Saudi's Can't Sate World
By Jim Krane
April 4, 2006
The world's only oil superpower boosted output last month, starting a pair of projects that are part of a massive $55 billion endeavor to keep pace with the world's ever-intensifying thirst for oil.
But demand for the world's premiere source of energy is rising so fast, by about 2 million barrels per day each year, that even Saudi Arabia's vast resources will be unable to cope without drastic help, oil executives and analysts say.
Even Saudis, who control about a quarter of the world's known oil, are calling for relief from relentless consumption.
"The current out-of-control demand is not good for us," said Ghazi Al-Rawi, head of private equity at Gulf One Investment Bank, in a recent interview. "When you have this kind of demand, you're forced to supply beyond the optimal rate."
Most urgently needed is energy conservation, especially in the United States, which now burns up a quarter of the oil sold to the world, said Saddad al-Husseini, the former head of production at state-owned Saudi Aramco.
Also critical is the development of fuels from oil-rich sands or natural gas that can serve as substitutes for oil. Other producing countries, especially OPEC's No. 2 and 3 leaders Iran and Iraq, could ease the crunch by increasing exports to handle a greater share of the surging demand in China and India, Saudi experts said.
"We need some help," said Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi petroleum adviser with close ties to the government.
If such help doesn't materialize and Saudi Arabia maxes its output -- cranking out perhaps 35 percent more oil than it does today -- the kingdom's proven reserves might only sustain those gushing flows for a couple of decades before starting to dwindle, al-Husseini said.
Can global consumers "afford to keep increasing demand by almost 2 million barrels a day each year? Is it Saudi Arabia's role to meet that demand?" asked al-Husseini, who retired in 2004 after working 32 years in the kingdom's oil sector. "You're leading yourself to having to find an alternative source of energy very quickly."
Few analysts think oil is about to run out. But experts differ on whether the current soaring oil demand will outstrip current supplies, and how quickly.
Many blame today's tight market on 20 years of low oil prices that stifled investment in new wells, refining and exports.
Keeping prices high is the best way to meet demand in the next decade or two, said Leonardo Maugeri, an executive with the Italian energy company Eni. High prices give investors incentive to spend the billions needed to increase oil production and develop other fuels, Maugeri wrote in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
But Maugeri also wrote that it takes six to eight years for oil from a new well to reach consumers. Developing oil sands or natural gas-based diesel fuel is even slower and more expensive.
Saudis worry that consumer demand could overwhelm the slow progress in bringing new energies to market. "If this continues, you'll have demand outstripping supply over the next five years by a wide margin," said Obaid.
Others, such as Sharif Ghalib of Energy Intelligence Research in New York, say the world's cushion of excess oil production capacity -- a safety margin that keeps a lid on prices -- is so low that demand could outstrip supplies now. All it would take is a single oil producer going off-line for any reason.
"The crunch is already here. It's not five years down the road," Ghalib said. "There is no thought being given in the U.S. to raising gasoline taxes or increasing mileage on U.S. cars. In China, automobile use is skyrocketing."
For now, Saudi Arabia is bent on meeting this demand by drilling wells and laying pipe.
In March, state-owned Saudi Aramco and Japan's Sumitomo Chemical broke ground on a $10 billion oil refinery and petrochemical plant that will be one of the world's largest when finished in 2008.
The refinery, one of two planned in the kingdom, is aimed at opening bottlenecks on delivery of refined products such as gasoline and diesel. The plant will increase Saudi Arabia's output because it can refine heavy sulfurous crude that the kingdom can't sell now.
Saudi Arabia and its partners plan to invest a further $28 billion in three more huge refineries, in China, India and Texas, Obaid said.
Also last month, Saudi Arabia began opening valves on a 300,000 barrel-per-day expansion in output from the world's largest oilfield. By summer, the full flow of the oil is planned to be under way.
These are just the latest installments of what experts describe as the world's largest oil expansion effort, which will increase Saudi Arabia's output capacity by 2009 by almost 14 percent -- from 11 million to 12.5 million barrels per day.
If demand warrants, the Petroleum Ministry could decide to invest an additional $8.5 billion in a further increase of 800,000 barrels a day by 2013, bringing sustainable capacity to 13.05 million barrels a day, Obaid said.
Ali al-Naimi, the Saudi oil minister, has said the kingdom could reach and sustain 15 million barrels per day in output if needed.
But even leaping to those frantic levels won't satisfy rising world demand for long, analysts say.
"The Saudis can't do it alone," said Ehsan Ul-Haq, chief analyst of Vienna-based energy broker PVM Oil Associates.
And pumping at 15 million barrels a day, the lifespan of Saudi's 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves would be shortened by 30 percent, with output dwindling about two decades from now.
The kingdom has already used up 100 billion barrels. Production typically declines when a country has produced half of its reserves. That's 180 billion barrels in Saudi Arabia's case, al-Husseini said.
"If instead of reliable oil production lasting 20 years, it were to last for 40 years, then we would all be ahead," he said. "That's why there is a need to supplement conventional oil with other sources of energy."