Oil Exploration: The Top 5 Things You Need To Know

Everyone wants it. Everyone needs it. Everyone fights for it. It's oil, and calling it black gold is an understatement. Especially these days, with the economy failing worldwide, resources becoming increasingly depleted, war zones firing up and scientists/economists/environmentalists alike all scratching their heads, wondering what's next.

For the most part, we can all talk about oil and discuss oil and debate the ups and downs of various realities of oil. But how many of us actually know anything about oil itself or, more to the point, about oil exploration?

This is why we're pleased to see that Ryan Carlyle, BSChE (Bachelor of Science In Chemical Engineering), who says he's a subsea hydraulics engineer who "work[s] in the oil industry as an engineer for deepwater well control equipment," has released his educated opinion on the Top Five Things Everyone Should Know About Oil Exploration.

Take Carlyle's advice to heart: not only is his "primary job scope ... directing the installation and operation of seafloor equipment designed to make sure subsea oil wells can be safely drilled and completed," but he also "read[s] a lot, too."

One: Oil is even more important than you think.

Oil has been the basis for the global economy for more than a century.

Two and a half percent of the world GDP stems from oil, making up one-third of "humanity's primary energy supply." With natural gas thrown in that mix, the resource makes up more than half of that energy supply.

Oil and gas power 100 percent of all transportation, not compensating for rounding error.

"Except for a minuscule number of electric-powered vehicles, you can't move anything anywhere faster than about 25 mph without oil," Carlyle says. "You can't operate a modern military, and you can't run a modern economy."

Two: Oil is way BIGGER than you think.

There are "millions upon millions" of miles of pipes that distribute the various iterations of oil.

"The natural gas distribution pipelines in the U.S. alone could stretch from Earth to the Moon 7-8 times," Carlyle says.

Approximately 40 percent of all seaborne cargo is oil. This should be kept in mind along with the fact that there is more seaborne cargo (by weight) in the ocean at any given time than, literally, fish in the sea.   

"Think about what that means for a minute," Carlyle says. "The ocean isn't full of fish, it's full of oil cargoes."

Carlyle feels that oil consumption is so critical at this point in time that we're likely not going to see an overhaul to alternative power during our lifetime. Here are a few of his figures on whether or not the oil behemoth can soon be bested by alternatives:

  • World oil production was 82 million barrels per day in 2010. At roughly 6 gigajoules per barrel, that's about 5.7 terawatts of power production.
  • World wind power production in 2010 was 0.3 petawatt-hours. Averaged over a year, that's about 34 gigawatts.
  • World solar power production in 2010 was 0.03 petawatt-hours. Averaged over a year, that's about 3.4 gigawatts.
  • The difference in power generation between solar power and oil production is more than the difference between a professional bicyclist and a Formula 1 racecar.
  • If solar power generation doubled every decade for 100 years, it would still be pretty far behind oil today.

These numbers show that energy production from just oil is two orders of magnitude higher than wind power and three orders of magnitude higher than solar. The numbers have an even larger disparity if coal and natural gas are added in, as well.

Three: Oil is a larger part of our wealth than you think.

"Failure to secure energy supplies dooms nations to collapse," Carlyle points out, noting that "historical use of cheaper, more-concentrated, and cleaner energy sources seems to be one of the most direct causes of economic growth."

Oil is a high-quality energy, Carlyle says. Being liquid, it is easy to move/store. It's also stable and releases a large supply of energy. It's far cleaner than coal and if it weren't for CO2 emissions, "oil and gas would be a nearly-perfect energy source."

We can see the effect of this "nearly-perfect energy source" on the world economy, charting both this economy and the consumption of energy from 1820 to 2000. Carlyle has a point when he notes that such charts turn out to be nearly identical. It does seem that energy consumption does match world wealth with an almost eerie synchronicity.

"Electrification caused most of the growth from 1900 to 1950," Carlyle says. "Oil enabled the post-war boom from 1950 to 1970, and natural gas strongly contributed to the growth from 1970 to 1995."

(These days, of course, everything is a bit different thanks to the economic collapse and digital trends.)

"Oil is energy, and energy is wealth," Carlyle says

Four: Working in oil is safer than you think.

We've certainly seen enough movies and TV shows that make it look as though working on an oil rig is an action-packed time bomb. But take it from someone who has actually worked in the industry, it's safer than all that Hollywood hullaballoo.

Despite there being "lots of extremely hazardous activities at a drill site," Carlyle assures us that these sites are "exceptionally well-managed."

Noting that many of the older folks he works with are "missing a few fingers," Carlyle directs us to numbers showing that accidents have gone down significantly thanks to knowledge gained over the years and safeguards put in place that will keep everyone with ten digits instead of, say, seven.

"[T]he 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," Carlyle says. "It's a different world now."

The oil industry is in fact one of the safest sectors in which to work. Jobs that have higher likelihood of accidents, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (as of October 2012) include, believe it or not: teacher (compared to offshore rigs), real estate agent, nurse, truck driver, logger and fisherman.

Five: Oil companies rake in less than you think.

ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Total, ConocoPhillips and Shell might make a lot of money, but the profit margin is actually quite small most of the time.

Right now profits might be high, but that's only because oil prices are high, too. As Carlyle notes, the reality, though, is that exploration and development costs are rising higher than oil prices.

"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," Carlyle says.

"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."

In order to avoid such large risks, Carlyle contends, oil companies have to consolidate and hence this is why "oil companies are some of the largest publicly-traded companies in the world — because they have to be huge to survive."

Most of the oil money goes to national oil companies like OPEC anyway, especially since they have the most access to cheap oil that's more easily acquired via the ground. This gives them "a combination of high net revenue per barrel and some semblance of cartel pricing power."

What do you think? Does this sound like a lot of bias claptrap from an industry insider, or some valid points from someone who actually knows what he's talking about? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. But please, take Elvis' (appropriately paraphrased) words to heart: "Don't be crude."

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