The end of the easy oil era


The notion that the world’s supply of oil and gas will soon be gone has been a staple of dire energy predictions for as long as most of us can remember.

But while there’s no doubt that our planet’s store of fossil fuels is finite, the prospect of it running out anytime soon seems pretty unlikely.

Indeed, although the jury’s out on whether we’ve yet reached peak oil production, it’s plausible that there’s more left beneath the ground than we’ve extracted. As well as vast untapped reserves deep beneath the sea and some of the planet’s most environmentally sensitive regions, many of the world’s abandoned oil fields still contain huge volumes of oil.

Conventional recovery techniques drilling a hole and letting it flow recover, on average, around 20 per cent of the oil. And while the recovery factor can be improved slightly by doing things such as pumping water into the well to push out more oil, an oilfield is typically abandoned with around 80 per cent of its original oil still in place.

It’s a shocking statistic and the fact that we’ve been able to afford to do this for so many years is a compelling reminder of just how and why we’ve become so dependent on the black stuff. But as we report in our latest big story all this is beginning to change. With the era of ’easy oil’ drawing to a close, energy firms are returning to abandoned oil fields. And the race to make the remaining oil economically recoverable is fuelling the rapid development of a suite of so-called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) technologies.

“Many of the world’s abandoned oil fields still contain huge volumes of oil”

It’s a fascinating story from a sector that survives and prospers by pushing out the boundaries of what’s achievable. But while some believe the technology could extract every last drop of oil, the question of whether it will ever be economic to do so could have major implications for our relationship with fossil fuels.

Recovering oil through natural depletion is cheap and relatively easy, but a growing reliance on advanced, expensive techniques to tap into abandoned reserves could have a big impact on the cost of production. In the meantime, there appears to be growing evidence that the high price of oil is acting as something of a spur for the development of low-carbon energy sources. According to a recent Ernst and Young energy report that references US Department of Energy figures, by 2031 solar-generated power will be half the price of coal.

Elsewhere, an oil industry report published by Ricardo predicts an imminent ’paradigm shift’ in oil demand and claims that a number of factors, including the increasing efficiency of combustion engines, the rise of low-carbon technologies and an anticipated increase in biofuel yield, will see oil demand enter a long-term decline after 2020. Against this backdrop, it seems probable that our dependence on oil might end long before we use up our planet’s finite reserves.