1. Production and prices

Oil, which traded below a $67 a barrel on Monday, touched $74.72 on Friday before closing at $73.98. The move, which sent oil prices to a new high for 2009, was primarily motivated by higher equity prices and speculation that the global economic picture is improving. The move was helped by an 8.4 million barrel drawdown in US crude stocks that was reported last Wednesday.

Early in the week, market sentiment had been leaning toward a slow and lengthy economic recovery, but by Friday many market participants were seized with the notion that an economic recovery is underway and that the demand for oil will soon pick up. Some, however, point to the recent increases in unemployment as evidence that the economic situation continues to deteriorate. Concern also continues that China may not be able to sustain the rates of growth that it has been claiming recently.

In Nigeria, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta suspended the peace talks that have been going on since mid-July and threatened to resuming attacks on oil facilities. In Baghdad, two truck bombings that killed nearly 100 people have weakened the government’s case that it can maintain adequate security without the help of American forces.

2. China’s Coal

In recent years, China’s coal production, which amounts to 70 percent of the country’s energy consumption and fuels 80 percent of its electricity generation, has been growing rapidly so that it now totals 2.5 billion metric tons annually. In recent years, the government has been reluctant to publish estimates of the country’s coal reserves. Foreign studies of Beijing’s coal industry, however, foresee production peaking in the next 5 to 15 years and then declining rapidly. One study that takes into account the depth at which much of China’s remaining reserves are found concludes that the peak may come as early as next year.

Support for a near-term peak comes from recent reports that China is establishing a strategic coal reserve, and from Beijing’s efforts to buy up foreign coal reserves, an 84 percent drop in Chinese coal exports, and a 20 percent jump in coal exports in the first half of 2009.

Some believe that the recent increase in imports and acquisitions of foreign mines is only temporary – stemming from low prices for foreign mines and coal, and low shipping rates. If, however, the recently published foreign studies of China’s coal industry are correct, China’s ability to sustain double digit economic growth may be threatened sooner than most had thought.

3. Natural Gas in the US

Last week natural gas prices fell to less than $3 per thousand cubic feet down from a peak of over $13 last summer; a combination of low industrial demand, a relatively mild summer and increased production from unconventional sources were behind the drop. The most recent natural gas stockpile report showed underground storage in the US at 21 percent more than last year. There are fears that the US’s natural gas storage capacity may be reached before cold weather begins to increase demand. Active gas drilling rigs are now down to 688 vs. 1,586 last summer.

An interesting sidelight is that the gap between US natural gas and oil futures prices reached its widest margin ever on Thursday when the spread increased to 24.5 to 1. Observers have noted that natural gas prices are below the cost of production in some areas and are likely to rebound shortly.

4. The UN Food Report

A new report by the Food & Agricultural Organization and the International Water Management Institute points out that much of Asia will face an unprecedented food crisis and social unrest. The only remedy will be $100s of billions invested in improving irrigation systems throughout the region. The report says there is no more suitable land, yet the population of the continent is expected to grow by another 1.5 billion in the next 40 years.

In recent decades tens of millions of small farmers have been doing their own irrigation using cheap Chinese-made pumps, leading to rapid drops in water tables. Given the increase in drought conditions throughout the region there will be serious consequences unless water management is updated and brought under centralized control.

Briefs (clips from recent Peak Oil News dailies are indicated by date and item #)

  • In July 2009 world production of all liquid fuels increased by 580,000 barrels per day from June according to the latest figures of the International Energy Agency (IEA), resulting in total world liquid fuels production of 85.15 million b/d. (8/17, #16)
  • Contrary to expectations, Russian oil output has risen 0.8 percent this year over last but industry participants and analysts say the world’s biggest energy supplier is just postponing an inevitable decline in production. It’s estimated that exploration drilling fell by more than 40 percent in the first half of the year compared with the same period last year. And the new oil fields have already reached peak capacity and are now starting to slowly decline, while lower drilling activity could affect output as soon as next year. (8/19, #18)
  • Mexican oil output fell 7.8 percent in July compared to the same month last year as the effort to replace production capacity lost at the Cantarell field continued to lag the giant’s natural decline. Debt-rating agencies have warned Mexico it must reduce its fiscal reliance on the declining oil industry or face cuts in its bond ratings. (8/22, #4)
  • Venezuela’s GDP decline of 2.4% in the second quarter, the first such decline in five years, is testament to the nation’s oil income dependence. A 50% decline in oil revenue trickled throughout the economy, hurting manufacturing, retail sales and consumer spending. Inflation is running at 13%, one of the highest rates in the world today. (8/22, #5; 8/21, #12)
  • Iran’s President Ahmadinejad shrugged off on Thursday the impact of any sanctions targeting Iran’s gasoline imports and suggested it would soon be able to meet its own needs. (8/21, #8)
  • Azerbaijan produced a daily average of 1.01 million barrels of oil a day in January-July, up 1.6% on the year, Azerbaijan’s state statistics agency said. (8/18, #8)
  • Increased oil output from Angola, flouting agreed limits, has helped stack the odds against any formal change when OPEC meets in September. OPEC’s adherence to its output curbs reached a high of around 80 percent in March, but as oil rallied further compliance has slipped to around 70 percent. Angola’s expensive offshore oil is tapped with foreign partners who want swift returns, and the country needs to fund reconstruction after almost three decades of civil war. The result is pressure to pump as much as possible as quickly as possible. (8/20, #3)
  • Western fears about increasing Asian interest in securing African oil resources are highly exaggerated, according to the recent report “Thirst for African Oil” by the UK’s Royal Institute for International Affairs. (8/20, #5)
  • The US State Department has issued a Presidential Permit to Enbridge Energy to enable construction of the 1000-mile Alberta Clipper pipeline for the transport of crude oil from the Canadian oil sands to US refineries. The rationale: diversify supply sources, shorten transportation routes, and increase non-OPEC sources. (8/22, #8)
  • The number of US rigs drilling for oil (280) and natural gas (695) rose by 17 this week up to 985, according to Baker Hughes. Total rigs in operation peaked last September at 2032 (1606 gas, 424 oil). (8/22, #10)
  • Chevron has begun work with Transocean Inc.’s Discoverer Clear Leader ultra deepwater drillship in the Gulf of Mexico. Chevron is using the specially built vessel under a 5-year contract with Transocean on projects including Tahiti and Jack/St. Malo fields. (8/18, #18) [Editors’ note: note the 3-year lag between the highly touted Jack2 well and this effort.]
  • Iran’s outgoing oil minister announced the discovery of a giant oil field which the semiofficial Fars news agency reports has in-place reserves of more than “20,000 billion barrels.” (8/21, #10)[Editor’s note: this report, probably off by three orders of magnitude, is good for a laugh.]
  • Brazil’s President Lula da Silva expects to send proposed changes in the country’s oil laws to Congress within 2 weeks. Specifically, Lula is contemplating laws that would regulate the exploration and development of a presalt oil region offshore, which includes the Tupi field. Discussions include possibly setting up a new state-owned company that would manage subsalt development. (8/21, #13)
  • Brazil is signaling that they are not to be relied on as a future exporter of oil, even though they are the one country remaining in the Americas that can probably increase their oil production. The pace of extraction, forthwith, is now likely to be at a slower pace. (8/19, #11)
  • The US natural gas industry, disappointed by the climate-change bill passed by the House in June, is counting on new Democratic allies and a stepped-up lobbying campaign to push measures through the Senate that will favor gas over coal and oil. (8/21, #15)
  • Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil are rolling out technology intended to eliminate the environmental disadvantage of Canadian oil sands. A new process known as high-temperature froth treatment cuts carbon emissions from extracting crude from sand and mud by 10 to 15 percent. Shell and Exxon say their advances will make tar sands no more polluting than conventional oil wells from Texas or the North Sea. A 15 percent emissions cut wouldn’t make the new oil-sands projects as clean as conventional crude, and it would do nothing to address the dirtier oil from existing mines, said an NRDC scientist. (8/21, #17)
  • Canada exports more than half the 3.4 million barrels of oil it produces daily to the US; provides 82 per cent of all U.S. natural gas imports; sells a third of its hydroelectricity to U.S. markets; and supplies a third of the uranium used in U.S. nuclear power plants. *8/21, #18)
  • Growing volumes of crude oil from Canada and the Gulf of Mexico should assure U.S. Gulf Coast refiners adequate supplies for years to come despite fast-declining imports from Mexico and Venezuela. US Gulf output is expected to rise 300,000 b/d to 1.5 million b/d by 2013, largely due to deepwater expansion. (8/20, #8)
  • Ukraine paid $8.6 billion for natural gas imports last year, equal to almost 7% of gross domestic product. A deep economic recession, which has slashed industrial activity, has slowed gas consumption. Imports should decline by 25 percent this year. (8/22, #12)
  • Australia and China struck their biggest trade deal ever on Tuesday as the world’s two most valuable listed oil companies, Exxon Mobil and PetroChina, agreed on a $41 billion liquefied natural gas deal.
  • America’s Natural Gas Alliance, which represents about 40 percent of U.S. natural gas production, argues that they should be fueling a much bigger share of the nation’s electricity production since natural gas is the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel (8/19, #4)
  • It’s not clear that wind and natural gas interests will coexist peacefully. That thought sprang to mind while reading a noteworthy report on Texas wind generation issued earlier this week by Houston-based energy investment bank Tudor Pickering Holt. Looking ahead to 2020, wind power could knock out 6.9 billion cubic feet a day of gas consumption by the power sector – about $21.8 million worth of gas daily. (8/22, #5)
  • A German team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute has developed a novel catalyst for the direct low-temperature oxidation of methane to methanol. This breakthrough could make possible decentralized consumption of natural gas [as a liquid]. (8/22, #18)
  • New technology has revitalized old natural gas exploration areas and opened new ones, putting the economic logic of northern pipelines like the Mackenzie in doubt. (8/19, #17)
  • In Russia a water surge caused aging turbines to explode at a 31-year-old Siberian dam on Monday, starting a chain reaction that sent a cascade of water into a turbine hall and the four floors below it, and dumped 45 tons of fuel oil into the Yenisei River. The confirmed death toll stands at 17, but most of the 58 people still missing are also likely to be dead. (8/22, #13)
  • German Chancellor Merkel’s cabinet agreed on a plan to get a million electric cars onto Germany’s roads by 2020 and transform the country into the world’s top electric car market. (8/20, #7)
  • The current and soon-to-be-available crop of plug-in cars will be relatively expensive. The cheapest highway-capable model will likely be a 4-door sedan from Coda Automotive that will probably be in the $30-40,000 price range. Over a 10-year life, a battery-powered car may save $5,000+, assuming gasoline averages $3.50 for a 25 mpg car. (8/22, #19)
  • While the first electric cars are expected to come on line in 2010-12, in order to replace 50% of the car fleet, the world would need between 10 to 20 years36. Besides, manufacturing a single car requires at least 20 barrels of oil37. Once oil production starts to decline in 2011-201338, it will very become difficult to develop the electric car on a massive scale. (8/19, #21)
  • Cap-and-trade legislation to limit U.S. carbon dioxide emissions has “gotten out of control” and needs to be scaled back, said former Dem. Senator Timothy Wirth. (8/18, #16)
    • “It’s clear to me that $150-a-barrel oil was the trigger for the recession…It’s too late for huge oil discoveries to delay peak oil. The only thing that can help now is conservation — at least it can make a difference in the short term.” (8/22, #17)
  • Quote of the Week

    — Roger Herrera, former petroleum geologist and longtime oil industry observer