Let's take the rate-of-discovery argument first: it is a statement that reflects ignorance of industry terminology. When a new field is found, it is given a size estimate that indicates how much is thought to be recoverable at that point in time. But as years pass, the estimate is almost always revised upward, either because more pockets of oil are found in the field or because new technology makes it possible to extract oil that was previously unreachable. Yet because petroleum geologists don't report that additional recoverable oil as "newly discovered," the peak oil advocates tend to ignore it. In truth, the combination of new discoveries and revisions to size estimates of older fields has been keeping pace with production for many years.
But Lynch's editorial misses two issues I think are important.
First, nothing ever flat runs out. If supply declines over time while demand continues to rise, prices increase. The increased prices cause some buyers to conserve or to find substitutes. On the supply side, higher prices make recovery of incrementally more difficult oil economic, and provides a higher price umbrella under which substitutes can compete. This is particularly true in oil, where there is never a fixed limit to the amount of oil recoverable -- estimates are always based on price expectations. Higher prices mean more investment can be justified, generally allowing more oil recovery.
Second, I think Lynch is misguided in some of his discussion of political risk. While I am not hugely worried about an OPEC-like embargo in the future, the fact is that more and more of the world's future oil supplies are controlled by public rather than private oil companies. For countries like Mexico, the state-run oil company is the post office, comparable both in terms of its management competance (or lack thereof) and its focus on non-economic missions (like providing jobs for key political supporters). Ronald Bailey wrote a while back:
The problem arises because 77 percent of the world's known oil reserves are in the hands of state-owned oil companies. Such "companies" do not respond with alacrity to market signals and so are under-investing in new production technologies and even in maintaining the production facilities that they currently have. I have earlier pointed out that an "oil crisis," that is, a steep rapid run up in the price of oil may occur at any time due to government incompetence or maliciousness.
Kevin Drum is concerned that projected drops in Mexican oil production are a leading indicator that the "Peak Oil" theory is coming true. I would argue that, in fact, it is a trailing indicator of what happens when you let governments run producing assets. Drum says:
The issue here isn't that Cantarell is declining. That began a couple
of years ago and had been widely anticipated. What's news is that, just
as many peak oil theorists have been warning, when big fields start to
decline they decline faster than anyone expects. So far, Cantarell
appears to be evidence that they're right.
Actually, fields in the US do not tend to decline "all of a sudden" like that. Why? Because unlike about any other place in the world, oil fields in the US are owned by private companies with capital to make long-term investments that are not subject to the vagaries of political opportunism and populism. There are a lot of things you can do to an aging oil field, particularly with $60 prices to justify the effort, to increase or maintain production. In accordance with the laws of diminishing returns, all of them require increasing amounts of capital and intelligent management.
Unfortunately, state owned oil companies like Pemex (whose assets, by the way, were stolen years ago from US owners) are run terribly, like every other state-owned company in the world. And, when politicians in Mexico are faced with a choice between making capital available for long-term investment in the fields or dropping it into yet another silly government program or transfer payment scheme, they do the latter. And when politicians have a choice between running an employment meritocracy or creating a huge bureaucracy of jobs for life for their cronies they choose the latter.
No one sees an immediate crisis at PetrÃ³leos de Venezuela. But its windfall from high oil prices masks the devilish complexity and rising costs of producing heavy oil. Meanwhile, the company acknowledged last month that spending on "social development" almost doubled in 2006, to $13.3 billion, while its spending on exploration badly trailed its global peers. And PetrÃ³leos de Venezuela's work force has ballooned to 89,450, up 29 percent since 2001 even as production declined"¦ PetrÃ³leos de Venezuela's cash is said to be running short as Mr. ChÃ¡vez uses its revenue to cement political alliances with Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua. The company has borrowed more than $11 billion since the start of the year, a rapid debt buildup that reflects a wager by Mr. ChÃ¡vez that oil prices will remain high indefinitely.
The oil industry in these countries follow the following cycle:
1. US companies invest huge amounts of capital and know-how to build oil industry
2. Once things are producing, local government steals it all
3. Oil fields go into extended decline due to short-term focused and incompetent government management
4. US companies invited back int to invest huge amounts of know-how and capital