A popular meme that's been going around the past few months argues that the United States is "Saudi America", with a new found abundance of fossil fuels, leading to the United States "becom[ing] the world’s largest oil producer by 2020, outstripping Saudi Arabia and Russia." The problems with this meme are laid out in a new article at Slate by Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, Professor in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, "a lead author of the IPCC Third Assessment Report and is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union."
So what's wrong with this story? [Harvard "Geopolitics of Energy" Fellow Leonardo] Maugeri's problems begin but don't end with an arithmetic blunder so dumb (he compounded a percentage decline incorrectly) it would make even Steve Levitt blush. The geeky geological stuff discussed at the AGU session is more interesting and ultimately more damning. The geological considerations expose a number of common threads of faulty reasoning that pervade the current crop of starry-eyed projections of endless oil abundance.
Current total U.S. oil production is about 6 million barrels per day. By way of comparison, Saudi production is currently running at 9.5 million barrels per day. To exceed Saudi production, new oil from tight-oil sources would have to more than offset declining production from existing wells. It is clear that even if we do manage somehow to temporarily exceed Saudi production rates, the party is not going to last very long.
Given these obvious flaws, I was curious about the study behind this meme, "Oil: The Next Revolution," by Leonardo Maugeri. The first thing I noticed is that the "Geopolitics of Energy Project", which employs Mr. Maugeri, "receives funding from BP and the Dubai Initiative" (translation: oil money). In addition, the Belfer Center is named "in honor of Robert A. Belfer, founder of Belco Oil & Gas Corporation," which is "a leading independent producer of domestic oil and gas" (translation: lots more oil money). As for Leonardo Maugeri, he worked for Eni, "ranked 6th among the largest international oil companies," for over a decade. In the report itself, Maugeri writes, "I owe a special thanks to BP for its funding of the Geopolitics of Energy Project that made my study possible."
Bottom line: Maugeri's study is awash in oil money, written by a long-time oil industry executive, and filled with factual and analytical errors leading to a faulty conclusion favoring...you guessed it, the oil industry. All of this, of course, should have raised alarm bells in the media, before they rushed to report the "Saudi America" meme as fact. Unfortunately, at this point, given research showing how difficult it is to counteract false information once it's widely disseminated, it may very well be that the false "Saudi America" meme takes a lot longer to die than it took to create.