World Running Out of Oil? Fact Checking Jim Rogers

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 |  Includes: DBO, OIL, USO
by: Toby Shute

Jim Rogers is any news network's dream of a guest talking head. In addition to the colorful bowties he sports, the legendary commodities investor also has a habit of shooting from the hip and providing eye-grabbing headlines.

On the subject of the Federal Reserve, for example, he's called Chairman Ben Bernanke a nut and an idiot, saying he doesn't understand economics and that he should be fired. Tell us how you really feel, Jim.

Oil going into orbit
Rogers provided another cherry of a headline for the BBC last week, saying oil "will probably go over $200 a barrel." He didn't provide a specific date (it's been said that one of the keys to successful financial forecasting is to never give a target price and a date), but the forecast was made in the context of a 10-year time frame.

While I don't deny the possibility that oil could crest $200 at some point in the future, and I would be very interested to see what this would do for my investment in Evolution Petroleum (AMEX: EPM), I do have a bone to pick with one of Rogers' underlying justifications for his price target. This is his contention that "the world is running out of known reserves of oil."

That would be big news, if true. But according to the best data we have, Jim Rogers is wrong on this point.

Whatever you think of BP (NYSE: BP) as an operator, its annual Statistical Review of World Energy is a pretty solid source of data on the world's energy resources. It's also free, which is a plus for cheapskates like me. I pulled up the latest copy, released last June, and here are the global oil reserve figures for the last two decades:

Year End

Total Oil Reserves (billions of barrels)

1989 1006.4
1999 1085.6
2009 1331.1
Click to enlarge

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, available as a PDF here.

It's hard to square these numbers, which show a 32% gain over the last 20 years, with Rogers' statement about the world running out of reserves. I find it impossible to believe that the commodities guru hasn't studied these numbers. I think it's more likely that he just doesn't believe them.

In OPEC we trust?
If that's the case, maybe he's right to be skeptical. OPEC reserves, as reported, made up 77% of global reserves in 2009. Cartel members are notorious for cheating on their quotas, so it wouldn't be surprising to learn that their reported reserves have also seen their fair share of fudging. It's probably a mistake to take those reported figures at face value.

There's also the issue of BP's inclusion of natural gas liquids like propane and butane in its calculations. These byproducts of natural gas production are valuable -- indeed, they're exactly what keep firms like Range Resources (NYSE: RRC) profitable at low gas prices -- but are not interchangeable with crude oil in any practical sense. The figures presented above are in fact total liquids reserves, not just crude oil reserves. I'd very much like to see crude broken out separately from other liquids.

Maybe Jim Rogers has his own set of "shadow stats" on oil reserves -- one that calls self-aggrandizing OPEC members' bluffs, and shows a decline in conventional crude oil reserves over the past two decades. If such a data set exists, I would love to see it. For now, my going assumption is that global reserves are on the rise, albeit with a shift toward extra-heavy crude (such as the massive deposits in Venezuela's Orinoco belt), Canadian oil sands (courtesy of new partners Suncor (NYSE: SU) and Total (NYSE: TOT), among many other players), and natural gas liquids, if we're counting those.

The Foolish bottom line
If oil does spike to $200 in the next decade, it will be the result of an acute supply shock brought on by human folly, rather than a depletion of oil reserves in the ground. In my opinion, the real upside risks for crude lie above ground.

Disclosure: No positions