Skip to comments.What are the top five facts everyone should know about oil exploration? (from Quora.com)
Posted on 04/03/2013 12:30:25 AM PDT by AZLiberty
My top 5 oil industry facts:
The world economy has been developing with oil as its lifeblood for over a hundred years. Oil is directly responsible for about 2.5% of world GDP , but accounts for 1/3rd of humanity's primary energy supply (>5 terawatts out of 15 terawatts total) . It's over half if you include natural gas.
World Energy Consumption by Source, in Terawatts
World energy consumption
Oil/gas powers 100% of all transportation, within a few significant figures of rounding error. Transportation, in turn, directly accounted for 1/6th of world GDP in 1997  and is heavily involved in every other type of economic activity. Except for a minuscule number of electric-powered vehicles, you can't move anything anywhere faster than about 25 mph without oil. You can't operate a modern military, and you can't run a modern economy. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that modern civilization would collapse in a matter of months if oil stopped flowing. Oil is about as important to the developed world as agriculture. It's truly a condition for the continued existence of most of humanity today.
The world's oil & gas transport infrastructure is a globe-spanning spiderweb of pipelines and shipping routes. The natural gas distribution pipelines in the US alone could stretch from Earth to the Moon 7-8 times . There are millions upon millions of miles of pipe on the planet to distribute crude oil, refined products, and natural gas. (Mostly gas.) Consider this: if your home has natural gas heat, it is connected via a continuous network of pipes to tens of thousands of wells drilled into subterranean rock strata that were laid down tens of millions of years ago. That's pretty cool, really. Your house is directly connected to the Pliocene era -- by the world's oil & gas infrastructure.
About 40% of all seaborne cargo is oil , and there is literally more seaborne cargo at any given time (by weight) than there are fish in the sea . Oil is in transit for a much shorter amount of time than the lifespan of most fish, so the total amount of oil that moves via water each year is much, much higher than the total amount of fish biomass. Think about what that means for a minute. The ocean isn't full of fish, it's full of oil cargoes.
Unfortunately, that scale makes it next-to-impossible to technologically disrupt the oil industry. This is going to make some people mad, but it's reality. Not only is oil/gas critical now, but there are no viable replacements in our lifetime. People who think renewables can replace oil with a few decades of Manhattan Project style effort are simply ignorant of how big oil really is.
There is no reason whatsoever to think any feasible amount of renewables growth can displace fossil fuels in a couple generations. Wind and solar are growing exponentially, yes, but from such a small base that it doesn't even make a dent -- the use of renewables as a percentage of total world energy consumption only increased by 0.07% from 1973 to 2009 .
Let me break down some numbers.
Sorry guys, but regular old exponential growth isn't even enough. To match oil, you'll need half a century or more of clear energy superiority. That means cleaner and cheaper and more concentrated for storage. Nothing fits the bill yet. To replace oil, you'll need a century to allow the entire economy to retool and realign around the new technology.
Energy efficiency is powerful and highly desirable, but it can't compete with increasing the primary energy supply. Most of the time, increased energy efficiency actually results in increased energy consumption, because of cheaper costs (per unit output) and faster economic growth. (This is called Jevon's Paradox Jevons paradox). Highly-developed nations can use advanced technology to increase quality of life while using less energy, but less-developed nations cannot. Getting to developed-nation status required a lot of high-quality energy.
And oil is indeed high-quality energy. It's liquid, which makes it easily moved and stored. It's stable, and it releases a huge amount of energy. It's also much, much cleaner than coal. If it weren't for CO2 emissions, oil & gas would be a nearly-perfect energy source. Look at what their growth has done to the world's wealth:
World per Capita Real GDP vs World per Capita Energy Consumption by Type
World Energy Consumption Since 1820 in Charts
File:World GDP per capita 20th century.GIF
Those two charts don't match by accident. Every transition to a cleaner, cheaper, more-concentrated energy source causes dramatic improvements in real global wealth (and quality of life). Electrification caused most of the growth from 1900 to 1950. Oil enabled the post-war boom from 1950 to 1970, and natural gas strongly contributed to the growth from 1970 to 1995. The growth since 2000 has, unfortunately, been largely been due to increased coal consumption in Asia. The digital revolution and Great Recession have played a large part in global wealth trends, but mostly in the parts of the world that were already wealthy by global standards.
Ok, so maybe you don't care about GDP, and want to know about quality of life. Energy is fundamentally required for a high quality of life, as measured by the UN's Human Development Index. There is a range of energy consumption that depends on climate and population density, but broadly speaking, high-consumption countries have the highest quality of life.
Energy Consumption in Kilogram-Oil Equivalent per Year vs Quality of Life
HDI, Energy Consumption and CO2 Emissions
Sure, the biggest energy consuming nations could reduce per capita consumption a lot, and still have high quality of life. The US could learn a lot from Denmark. And current trends show that they are steadily moving in that direction -- energy consumption per capita and per dollar of GDP is steadily dropping in the developed world. That's a good thing.
But the energy required to lift 3 billion people out of poverty is far, far more than the potential energy savings from eliminating energy waste in the developed world. I'm not talking about stretch-SUVs and 60" TVs, I'm talking about refrigeration for vaccines, irrigation for agriculture, and fuel for school buses. The planet cannot support 7 billion people at a low-energy agrarian level of existence -- we have long since passed the point where we can revert back to a low-tech, low-energy form of civilization without billions of people dying of starvation.
All those green and red dots in the chart need to move past the blue dotted line -- it is truly a moral imperative to allow the world's poor to enjoy the basic fruits of development. That will require an enormous amount of new energy production capacity. Thankfully, the world mostly needs electricity, which is much easier to expand than oil. But we need a lot of oil too.
Oil is energy, and energy is wealth.
Despite the Hollywood stereotypes, oil rigs are actually quite safe. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of extremely hazardous activities at a drill site, but they're exceptionally well-managed. Working on an oil rig used to be pretty dangerous -- lots of older guys in my office are missing parts of their fingers. But the industry has made huge strides in safety improvements over the past few decades by increasing automation, providing comprehensive safety training, and changing the work culture. It's a different world now.
Accident rates have been dropped steadily since the 1990s, to the point the oil industry is now safer than many regular occupations. The OSHA statistics prove it. To really put safety in perspective, the average 2.1 TRIR for rig operations is lower than [OSHAs] 3.3 TRIR for real estate. You are safer statistically on the rig floor than driving around with a real estate agent." 
Land rigs have about the same injury rate as a regular construction job, and offshore rigs have a lower injury rate than being a teacher. In the chart below, the oil industry is rolled up into "mining":
Jobs that are actually dangerous include truck-driving, logging, fishing, and nursing. I'll happily deal with swinging cranes, high-pressure chemicals, toxic oil fumes, and offshore helicopter flights -- but you couldn't pay me enough to be a nurse. They have it rough.
Contrary to popular belief, the Oil "Majors" -- ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Total, ConocoPhillips, and Shell -- don't actually make all that much money. Yes, it's a lot in absolute terms because the companies are so large, but the profit margins are pretty sad in a good year. Bad years (like most of the 1990s) cause crippling contractions and mass layoffs.
Recent Profit Margins at Exxon, Apple, Microsoft
WolframAlpha: profit margins of exxonmobil, apple, microsoft
Oil Companies Underperformed the S&P500 through the 1990s
Yes, profits have beat the S&P500 lately, because oil prices are very high right now. Guess what? Exploration & development costs are rising faster than the price of oil. Net revenue per barrel at the Majors (not profit, just revenue) is only running about $20/bbl even though oil has gone up from ~$40/bbl to ~$100/bbl. What happens when China's big recession hits, and oil demand drops significantly? The price will plummet by 2-3x, just like it did at the start of the Great Recession. This is an incredibly capital-intensive industry, in which large projects take longer to execute than the length of the business cycle. That's fundamentally difficult to manage.
Oil is a widely-traded, high-competitive commodity market. That means basic economics causes profits margins to go as low as they can without companies exiting the industry. In this case, 8-10% profit margin is the minimum risk premium you can offer a company to convince it to continue doing business in:
So where does all the oil money actually go? To national oil companies -- mostly OPEC. They have control of all the cheap oil that's easy to get out of the ground, so they have a combination of high net revenue per barrel and some semblance of cartel pricing power.
There's lots to know about the oil industry -- people spend their entire careers learning small slices of it -- but if more people understood the facts above, we would have much more productive public discourse about the world's energy systems.
 A Primer on Energy and the Economy: Energys Large Share of the Economy Requires Caution in Determining Policies That Affect It
 World energy consumption
 Natural Gas Pipelines, Distance from Earth to Moon
 The Rising Renewables " CSBE
 World, U.S. Oil Production Rises in 2010
 Scientific American, April 2013, "The True Cost of Fossil Fuels" How to Measure the True Cost of Fossil Fuels
 SPECIAL REPORT: Oil, gas safety statistics mark progress.
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Just the facts and all correct based on my four decades in the industry.