Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Thinking Shortage in a Time of Plenty

It is hard to remember that oil has only been used for energy production for about 150 years, and for half of that time the industry was plagued with fear that the oil would run out. Daniel Yergin, in his Pulitzer-prize winning book The Prize, documents how the Royal Navy recognized the advantages of oil-burning ships, but on the verge of World War I hesitated to convert from coal for fear of having no fuel for the new fleet. the shortages were soon replaced with an overabundance of energy, for a number of reasons:
1. New technologies allowed new oil fields to be discovered. From examining rocks and ponds for oil seepage, to the use of satellite imagery, the ability to discover oil continues to improve.
2. The invention of the cracking process allowed raw petroleum to be broken into various petroleum distillates, making each barrel of oil more exploitable.
3. Blind luck: many fields have been discovered by wildcatters in areas the "experts" claimed had little or no oil or natural gas.
4. New technologies have allowed old fields to be better exploited. The introduction of gas and water infusion techniques have resurrected many played out fields.
5. Energy experts recognized that natural gas was more than just a waste byproduct of the oil industry, but an energy source in itself.
6. The investment in oil and gas pipelines, international and national, allowed the efficient distribution of these products.
7. Improvements in LNG technologies is allowing the use of natural gas to spread from pipelines to a worldwide market.
Fears of shortages remain, however. As World War II approached, the Royal Navy recognized that there was plenty of oil world-wide, but that much would be in the hands of the Nazis. There could be a man-made shortage created not by nature, but by politics.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, U.S. President Carter was alarmed that bombers from Afghanistan could reach the Straits of Hormuz. The Russians had the theoretical ability to close off the free world from its access to Persian Gulf oil. This was such a concern that the President issued the Carter doctrine, a statement that access to Persian Gulf oil was a VITAL interest of the United States.
In another publication, Yergin argues that the main protection of a country's energy supply is diversification (Yergin, "Energy Security and Markets" in Kalicki and Goldwyn, eds. Energy and Security, 2005).
In search of such diversification in the 1990s, oil companies from the United States signed the "Deal of the Century" with Azerbaijan, opening Caspian energy to the West for the first time since the 1920s. The Caspian energy fields, however, are landlocked. Getting the oil and gas from the Caspian to international markets was quite a feat in itself. Azerbaijan shipped "early oil" out via the old Soviet pipeline system and continues to use this system for some of its production. Most of the oil, however, is shipped via the Main Energy Pipeline that was built at the dawn of the 21st Century.
This Caspian energy was important because it became another, diversified source for energy. Where, then, could the Main Energy Pipeline run? The easiest routing would have been to send all the oil through the Soviet pipeline system, but that would have placed control over this source in the hands of America's Cold War former nemesis. In addition, the oil would have to be transported by boat through the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits in order to reach world markets. It would have meant a massive increase in tanker traffic through the heart of Istanbul, a metropolitan area of 10-20 million people (depending on who'se counting).
The shortest route to the open sea would be through the Islamic Republic of Iran. This would put control of the energy in the hands of the mullahs who have elevated anti-Americanism into an art form.
To make sure that Caspian energy could be delivered to the world market independently of the influences of Russia or Iran, the decision was to route the Main Energy Pipeline from Baku, through Georgia, and into Turkey, ending at the port of Ceyhan. The Main Energy Pipeline is better known as the BTC, or Baku to Ceyhan pipeline.

Dr. James J. Coyle is available to speak to your organization or at your event. Please contact him at