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Book Review: Twilight in the Desert – The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy by Matthew R. Simmons

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One of the greatest questions of the modern world concerns whether our recoverable oil supplies will decrease faster than we can replace them with economical new energy sources. If we can keep up, then civilization can continue relatively unchanged and make the leap to the next stage of development. If not, then our modern civilization will face a resource shortfall that could spell the end of our way of life, much like other resource shortfalls have wiped out ancient civilizations.

A pivotal issue in this question is the ability of Saudi Arabia to not only maintain its current output of around 8 million barrels of oil a day, but to increase that rate of production as needed by the world, and to maintain these prolific rates for decades to come. Saudi Arabia claims it can keep up the same level of production for 50 years if necessary, and most of the world, even energy planners who should know better, take them at their word. But if their claims are wrong, it is the whole world that will suffer.

Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, Matthew Simmons believes it is very likely that Saudi Arabia's oil production rate has already peaked or will peak shortly and will then face sharp declines. Everyone believes that Saudi Arabia is sitting on massive oil reserves, but few people ever actually see specific production data to really understand just how much oil is flowing out of Saudi Arabia. For example, Ghawar, Saudi Arabia's primary oil field, is the greatest oil-bearing structure the world has ever known. Through the last half of the 20th century, Ghawar has produced over 55 billion barrels of oil, almost 60 percent of Saudi Arabia's total output. Saudi Arabia's five major secondary fields are still impressive giants in their own right but still can't keep up with the prolific production of Ghawar.

But what happens when Ghawar and these secondary giants runs dry?

Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia has stopped publishing field by field oil production data, making it very difficult for outside observers to prove or disprove the Saudi government's claims of sufficient reserves and the ability to scale production as necessary.

To get around this problem, Simmons had to resort to secondary information to piece together a picture of current Saudi Arabia oil reserves and production challenges. If there is one thing this book excels at, it's providing detailed evidence to support its contentions – there are pages, and pages, and pages of quotations and analysis of government documents and technical papers submitted to the Society of the Petroleum Engineers from Saudi engineers. You will learn more than you ever wanted to know about geological formations that contain oil, the problems that arise in aging oil fields, and the technology being used and developed to combat these problems.

Many nights the material was so dry that I could only get through a few pages before I was too tired to continue and turned off the light to go to bed. Seriously, the middle half of this book is very dry. Not that it doesn't do an admirable job of explaining the intricacies of petroleum drilling to a lay audience, but the author feels compelled to cover every major oil field in Saudi Arabia in depth (to defuse critics who may point to skipped oil fields as the missing reserves) as well as other aging giant oil fields around the world.

The other issue adding to the difficulty of the material is that much of the same technical challenges occur at every aging oil field. It only takes a few minutes of reading about a new oil field before the reader thinks "I know where this is heading." This repetition does however drive home a critical point: aging oil fields pretty much all have the same qualities and face the same problems the world over. Ghawar and the rest of Saudi Arabia's giant oil fields are not "special" – their production will fall off and Saudi Arabia does not have other large fields waiting in the wings to take their place.

Where this book does become rather interesting lies in what happens if you grant the author his basic argument about current and likely future Saudi oil productions rates. If the author is right, then it means the Saudis no longer have any real ability to increase the production rates. This may begin to explain why whenever everyone starts blaming the Saudis for high gas prices, they never increase their supply and blame refiners instead. Certainly, refiners may be the bottleneck, but Saudi Arabia may also be unable to boost production to assuage public criticism.

Twilight in the Desert is an interesting read, especially for someone interested in oil production, world resource issues, or just general engineering problems. However, it is not for the faint of heart and is certainly not a quick read.

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  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Just a brief question for the CrazyEngineer… Does this book talk about the falling quality of oil being mined?

  • http://www.crazyengineer.net/ CrazyEngineer

    Very much so. Much of the book is spent on the rising water cut (% of water in the oil being produced) of various fields and strategies being employed to counter the problem.

    It also discusses the raw quality of the crude oil (sweet vs sour, light vs heavy) of the different Saudi fields, and how many of the fields that the Saudis are pointing to as future production sources actually contain low-quality oil that will be expensive to process.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Thank you. I had the feeling that this was the case. About a week ago, a friend of mine took me to one of Jerusalem’s major book stores and pointed out a book that talked about the falling quality of oil being produced – and told me that one of the signs of the imminent arrival of the messiah would be “the oil would go bad.”

    This is what Mr. Simmons documents.