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The Nation: Oil firms look East and to alternative sources of energy

Rob Routs, an executive director of Royal Dutch Shell Group, the world’s second largest oil firm, told me the other day that the era of “easy oil”, in which exploration and production costs were relatively low, was probably over, so it’s unreasonable to expect the return of low oil prices any time soon.

The world market price for crude oil is currently around US$60 (Bt2,076) per barrel, which is high enough to justify big investment in new production capacity worldwide. In the next five to seven years, additional capacity for two million barrels per day (bpd) will come on stream to help ease the upward pressure on global oil prices, which are also periodically influenced by geopolitical factors.

According to Routs, the global oil market appeared to have reached equilibrium last year after spare production capacity of about four million bpd was used up, largely due to fast-growing demand in China and India, with economic growth rates of around 10 per cent and 6 per cent a year respectively.

For oil firms like Shell, the corporate strategy is therefore “Grow East”, with more money being put into the vast region to tap the potential of high-growth markets. Besides China and India, the big oil firms are eyeing Southeast Asian markets such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, where GDP growth rates are also projected to be relatively high – over 4 per cent per year.

In terms of oil consumption for transportation, the US market is now growing just 1-2 per cent a year, while Western Europe has seen its markets mostly flat.

The up-trend in oil prices and growing concerns about global warming due to carbon dioxide emissions have led to significant investment in bio-fuels and a wide range of alternative energy sources, such as wind farms and solar cells.

Bio-fuels and hydrogen are among the potential new sources of power for transportation, with the number of cars and trucks projected to double from one billion units worldwide currently to two billion in 2050.

Second-generation bio-fuels such as cellulose ethanol, which is being tested at a Shell demonstration factory in Canada, promise to reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 90 per cent, thanks to a new technology to make ethanol from straw or corn using enzymes. The process is also more sophisticated in that the entire plant is used as raw material.

Shell has also invested in a demonstration biomass-to-liquid fuel plant in Germany, using wood chips as feedstock in a gasification process and converting the gas into a high-quality synthetic fuel. The fuel can be blended with diesel or used in its pure form, which gives off as much as 90 per cent less CO2 than conventional diesel.

Shell currently has no bio-fuel production plans for Thailand. But it has been one of the major distributors of gasohol – petrol with a 10-per-cent mix of ethanol produced locally from farm crops.

The government has not made the use of gasohol mandatory but is providing a heavy subsidy to make the price more than Bt3 lower than for conventional petrol.

The European Union will make the use of petrol with 5.75 per cent ethanol mandatory from 2010, while the US has set a production target of 12 billion gallons of gasohol by 2012.

Routs believes that the main factor in the economic success of bio-fuels such as ethanol is the harvesting cost of the crops used as raw materials.

Asked if oil prices could really shoot up to more than $100 per barrel, as predicted by some experts, any time soon, Routs, who has been in the oil industry since the early 1970s, was quick to point out that a barrel of crude was just $10 in 1998, so no one can say for sure how high prices could go.

Still, the industry last year witnessed a record price of $78 per barrel. For consumers, the safe bet is to be more energy efficient.

Nophakhun Limsamarnphun

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