Big Oil Companies Struggling to Keep Production from Falling

The challenges for private oil companies to increase oil production are pretty daunting.

ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) has been producing a little over 2.4 million barrels of oil a day for the last year and a half, its lowest rate of production over the last decade. The dark blue line in the figure below shows the company’s production each year since 1999. Four years ago, Stuart Staniford noted that ExxonMobil’s 2001 annual report predicted 3% annual growth in production between 2001 and 2007. That projection appears as the red line in the graph below; didn’t quite come out as planned. Stuart’s theory was that the company correctly predicted the contribution of its new discoveries, but underestimated the declining production rates from mature fields.

ExxonMobil again predicted in 2006 that it could achieve 3% annual growth over 2006-2011. I’ve shown that forecast as the lighter blue line in the figure. We still have two more years to make that one right, I suppose.

Dark blue: ExxonMobil’s annual net production of crude oil and natural gas liquids in millions of barrels per day. 1999-2008 from company’s annual reports. 2009 based on average of 2009:Q1 and 2009:Q2. Red: forecast from the company’s 2001 annual report. Light blue: forecast from the company’s statements in 2006.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that ExxonMobil is prepared to spend $4 billion to buy 1/4 interest in the Jubilee oil field off the coast of Ghana, which would represent 15% of the oil giant’s 2008 capital and exploration budget. Alan von Altendorf thinks they can’t make a good return unless they sell the oil for $100/barrel. Presumably the company is reckoning on more oil in the field than current estimates suggest. But even if von Altendorf’s calculations are off by a factor of two, it still seems to signal a change in philosophy for a company that has historically been extremely careful with its investments in order to maintain its position as a very low-cost producer.

But what else is the company to do? It’s not like they haven’t tried to take advantage of Russia’s or Venezuela’s strong commitment to protect foreign investors or the peaceful aspirations of Nigerian rebels.

Chevron (NYSE:CVX) and many other companies are finding clever new ways to get more oil out of mature U.S. fields. That may well succeed in slowing the rate at which production from those fields declines over time. But to get the plot in the graph above to slope up you really need to develop new fields.

The New York Times is encouraged by the “brisk pace of new discoveries” which the paper reports “have totaled about 10 billion barrels in the first half of the year”.

The Oil Drum, always a party pooper, notes that the world likely consumed that much in the first four months of the year.

Working harder and harder to keep oil production from falling

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About James D. Hamilton 244 Articles

James D. Hamilton is Professor of Economics at the University of California, San Diego.

Visit: Econbrowser

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