ever new drillings - until they become dry." [16]

This quotation refers primarily to gas-fracking. Many gas-frackers are financially in the red. The picture with oil-fracking is substantially better.

Still the cited numbers for fracking put in question the good management or efficiency of the new production technology. The serious environmental- and health damages are not even included in a good management accounting.

The internationally renowned geologist David Hughes is convinced many dreams around fracking will prove to be dreams. Hughes presented a 181-page referenced study [17] that ensures a sobering up.

Measured by the enormous hype, the oil amounts produced by fracking in the US are relatively minor. Altogether the US tight oil production in 2013 amounted to 3.5 million barrels per day. By 2021 this amount will rise to 4.8 million barrels per day. [18] This counteracts the production decline of conventional oil fields but does not justify the estimate expressed sometimes in the media that the US will become the new Saudi Arabia. The optimistic predictions of Citigroup and Price-Waterhouse Coopers should be at least grounded if not refuted. The next years will show what fracking potential develops in the oil economy.

There are many indications that fracking will prove to be an investment bubble. The energy journalist Richard Heinberg says Wall Street will profit most from the whirlwind around fracking. While the effects on the real work of oil- and gas businesses are trifling, the stock prices on the exchanges have soared dramatically. Investment banks like Goldman Sachs filled their pockets by "hyping" businesses from the oil branch. For Heinberg, "the real profits of this technology were greatly exaggerated and the risks played down." [19]


All those who want to know nothing about a future oil scarcity often point to the gigantic oil sands reserves that exist in Venezuela (Orinoko region) and in the Athabasca region (province of Alberta) in Canada. Why should oil sands be developed if there will not be a sufficient number of conventional oil wells easy to develop? (The same question could obviously be raised with regard to fracking.)

The oil sands in the northeast of the Alberta province are the largest oil resources of the world at least theoretically. The resources extend over an area of 540 square miles. According to data of the Canadian oil corporation Syncrude, 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen, a very heavy oil mixture, are stored there. According to Syncrude, 175 billion barrels can be produced conventionally and another 315 billion with expected technical progress. [20]

The oil sands deposits in Canada are very considerable. This is more a theoretical reflection. Unlike the classical oil production countries, the oil lies mostly 100 feet below the surface as a tough-sticky heavy mixture of sand, clay and other minerals.

For a long time, oil sands were regarded as uneconomical. The high oil price made oil sands processing into a boom industry.

Oil production in Canada devours enormous energy (above all natural gas), is relatively expensive and has much in common with mining.

Around two tons of oil sands must be processed to gain one barrel of oil. Three barrels of water per barrel of oil are needed; great tracts of land are transformed into moonscapes. Water is taken from the Athabasca River.

The residues, 500 million liters per day, are so intensely encumbered with arsenic, mercury and other toxins that they are held in special reservoirs. Basins with liquid residues from production already extend over 19 square miles, the environmental World Wide Fund for Nature Canada reports.

Oil production is planned to rise to six million barrels per day by 2030. 18 million barrels of water will be needed everyday with this technology. That would be an incredible 2.86 billion liters of water. This amount would supply around 1.4 billion people with vital liquid daily. [21]

Environmentalists criticize that massive amounts of natural gas will be burned to produce the oil and an immense expulsion of carbon dioxide. The sand will be excavated or dredged out of the soil in the winter at temperatures of minus 30 to minus 50 degrees Celsius. The heavy clods must be crushed and the water necessary for the reprocessing heated. All this devours energy. Every year up to 170 million birds hatch in the forests. They could lose their living space to the strip mining. Future bird generations could lose their foundations of life. [22]

The Canadians are only making a relatively small contribution to solving future energy problems. The comparatively modest production speed and quantities are decisive. The International Energy Agency expects oil production from oil sands to rise from 1.8 million barrels per day in 2012 to 4.2 million barrels per day in 2035. [23] The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAAP) is even more optimistic and estimates an oil sands production of 4.2 million barrels in 2025. A daily production of five million barrels is predicted for 2030. [24] These predictions are doubted by skeptics. [25] Still five million barrels a day from oil sands would not be enough to compensate for the declining production from conventional oilfields.

Moreover the risk exists that the great amount of natural gas streaming through the oil sands processing facilities could be re-channeled. Natural gas is now clearly cheaper than oil. A rising natural gas price could lead to using natural gas in other ways - for example, heating houses and apartments or producing electricity. [26]


Oil can certainly be gained in other ways. Bio-fuel is a prominent example. Oil can be produced with the help of coal and gas. Moreover considerable oil shale deposits that could be processed exist in the Green River Basin (the largest part of the basin lies in Utah and Colorado).

A detailed essay could be written on each of these themes. The production speed and the production costs are crucial, not the reserves. Many oil firms need an oil price from $120 to $130 per barrel to maintain their profit level and the amount of their dividend payments. [27] The picture is not better than with fracking or the oil sands.

The much reviled defenders of maximum oil production could carry the day at the end. They will need a long breath. But time is on their side. Oil is a finite material. The world's annual oil consumption is now 30 billion barrels. 14 billion barrels are discovered per year. [28] Thus nothing has changed in the fundamental problem.

The industrial countries practice a lifestyle of non-sustainability and consume the resources of the earth too quickly. That is true for energy, raw materials and metals. We will not quickly abandon oil. Still the knowledge of its finiteness cannot be evaded. Along with better technology, unconventional black gold has given us additional time. We should use this time to develop alternative energy infrastructures.


1) Vgl. Nicoll, Norbert 2011: "Das Öl verlassen, bevor es uns verlässt", in: Forum Wissenschaft, Nr. 4, 2011: 10-13.

2) Barrel heißt übersetzt schlicht "Fass". Ein Barrel entspricht 158,98 Liter.

3) Vgl. Internationale Energie-Agentur (Hg.) 2013: World Energy Outlook 2013, Paris: 504.

4) Vgl. ebenda: 55.

5) Reserven sind als die Gesamtheit der Rohstoffvorkommen definiert, die nach heutigem Stand technisch und wirtschaftlich gewinnbar sind. Ressourcen sind dagegen all jene Rohstoffvorkommen, die derzeit technisch wie wirtschaftlich nicht gewinnbar sind.

6) Vgl. Internationale Energie-Agentur (Hg.) 2013: World Energy Outlook 2013, a.a.O.: 25f.

7) Alternative Einschätzungen finden sich u.a. bei der Energy Watch Group ( link to www.energywatchgroup.org).

8) Citigroup Global Markets (Hg.) 2012: Resurging North American Oil Production and the Death of the Peak Oil Hypothesis, o.O.: 1.

9) Vgl. PriceWaterhouseCoopers (Hg.) 2013: Shale oil: the next energy revolution, o.O.: 1 und 3. Online unter:  http://www.pwc.com/en_GX/gx/oil-gas-energy/publications/pdfs/pwc-shale-o... [Stand: 3.2.2014].

10) Vgl. Wagner, Karl 2013: "Es werden keine Gefangenen gemacht: gegenwärtige Trends der Ausbeutung des Planeten", in: Bardi, Ugo: Der geplünderte Planet. Die Zukunft des Menschen im Zeitalter schwindender Ressourcen, München: 21-28; hier: 23f.

11) Reimelt, Stephan 2012: "Versorgungssicherheit gefährdet", in: Die Welt vom 14. April 2012, Beilage Energie 2012 - Effizienz und Nachhaltigkeit: 1.

12) Als Laie muss man sich das so vorstellen: Öl verbringt nicht sein ganzes Leben lang am gleichen Ort. Es bildet sich in einem sogenannten Muttergestein und fließt dann in eine höhere Erdschicht, durchläuft ein poröses, gut durchlässiges Gestein. Jene von GeologInnen "Reservoir" genannte Schicht wird von einer weiteren Schicht überlagert - der sogenannten Erdölfalle. Dort sammelt sich das Öl im Idealfall in einer großen, gut förderbaren Menge. Beim Tight Oil findet sich das Erdöl nicht in der Erdölfalle, sondern eingeklemmt in einer tiefer liegenden Gesteinsschicht.

13) Vgl. King, David / James Murray 2012: "Oil's tipping point has passed", in: Nature, Nr. 481: 433-435; hier: 435.

14) Vgl. Hughes, David 2013: "A reality check on the shale revolution", in: Nature, Nr. 494: 307-308; hier: 308.

15) Vgl. Senz, Christoph: "Der Tight Oil Boom in den USA - Ein genauerer Blick! Teil 2". Online unter:  http://www.peak-oil.com/2013/02/der-tight-oil-boom-in-den-usa-ein-genaue... [Stand: 4.2. 2014].

16) Zitiert nach: Ahmed, Nafeez Mosaddeq 2013: "Die nächste Blase. Fracking löst das Energieproblem nicht", in: Le Monde diplomatique vom 12.4.2013.

17) Hughes, David 2013: "Drill, Baby, Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher in a New Era of Energy Abundance?", Post Carbon Institute, Santa Rosa. Online unter:  http://www.postcarbon.org/reports/DBD-report-FINAL.pdf [Stand: 2.1.2014].

18) Diese Angaben stammen von der U.S. Energy Information Administration.

19) Vgl. Heinberg, Richard 2013: Snake Oil. How Fracking's false promise of plenty imperils our future, Santa Rosa: 92.

20) Vgl. Resenhoeft, Thilo 2009: "Im Sand von Kanada lauern riesige Ölreserven", in: Die Welt online vom 2.3.2009. Artikel online unter:  http://www.welt.de/wissenschaft/article3299733/Im-Sand-von-Kanada-lauern... [Stand: 14.7.2013].

21) Vgl. Wiesmann, Otto 2009: Chance Peak Oil?, München: 71.

22) Vgl. Resenhoeft, Thilo: a.a.O.

23) Vgl. Internationale Energie-Agentur (Hg.): "World Energy Outlook 2010. Fact Sheet". Online unter:  http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/docs/weo2010/factsheets.pdf [Stand: 8.11.2013].

24) Vgl. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAAP): "2012 Crude Oil Forecast, Markets and Pipelines Outlook". Online unter:  http://www.capp.ca/forecast/Pages/default.aspx [Stand: 21.7.2013].

25) Der schon erwähnte Geologe David Hughes sieht sowohl die Prognose der IEA als auch der CAAP als übertrieben optimistisch an.

26) Vgl. Rubin, Jeff 2010: Warum die Welt immer kleiner wird: Öl und das Ende der Globalisierung, München: 49.

27) Das ist jedenfalls die Berechnung der Analysten von Douglas-Westwood Associates, einer renommierten Agentur im Energiebereich.

28) Das ist der Durchschnitt der letzten Jahre. Tendenziell haben sich die Neufunde stabilisiert.

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