Reserves are bunk

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Henry Ford is famous for having once said, “History is more or less bunk.” He was, in fact, attacking tradition in an age of rapid technological and social change. Almost a century later we have a less ambitious observation which may not achieve the broad visceral appeal of Ford’s statement, but one which may turn out to have a good deal of importance, to wit: Oil and natural gas reserve numbers are more or less bunk.

Let me introduce you to B. J. Doyle, vice president of operations for a small Houston-based oil and natural gas exploration company. Doyle’s views on the oil and gas business have been on display for more than a year now at The Oil Drum, a site famous for its technical prowess and breadth of coverage when it comes to energy-related issues. On the site Doyle goes by the moniker Rockman, and through his frequent comments he has been trying to educate readers about the realities of the oil and gas business.

Now, he didn’t actually say that oil and natural gas reserve numbers are more or less bunk. Nevertheless, that is a fair summary of what he told me when I spoke with him recently. To understand why an insider would cast aspersions on this sacred metric of the oil and gas industry, you need to know two things. First, Doyle doesn’t have to please shareholders. The company he works for is privately held. Second, reserve numbers are meaningless unless they are indexed to a price.

Doyle began his explanation with a seemingly astounding statement: “One of the things we’re least interested in is the amount of oil and gas that we are going to produce.” How can this possibly be true? It turns out that the oil and gas industry uses a method common to nearly every modern business enterprise to evaluate its investments, namely, net present value analysis or NPV.

The concept is actually simple. If you have the choice of receiving $1,000 now or $1,000 three years from now, naturally you’d take the $1,000 today. That’s because of what is called the time value of money. If you can invest the $1,000 today, say, in a bank CD, you can at least earn some interest in the next three years. Also, if you were foolish enough to wait for your money, inflation might undermine the purchasing power of that $1,000. The inflation calculator at the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that it would take $1,072 in 2009 to equal the purchasing power of $1,000 received in 2006……………

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