energy resources and security of supply
The issue of security of supply is at the top of the energy policy agenda. Concern is focused both on price security and the security of physical supply for countries with none if their own resources. At present around 80% of global energy demand is met by fossil fuels. The world is currently experiencing an unrelenting increase in energy demand in the face of the finite nature of these resources. At the same time, the global distribution of oil and gas resources does not match the distribution of demand. Some countries have to rely almost entirely on fossil fuel imports.
Table 8.1 shows estimated deposits and current use of fossil energy sources. There is no shortage of fossil fuels; there might a shortage of conventional oil and gas. Reducing global fossil fuel consumption for reasons of resource scarcity alone is not mandatory, even though there may be substantial price fluctuations and regional or structural shortages as we have seen in the past.
The presently known coal resources and reserves alone probably amount to around 3,000 times the amount currently mined in a year. Thus, in terms of resource potential, current-level demand could be met for many hundreds of years to come. Coal is also relatively evenly spread across the globe; each continent holds considerable deposits. However, the supply horizon is clearly much lower for conventional mineral oil and gas reserves at 40–50 years. If some resources or deposits currently still classified as ‘unconventional’ are included, the resource potentials exceed the current consumption rate by far more than one hundred years. However, serious ecological damage is frequently associated with fossil energy mining, particularly of unconventional deposits in oil sands and oil shale.
Over the past few years, new commercial processes have been developed in the natural gas extraction sector, allowing more affordable access to gas deposits previously considered ‘unconventional’, many of which are more frequently found and evenly distributed globally than traditional gas fields. However, tight gas and shale gas extraction can potentially be accompanied by seismic activities and the pollution of groundwater basins and inshore waters. It therefore needs special regulations. It is expected that an effective gas market will develop using the existing global distribution network for liquid gas via tankers and loading terminals. With greater competitiveness regards price fixing, it is expected that the oil and gas prices will no longer be linked. Having more liquid gas in the energy mix (currently around 10% of overall gas consumption) significantly increases supply security, e.g. reducing the risks of supply interruptions associated with international pipeline networks.
Gas hydrates are another type of gas deposit found in the form of methane aggregates both in the deep sea and underground in permafrost. They are solid under high pressure and low temperatures. While there is the possibility of continued greenhouse gas emissions from such deposits as a consequence of arctic permafrost soil thaw or a thawing of the relatively flat Siberian continental shelf, there is also potential for extraction of this energy source. Many states, including the USA, Japan, India, China and South Korea have launched relevant research programmes. Estimates of global deposits vary greatly; however, all are in the zettajoule range, for example 70,000–700,000 EJ (Krey et al., 2009). The Global Energy Assessment report estimates the theoretical potential to be 2,650–2,450,000 EJ (GEA, 2011), i.e. possibly more than a thousand times greater than the current annual total energy consumption. Approximately a tenth (1,200–245,600 EJ) is rated as potentially extractable. The WBGU advised against applied research for methane hydrate extraction, as mining bears considerable risks and methane hydrates do not represent a sustainable energy source (‘The Future Oceans’, WBGU, 2006).
Oil is the lifeblood of the modern global economy, as the effects of the supply disruptions of the 1970s made clear. It is the number one source of energy, providing about one third of the world’s needs and the fuel employed almost exclusively for essential uses such as transportation. However, a passionate debate has developed over the ability of supply to meet increasing consumption, a debate obscured by poor information and stirred by recent soaring prices.
8.1.1 the reserves chaos
Public information about oil and gas reserves is strikingly inconsistent, and potentially unreliable for legal, commercial, historical and sometimes political reasons. The most widely available and quoted figures, those from the industry journals Oil and Gas Journal and World Oil, have limited value as they report the reserve figures provided by companies and governments without analysis or verification. Moreover, as there is no agreed definition of reserves or standard reporting practice, these figures usually represent different physical and conceptual magnitudes. Confusing terminology - ‘proved’, ‘probable’, ‘possible’, ‘recoverable’, ‘reasonable certainty’ - only adds to the problem.
Historically, private oil companies have consistently underestimated their reserves to comply with conservative stock exchange rules and through natural commercial caution. Whenever a discovery was made, only a portion of the geologist’s estimate of recoverable resources was reported; subsequent revisions would then increase the reserves from that same oil field over time. National oil companies, mostly represented by OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries), have taken a very different approach. They are not subject to any sort of accountability and their reporting practices are even less clear. In the late 1980s, the OPEC countries blatantly overstated their reserves while competing for production quotas, which were allocated as a proportion of the reserves. Although some revision was needed after the companies were nationalised, between 1985 and 1990, OPEC countries increased their apparent joint reserves by 82%. Not only were these dubious revisions never corrected, but many of these countries have reported untouched reserves for years, even if no sizeable discoveries were made and production continued at the same pace. Additionally, the Former Soviet Union’s oil and gas reserves have been overestimated by about 30% because the original assessments were later misinterpreted.
Whilst private companies are now becoming more realistic about the extent of their resources, the OPEC countries hold by far the majority of the reported reserves, and their information is as unsatisfactory as ever. Their conclusions should therefore be treated with considerable caution. To fairly estimate the world’s oil resources would require a regional assessment of the mean backdated (i.e. ‘technical’) discoveries.