The Ergosphere
Wednesday, February 09, 2011

US embassy cables: Saudi oil company oversold ability to increase production, embassy told


1. (C) SUMMARY: On November 20, 2007, CG and Econoff met with Dr. Sadad al-Husseini, former Executive Vice President for Exploration and Production at Saudi Aramco. Al-Husseini, who maintains close ties to Aramco executives, believes that the Saudi oil company has oversold its ability to increase production and will be unable to reach the stated goal of 12.5 million b/d of sustainable capacity by 2009. While stating that he does not subscribe to the theory of “peak oil,” the former Aramco board member does believe that a global output plateau will be reached in the next 5 to 10 years and will last some 15 years, until world oil production begins to decline. Additionally, al-Husseini expressed the view that the recent surge in oil prices reflects the underlying reality that global demand has met supply, and is not due to artificial market distortions. END SUMMARY.

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2. (C) Dr. Sadad al-Husseini met with CG and EconOff on November 20 to discuss current trends in the international energy market, as well as his thoughts on the Saudi energy sector. Al-Husseini served as Executive Vice President for Exploration and Production from 1992 until his retirement in 2004. He also served as a member of the Aramco Board of Directors from 1996 to retirement. (COMMENT: Al-Husseini retired in the midst of an executive dispute, supposedly caused when he unsuccessfully attempted to engineer his ascension to the position of CEO. Although he continues to live at Aramco’s main camp and has close interpersonal relationships with key Aramco executives, many of al-Husseini’s views on Aramco are shaped by the perception that the company would be better off if he were running it. END COMMENT). It is al-Husseini’s belief that while Aramco can reach 12 million b/d within the next 10 years, it will be unable to meet the goal of 12.5 million b/d by 2009. The former EVP added that sustaining 12 million b/d output will only be possible for a limited period of time, and even then, only with a massive investment program.

3. (C) According to al-Husseini, the crux of the issue is twofold. First, it is possible that Saudi reserves are not as bountiful as sometimes described and the timeline for their production not as unrestrained as Aramco executives and energy optimists would like to portray. In a December 1 presentation at an Aramco Drilling Symposium, Abdallah al-Saif, current Aramco Senior Vice President for Exploration and Production, reported that Aramco has 716 billion barrels (bbls) of total reserves, of which 51 percent are recoverable. He then offered the promising forecast – based on historical trends – that in 20 years, Aramco will have over 900 billion barrels of total reserves, and future technology will allow for 70 percent recovery.

4. (C) Al-Husseini disagrees with this analysis, as he believes that Aramco’s reserves are overstated by as much as 300 billion bbls of “speculative resources.” He instead focuses on original proven reserves, oil that has already been produced or which is available for exploitation based on current technology. All parties estimate this amount to be approximately 360 billion bbls. In al-Husseini’s view, once 50 percent depletion of original proven reserves has been reached and the 180 billion bbls threshold crossed, a slow but steady output decline will ensue and no amount of effort will be able to stop it. By al-Husseini’s calculations, approximately 116 billion barrels of oil have been produced by Saudi Arabia, meaning only 64 billion barrels remain before reaching this crucial point of inflection. At 12 million b/d production, this inflection point will arrive in 14 years. Thus, while Aramco will likely be able to surpass 12 million b/d in the next decade, soon after reaching that threshold the company will have to expend maximum effort to simply fend off impending output declines. Al-Husseini believes that what will result is a plateau in total output that will last approximately 15 years, followed by decreasing output.

5. (C) Al-Husseini elaborated that oil field depletion rates also play a significant role in determining the Aramco – and

RIYADH 00002441 002 OF 003 12.5 MBD IN 2009

global – production timeline. Increasing output is not simply a function of adding new capacity to already existing operations. Instead, due to depletion rates, new reserves must be brought online to both replace depleted production and satisfy growth in consumption. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated global depletion rates at 4 percent, while a 2006 Aramco statement has estimated Saudi Arabia’s overall depletion rate at 2 percent. Al-Husseini estimates that moving forward, satisfying increases in global demand will require bringing online annually at least 6 million b/d of worldwide output, 2 million to satisfy increased demand and 4 million to compensate for declining production in existing fields.

6. (C) The second issue that will limit any proposed Aramco output expansion can be broadly defined as a lack of supporting resources. For example, in al-Husseini’s estimation, it is not the amount of oil available that will prevent Aramco from reaching 12.5 million b/d by 2009, but rather issues such as a lack of available skilled engineers, a shortage of experienced construction companies, insufficient refining capacity, underdeveloped industrial infrastructure, and a need for production management (if too much oil is extracted from a well without proper planning and technique, a well’s potential output will be significantly damaged). As previously reported by post (Reftel), the Eastern Province economy is facing severe industrial expansion limits, and despite Aramco’s willingness to invest up to 50 billion USD to achieve the 2009 goal, availability of labor, materials and housing may end up as determinative factors.



7. (C) Considering the rapidly growing global demand for energy – led by China, India and internal growth in oil-exporting countries – and in light of the above mentioned constraints on expanding current capacity, al-Husseini believes that the recent oil price increases are not market distortions but instead reflect the underlying reality that demand has met supply (global energy supply having remained relatively stagnant over the past years at approximately 85 million barrels/day). He estimates that the current floor price of oil, removing all geopolitical instability and financial speculation, is approximately 70 – 75 USD/barrel. Due to the longer-term constraints on expanding global output, al-Husseini judges that demand will continue to outpace supply and that for every million b/d shortfall that exists between demand and supply, the floor price of oil will increase 12 USD. Al-Husseini added that new oil discoveries are insufficient relative to the decline of the super-fields, such as Ghawar, that have long been the lynchpin of the global market.

8. (C) COMMENT: While al-Husseini believes that Saudi officials overstate capabilities in the interest of spurring foreign investment, he is also critical of international expectations. He stated that the IEA’s expectation that Saudi Arabia and the Middle East will lead the market in reaching global output levels of over 100 million barrels/day is unrealistic, and it is incumbent upon political leaders to begin understanding and preparing for this “inconvenient truth.” Al-Husseini was clear to add that he does not view himself as part of the “peak oil camp,” and does not agree with analysts such as Matthew Simmons. He considers himself optimistic about the future of energy, but pragmatic with regards to what resources are available and what level of production is possible. While he fundamentally contradicts the Aramco company line, al-Husseini is no doomsday theorist. His pedigree, experience and outlook demand that his predictions be thoughtfully considered. END COMMENT.




9. (U) Dr. Sadad Ibrahim al-Husseini was born in Syria but raised in Saudi Arabia, his father a Saudi government official. He received a BS in Geology from the American University of Beirut in 1968, as well as an MS and Ph.D. in geological sciences from Brown University in 1970 and 1972, respectively. Al-Husseini also attended a Professional Management Program at Harvard Business School in 1982.

RIYADH 00002441 003 OF 003 12.5 MBD IN 2009

Joining Aramco in 1972, al-Husseini quickly advanced, becoming Senior Vice President for Exploration and Production in 1986. He was given the title Executive Vice President in 1992. Al-Husseini served on Aramco’s Management Committee from 1986 until 2004, and sat on the Aramco Board of Directors from 1996 – 2004. He retired on March 1, 2004. XXXXXXXXXXXX



This is actually good news. Most of the doomer peak-oil guys think there's going to be an immediate decline as it will follow a bell curve according to them.

In fact, it's not usually a bell curve at all, it's more like a rising curve followed by a slightly declining plateau followed by a sharp drop which then stabilizes into a decline which is more gentle than the run-up.

Additionlly, there's no reason why 50% is the magic hard coded physical law point of depletion.

Last but not least, 15 years is a long time. I recognize you from the oil drum from as far back as 2004 and possibly earlier (2002 maybe?). You remember back then we basically had no solutions. Right now we already have a slow but steady push towards electrification of transport and pretty much all governments are aware they need to get at least a percentage of the energy supply onto a sustainable footing. That coupled with the near parity of wind and solar with fossil fuels I think we might just squeeze out a win.

Even Hirsch himself says we need a ten year crash program. If we have 20 years we could have plenty of time. I know that's enough time for me personally to get my hands on a volt and get the rest of my act together more than it is now.

Fingers crossed.
I'm not so sanguine.  Don't forget that KSA has every reason to forestall a Manhattan Project-level effort to address oil dependency, and even projecting a 15-year level trend in production means accelerating export declines as domestic use for electricity and just desalinating water goes up exponentially.  We have no good reason to trust even the prediction of a flat trend.  (Ironically, one of the best places we could build nuclear power plants right now for the sake of oil availability is the Arabian peninsula.  Not that I think this is a good idea for a host of reasons, but anything which uses other energy supplies to make more oil available for export puts off the day of reckoning.)

One of the big issues is that the investment required to keep production up keeps increasing as the reservoirs deplete.  Also, KSA needs increasing amounts of imports to keep the populace satisfied, so it's unlikely that the investment capital can be generated without even higher prices.  If those prices push the economy into recession, those investments won't be made even if they're physically possible.  This drives the flat trend into a production decline of several percent a year, and export declines much faster (like Mexico and Indonesia).

Let's hope that the projection of 1 million plug-in vehicles on US roads by 2015 is pessimistic.
Incidentally, my Oil Drum profile says I've been a member for 5 years 25 weeks, or since roughly August 2005.
Good response EP and I accept (though do not agree with) your slightly more doomerish position than mine.

Only since 2005 eh? I guess that means progress in the last five years has been a lot more rapid than I thought. Maybe progress in the next five will be more rapid still.

I place my bets on China to be honest. If China cannot pull it off then nobody can.

Anyways, my full argument is over at my own blog:

It's going to be a very interesting decade for sure.
Chomsky makes the point that under international law every country is entitled to civilian nuclear technology. All countries except the US accepted the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty. If the big countries would stop threatening other countries those other countries would not feel the need to have clandestine nuclear programs. If the big countries would not use other countries as regional proxies some of them would not have had access to nuclear weapons programs anyway. What is your objection to the Saudis or anyone having nuclear power?
The 15 year plateau fits in with the ITPOES study. Although they showed production going to 90mbd then plateauing. They do predict a crunch coming in the 2014-2015 period, however.
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