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Unprecedented Oil Output May Upend Markets, Says Harvard Researcher

Global oil production capacity increases, especially from unconventional U.S. oil, are accelerating so quickly that output could jump almost 20% by 2020, which could dramatically reduce and possibly collapse oil prices, according to an analysis by a Harvard Kennedy School researcher and former oil industry executive.

The findings are based on a field-by-field review of the oil formations and exploration projects around the world conducted by Leonardo Maugeri, a former Eni SpA executive and now a fellow in the Geopolitics of Energy Project in the Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The gains in oil output mostly are attributed to a combination of high prices and new unconventional drilling technologies that have opened up tight oil, oil shale, tar sands and ultra-heavy oil formations. In general, the biggest output increases are projected to be in North America, Venezuela and Brazil, with the "most dramatic increases" involving U.S. unconventional oil, said Maugeri.

"For example, the Bakken and Three Forks fields in North Dakota and Montana could become the equivalent of a Persian Gulf-producing country within the United States," the research found. "The Bakken formation's output has grown from a few barrels in 2006 to 530,000 a day in December 2011."

The surge in production in the Western Hemisphere in the coming years "will in effect leave the region self-sufficient in oil, the global nature of the market makes that all but meaningless except in psychological terms," he said. The oil and gas industry "will need to make major investments to keep oil production environmentally safe to avoid threatening the new bonanza."

According to the research, global oil production is forecast to expand from current output of 93 million b/d to 110 million b/d by 2020, which would be the biggest increase in any decade since the 1980s. Significantly, the growth would represent "less than 40% of the new oil production under development globally; more than 60% of the new production will likely reach the market after 2020."

Gross additional production from the global exploration projects now under way could result in an additional 49 million b/d by 2020, "an increase equivalent to more than half the world's current 93 million b/d. After adjusting that gross output increase for political and technical risk factors as well as the offsetting depletion rates of current fields, the analysis projects the net increase by 2020 to be about 17.5 b/d."

A combination of new output in the Western Hemisphere and the emerging growth in other parts of the world "could lead to a sharp drop in oil prices," Maugeri said, "which if steep enough could lead oil companies to cut back on investment and ultimately slow down oil supplies. But if oil prices remain above about $70/bbl, sufficient investment will occur to sustain continued growth in production, possibly leading to a stable phenomenon of oil overproduction after 2015."

According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. crude oil production has jumped from 5.1 million barrels per day in January 2008 to 6.3 million barrels per day in March 2012, up 24% over that time period. That increase pushed the United States' share of worldwide crude oil production to 7.1% in March 2012, up from 6.0% in early 2008.

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