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The Truth About World Crude Oil Supplies

( Some Home Truths For The Skeptical )

Over 1.5 TRILLION barrels of oil equivalent have been produced since Edwin Drake drilled the world's first oil well in 1859. The world will need that same amount to meet demand in the next 25 years alone. And if you're thinking that it's all for your gas tank, you're only half right . .

You see, petroleum isn't just at your local Gas n' Go station. It's found in virtually every product that you buy, own and use. Be it your shoes, your Starbucks coffee cup, or the computer on which you are reading these very words.

And I'm not just talking about transportation from the factory to the stores where goods like these are purchased and consumed. I'm talking about the petroleum used in making the product itself and, more importantly, the petroleum needed for the technological breakthroughs that made these products a possibility.

Chew on this:

• To construct the average car, approximately 27 to 42 barrels of oil, or 1,100 to 1,700 gallons, will be consumed.

• Making average desktop computer requires more than 10 times its weight in fossil fuels.

• Every calorie of food eaten in the U.S. requires roughly 10 calories of fossil fuels.

You see, we simply can't have computers, silicone, wire coverings, outlets, artificial limbs and electron microscopes without oil. Whether you want to believe it or not, oil does make the world go 'round.

Now, if you're curious and want to see how advanced a civilization can be without the use of petroleum, all you have to do is head to what gawking Long Island tourists call "Amish Country." To the locals, it's Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

These people, whose everyday lives have sadly become a tourist attraction, were living in suspended animation at the peak of their own society, before petroleum came into the mix.

No electricity, no flashlights, no plastic, no cars, no telephones, no Starbucks, no sneakers, no health clubs, no computers, no supermarkets (except to sell the wooden products they've made), no cell phones, and no Tasty Kakes. To which the modern world as a whole says: no thanks!

Today, talk of "peak oil" is still dismissed by big oil companies as pure nonsense, a rumor spread by those who want us to stay addicted to crude oil forever.

But that couldn't be further from the truth.

Far from being a rumor, this problem has even the King Kong of oil companies in a thinly disguised frenzy to find its next couple of million barrels. As you'll see later on, this problem has been piling up and ignored for more than 30 years.

Now the dominoes are all lined up and the first one is about to tip.

The Crippling Power of Oil

People who think that the oil crisis of 1973 was strictly an embargo have another think coming.

It was an omen. And the first sign of our vulnerability to the ever-dwindling supply of oil in the world.

You see, in October of 1973, Middle Eastern OPEC states stopped exports to the U.S. and other western nations. They meant to punish all the infidels that supported Israel, their foe, in the Yom Kippur War. It was then that these oil-rich desert countries realized the extent of the world-halting power they possessed.

The lesson nearly drove us mad . . .

Blocking just 5% of our imported oil supply was enough to nearly quadruple the price overnight.

It was a lesson we should never have forgotten. But it wasn't the first time-or the last-that oil, not weapons, proved to be the true "war machine."

In World Wars I and II, sabotaging the German supply lines was quite possibly the most crucial element to thwarting Germany's military.

Oil is so important to the strength of a nation's economy that it was the United States' final plan of attack to crush the Soviets.

During the late summer of 1985, the Reagan administration had a sudden stroke of genius.

Tired of the stalemate, the American government knew that the only alternative to physical destruction of the Soviet Union was to nuke their economy. And knowing that much of its economy was based on two exports- oil to Europe and military weapons and training to anti-Western countries-we found an in.

Mindful of the saying "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," we decided to make a little pact with Saudi Arabia-an offer the Saudis couldn't refuse.

You see, high oil prices from OPEC kept Soviet exports to Europe and other countries profitable. It also allowed Iraq, Iran and Syria to purchase advanced Soviet weapons and training. And those countries had been threatening Saudi Arabia for years.

The high oil price also allowed the Soviet Union to keep a military presence in South Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.

The idea was to bankrupt the Soviet Union by having Saudi Arabia drop its oil prices far below what the Soviets could afford to sell for. Once non-Soviet prices were lowered, former Soviet oil clients would cease buying from the USSR, killing the communist giant's income. It would also harm the Soviet economy because Iraq, Iran and Syria would no longer be able to sell their oil at prices high enough to be able to afford Soviet weapons and training.

It was a sucker punch to end the Cold War, a numbers-crunching accountant's wet dream . . . and it was just crazy enough to work. But that's also where the problems begin.

In short, we taught the Saudis how to cook the books and how to make their supplies appear larger than they really were to keep the oil prices low.

In December 1985, the price of oil was $26.46. And then, suddenly, on March 31, 1986, it plummeted to $10.25. The Soviets couldn't keep up, and their economy began to collapse.

Our part of the bargain for Saudi Arabia's aid in bankrupting the Soviets would become known as Operation Desert Storm.

But the book-cooking lessons learned by the Saudis would soon become widespread among OPEC nations- and even among Big Oil companies. And after decades of inflating their actual reserve numbers without finding any more significant oil resources, the future of the world's oil is falling apart faster than a canvas shoe on a rainy day.

You may be asking yourself, "What do you mean they aren't finding any more oil? There's tons of oil being discovered, isn't there?"

Well, it's like I mentioned before: Since 1859, we have consumed 1.5 trillion barrels of oil. And with our projected rate of consumption, it will take only 20 years to consume another 1.5 trillion. In the past two years alone we've consumed over 60 billion barrels of oil-and that rate's about to take off.

With an exponential increase in consumption, we are faced with a dire problem.

The number of "giant" oil field discoveries has declined dramatically since the 1960s. The large reserves and production capability of these fields are essential to increase world oil production; the combined output of smaller oil fields serves at best to offset declines in the older giants. Unfortunately, since 1990, there have been few giants discovered in the world-and very few of these has a chance of producing above one million barrels per day.

One year after the 2006 "Jack" oil field discovery, which we all know has problems of its own, the last confirmed giant find occurred off the Brazilian shore. The Tupi oil field, located in the Santos basin, is a pre-salt discovery that contains between 5-8 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

Problem solved, right?

Not exactly.

Don't be mistaken, the Tupi discovery is a sizable find, yet the fact remains that developing the offshore field is going to take a massive amount of time and effort--not to mention a few billion dollars--Brazil announced in April, 2009, that more than 240 offshore development vessels will be needed within the next five to six years.

On May 1, 2009, Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobras, commenced commercial production. But we're not talking about millions of barrels per day. Production during this initial stage is expected to be between 15,000 and 30,000 barrels per day. And even with initial oil production trickling out, remember that reaching full-scale production will take another eight or nine years! By 2017, production is finally expected to reach 1.315 million barrels per day.

Of course, by then, the world will have consumed 248 billion barrels of oil! The Tupi field may be a case of 'too little, too late'. The problem is that the world needs many more giants just to replace the consumed reserves. And we aren't coming close.

The world's largest oil field, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, was discovered in 1948 and currently produces approximately 4.5 million barrels per day. With an estimated 60-70 billion barrels in remaining reserves, it could continue producing for several decades, but nothing of its size has been discovered since. The importance of Ghawar and other older giant fields to global oil production can not be overstated.

Twenty years ago, 15 fields had the capacity to produce more than one million barrels per day. Today only three fields can produce that much:

• Ghawar (Saudi Arabia)

• Kirkuk (Iraq)

• Burgan (Kuwait)

Mexico's famous Cantarell oil field should have been on the fourth field on this list. However, the massive field is only a shell of what it was before. Mexico's state oil company, Pemex, reported that production at the Cantarell has fallen to 787,000 barrels per day. That's means that production dropped 34% over the course of 2008! Now compare that to the fact that Cantarell pumped over 2.1 million barrels per day in 2004. Cantarell production is caught in an irreversible downward spiral.

But I'm only getting started. You see, it gets worse-much worse . . .

The Last Domino Is About to Fall

There's an issue that has the world's finest geologists, physicists and investment bankers as nervous as an agoraphobic in Central Park.

These rational and conservative professionals are absolutely terrified by the fact that there soon won't be enough oil to keep the world's economies running. And the fear is spreading faster than the panic after an Orson Welles broadcast.

The reason for their terror starts with an indisputable fact . . .

Oil production follows a bell curve. But demand only increases.

As much as some may dream, oil is not renewable. It works like this:

Every year following the peak of oil production (believed to have happened already by highly respected researchers, geologists and investment bankers like Matthew Simmons), the world's output will go into steady decline. And the rate of decline is staggering . . . as much as 10% a year! And this isn't just a one-field observation. It is true for every oil-producing country and the world as a whole.

Assuming, for simplicity's sake, that the world reached its peak oil production back in 2008, that would mean that by 2025 there would be as much oil produced as there was in 1985. Fine, there was a lot of oil for the world in 1985.

Only there's a slight hitch...

How 72.4% of ALL Statistics Are Made Up on the Spot

Remember the Reagan strategy for bankrupting the Soviets? Well, it's now come back to haunt us.

During that time, something weird was happening in the Middle East. In some miraculous way, the OPEC countries were reporting that their new reserves weren't depleting. In fact, they reported them growing. It's something I like to refer to as "The great oil swindle of the 1980s."

The "official" reserve estimates are reported by government-owned oil companies and are often bloated to suit political and geopolitical interests.

Fact is, many OPEC governments see their respective country's oil reserves as more political than geological.

And they use the numbers as a way to add to the value of their "stock" in the geopolitical market.

No one's sure exactly how much more crude OPEC's oil fields still contain. But there's strong evidence to suggest the official oil reserve numbers put out by OPEC governments have been fudged on purpose.

Let me explain . . .

Back in 1989, Saudi Arabia claimed to be sitting on a total of 170 billion barrels of oil. But only a year later- without the discovery of any major new oil fields-the official reserve estimate somehow grew 51.2% to 257 billion barrels. Take a look:

Official Oil Reserves as Reported by the Saudi Arabia Governments (billion barrels)

1984
1985
1986
1987
1988
1989
1990
1991
1992
1993
1994
166
169
167
167
170
257
257
258
259
259
259

Unbelievable indeed.

One has to wonder exactly how any country increases its oil reserves by 87 billion barrels without finding any new major fields.

In fact there's no way they could. The truth of the matter is probably that this increase came from a little "creative accounting."

Saudi Arabia wasn't the only country to significantly-and mysteriously-add to their oil reserves.

Five other OPEC countries also magically added more reserves, virtually overnight. The United Arab Emirates managed to increase their reserves by nearly 200%! Take a look:

Official Government Oil Reserves Reports (in billions of barrels)

1984
1985
1986
1987
1988
1989
1990
1991
1992
1993
1994
UAE
30
30
30
31
92
92
92
92
92
92
92
Iran
51
48
48
49
93
93
93
93
93
93
90
Iraq
43
44
44
47
100
100
100
100
100
100
100
Kuwait
64
90
90
92
92
92
92
94
94
94
94
Venezuela
25
26
26
25
56
58
59
59
63
63
64

Interesting, huh?

It seems OPEC was rubbing the magic oil-lamp and passing it around like a Playboy magazine at an all-boys school. And for a while, the Middle East abacus trick worked like a charm.

But in a 1998 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) finally admitted to knowing about some of OPEC's wizards cooking their books.

Petroleum Intelligence Weekly found something spine-tingling in Kuwait's filing cabinet on January 23 of last year that would, the very next day, raise oil prices by $2.13 per barrel.

Kuwait, the world's fifth largest oil producer and an upstanding member of OPEC, had less than 50% of the oil reserves that it officially claimed. And that wasn't the bad news.

Their findings reported that Kuwait's now 49 billion barrels of oil didn't distinguish between their proven, possible and probable reserves.

In other words, they were pretty sure they had 49 billion barrels of oil instead of the 99 billion they reported to have. But they don't know how much of that 49 billion barrels can actually be extracted from the field.

Though it's long been suspected, until then no one had caught a glimpse of "the inside story." Still, OPEC claims that they can increase their production to 20 million barrels per day. But how can they increase their output when it's been found that Middle East oil nations, even Saudi Arabia, are pumping oil from known "post peak" fields? There's one answer . . .

OPEC Has Passed the Peak

According to the U.S. Department of Energy's special report, the world will face "peak oil" by 2015.

But many of the world's best informed professionals think the end is much closer than that. Some, like Matthew Simmons, think that it has already passed as far back as 25 years ago. And their reasoning is disconcertingly solid.

"It's no secret anymore that for every nine barrels of oil we consume, we are only discovering one."

-The BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Over in the Middle East the oil fields are already using water-flooding, a version of advanced oil recovery, to get out what oil they have left. That is a major sign that they have passed their peak of easily extractable oil.

This is especially true in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have over 300 recognized oil reservoirs. But 90% of the country's oil production comes from only five fields discovered between 1940 and 1965. They are:

• Abqaiq Field (official reserve estimate: 12 billon barrels)

• Safaniya-Khafji Field (official reserve estimate: 30 billon barrels)

• Berri Field (official reserve estimate: 12 billon barrels)

• Manifa Field (official reserve estimate: 11 billon barrels)

• And the granddaddy of them all: Ghawar Field (official reserve estimate: 70 billon barrels)

Ghawar is so large that its production accounts for about 60% of all Saudi Arabian oil. No wonder that, among the many prolific oil fields in the Middle East, the giant Ghawar field stands out as the region's crown jewel.

The massive field was discovered in 1948. Production at Ghawar began two years later and reached a peak of 5.7 million barrels per day in 1981. This is the highest sustained oil production rate ever achieved by any single oil field in history.

During the mid and late 1980s, Ghawar's production rate fell as it was restricted for market reasons. But by 1996, with the development of two other areas in the southern part of the field, production went back up above five million per day.

Since its discovery, Ghawar has produced more than 60 billion barrels of the black goopy stuff.

And there's still more to be found deep under the earth. But no one is sure exactly how much crude the Ghawar oil field still contains. Like I mentioned before, there's a lot of evidence that suggests the official oil reserve numbers put out by the Saudi Arabian government have been fudged on purpose. So it's quite likely that there's not as much oil at Ghawar as the Saudis say. In fact, there's probably a lot less. And for the oil-starved economies of the world, that's seriously bad news.

But it gets worse . . .

Water, Water Everywhere

In Saudi Arabia, seawater is injected into oil fields to increase pressure and stimulate production.

Now, normally only 30% of the oil in a reservoir can be extracted. But water injection increases that percentage-known as the recovery factor-and maintains the production rate of a reservoir over a longer period of time.

Over time, however, the volume of water that is lifted along with the oil increases, decreasing the volume of oil proportionately until, eventually, what flows out of the reservoir is almost pure water and the field is no longer worth operating.

Now here's the bad news . . .

Saudi Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia and Ghawar's operator, is currently injecting a staggering 7 million barrels of sea water per day back into the Ghawar field in order to prop up pressure.

Experts have claimed that Ghawar was producing about 55% water, that is, more than half the fluid brought up the well!

For now Ghawar is still far too productive to abandon. But because of increasing problems with

managing the water, it is becoming very costly to maintain. One day in the very foreseeable future it will become uneconomical to extract Ghawar's oil and the field will be abandoned.

Only 820 Days of Ghawar Oil Left

The "official" reserve estimate at Ghawar is about 70 billion barrels-which is certainly no drop in the bucket when it comes to an oil field's size.

Yet, given the possible numbers fudging that's been going on, who's to say how much oil is really still there?

But the heck with it. Let's give the Saudis the benefit of the doubt, and let's assume that there really are 70 billion barrels of crude in the ground at Ghawar. Shoot . . . let's even assume they'll be able to get every last drop of crude out of the ground. So we have 70 billion barrels of oil, right?

So what!

According to the Energy Information Administration, the world consumes about 85.5 million barrels of crude per day.

That hypothetical 70 billion barrels at Ghawar would only last the world about 820 days!

There's no question where energy is headed in the future. Granted, it's not as easy as blindly throwing a dart against a wall. But like everyone else in today's market, you need to start somewhere.

You read that right-the largest oil field in the world, under the best of circumstances, holds only enough oil to last the world just over two years!

And that figure hasn't even taken into account the ever increasing worldwide demand.

Granted, Ghawar isn't the only oil-producing field around. Still, it is the undisputed heavyweight champ when it comes to oil fields. And like they say, if the head dies, the body will soon follow.

Prognosis: Terminal

Today, the giant field produces approximately five million barrels per day-about 6% of the world's total oil production. This field is one of only three able to produce over a million barrels per day. (Cantarell in Mexico has been knocked off that list after production fell by 34% in 2008. Burgan in Kuwait produces 1.7 million barrels per day and Da Qing in China produces one million barrels per day.)

Ghawar is, therefore, extremely important to the world's economy and well being. And unfortunately for the world, few know the actual state of Ghawar.

We do know that Ghawar's production rate is in decline. In April 2006, a Saudi Aramco spokesman admitted that its mature fields are now declining at a rate of 8% per year, implying that Ghawar may have peaked.

You read that right . . . it's likely that Ghawar has peaked!

And if Ghawar has peaked, Saudi Arabia has peaked. And if Saudi Arabia has peaked, the world has peaked!

In fact, three of the four fields that I mentioned a moment ago are in confirmed decline!

This means several hundred thousand barrels of oil per day will have to be added every year just to make up for the diminished output. And you and I both know that's not likely to happen.

Saudi Aramco has estimated that total production capacity from all its fields will soon reach 12 million barrels per day, once a program at the Khurais oil field is completed.

Saudi Arabia has been the world's leading oil exporter for over three decades. Today, the country pumps just under 8 million barrels a day-almost one tenth of the world's needs. If Saudi production fell short, the consequences would be significant.

And Ghawar's decline is the first sign of this happening.

While the world has other large producers like Russia and Iraq, these countries do not have the massive reserves or excess oil capacity for export like those found in Saudi Arabia. Therefore they will not be able to make up for short supply. And the new oil fields found elsewhere around the globe are tiny when compared to Ghawar and therefore will not be able to deliver enough oil to make up the difference. As a result, supplies will tighten and oil prices will increase further. The global economy will soon begin to feel the squeeze. Previous spikes in oil prices have helped cause recessions. But this time I'm afraid that the effects are going to be much worse.

We'll soon find that with every barrel they pump in the Middle East, the cost of extracting additional barrels accelerates.

And since Kuwait's "late night shredding sessions" were discovered, analysts have found that the disease of inflated oil reserves has spread even to the Big Oil companies.

The King Kong of oil, ExxonMobil, while claiming that the world has plenty of oil, was caught red-handed on February 7, 2006. According to SEC filings, the oil giant reported that it was replacing 112% of the oil produced and sold.

In reality, Exxon replaced only 83% of the oil it sold in 2006. That's a 17% drop in production!

Keeping in mind that a drop in our oil supply of as little as 5% in 1973 was able to increase the price of oil by as much as 400%. Now imagine what will happen after we run out of our easy oil. Aside from skyrocketing prices, peak oil has bigger implications, especially to Americans, than you may first realize.

The Destruction of the Dollar

At the end of WWI, the strength of our currency shifted from the "gold standard" over to, what is now called, the petro-dollar.

For decades, OPEC's currency for all oil exported was the good old greenback.

And today, 50% of the strength of the United States currency is dependent of cheap, plentiful oil.

But what would happen if OPEC would successfully shift their currency from the U.S. dollar to the Euro, as Iraq and Iran have tried to do? The answer is simple but drastic. The value of our dollar would plummet by roughly 50%, and we would once again be in an economic state far worse than the Great Depression.

The terrifying part is, without our military presence in the Middle East, it would happen.

But with all of the light shining on the actual amount of oil the Middle East has and no more Giant oil fields being discovered, we are finding a new, safe place for America's energy and independence from terrorist suppliers.

Our Only Alternative is Several Alternatives

President Bush's 2006 State of the Union Address was dead on . . .

"We are addicted to oil."

And if we're going to be honest with ourselves, not much has changed today.

The value and power that oil is never to be underestimated. While it is harmful to our environment, there is simply no more cost-efficient method for energy on such a massive scale.

But while that resource of easy to attain oil is depleting, we have to stop finger-pointing and look at what options we have from here. And the truth is that our solution is to have many solutions so that we can continue our way of life.

The reason for needing many different energy sources is that with what we have today, switching to only one doesn't stand the chance of hell freezing over. But when solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, hydroelectric, ethanol and oil come together, we have a fighting chance of sustaining our way of life.

And that is something that wars are fought for.

You might be thinking, "That's all great. But where do we get this oil from, if we are running out?"

Our Friendly Northern Neighbors

If you haven't been convinced of the importance that oil plays in our economy and the world by now, I'm afraid there's no hope for you.

While we are striving to free ourselves from our energy dependence with the Middle East, it would be down right foolish to think that a society can continue entirely without oil. Sweden, who made the declaration of being completely petroleum-free by 2030, I wish your pipe-dream the very best of luck.

Those countries who think that they have a fighting chance of continuing without oil at all are as foolish as a Jell-O eating vegetarian (ground animal bones are used to make gelatin). They'll be living like the Amish, in the 17th century, with no computers, no cars and no technology at all. Those countries with some reasoning skills are fighting right now to secure what's left of the necessary resource.

That's when the oil industry hit a major road bump.

Once oil prices collapsed from an eye-popping $147 per barrel record, however, many oil companies were forced to drastically cut back on their projects. And one of the areas hit hardest by crashing crude prices were the Canadian oil sands. You see, the U.S. was expecting production from the oil sands to reach 3.9 million barrels a day in 2015.

Sadly, that's no more than a pipe-dream right now. But even though we can't count on the oil sands to save us from Saudi oil, the U.S. has found a new best friend...the Bakken formation.

The actual amount of oil in the ground makes the Bakken (which stretches across North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Manitoba and Southeastern Saskatchewan) one the most promising discoveries in decades. In April, 2008, the USGS reported that up 4.3 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil in the Bakken formation. Now compare that number to their previous estimate (released in 1995) which stated only 151 million barrels were recoverable.

In other word, there's 25 times more oil in the Bakken than previously thought.

I'm not going to sugarcoat things for you. Since the price of oil plummeted to nearly $30 per barrel at the end of 2008, practically every oil company took a hit. By 2009, most were trading at 52-week lows. However, now that oil prices have found a new floor of $50 per barrel, these companies are already making impressive gains.

Most of the companies involved are, well . . . to call them undervalued would be an understatement. Many of them have been unfairly beaten down during this recession. And investors are catching on.

To those people who want to raise the argument against the oil sands that we're leaving over half of the oil from our "easy oil" fields still in the ground, allow me to explain . . .

Once you get to the point where you burn more oil to run the pumps than a well is producing, you cut your losses and move on. That is why we're leaving so much oil in the ground. Hence the name "peak" or "easy" oil. And we are finding that it is happening all over the world. If it hasn't happened yet . . . it will, very soon.

And this is where we are going to be getting our oil for decades to come. Canada is easily our largest source of oil, providing the U.S. with 20% of its daily imports. That means approximately 2.5 million barrels of crude is shipped every single day from our neighbors up north.

And trust me, dear reader, they're going to play an even more important role over the next few years. With the loss of Cantarell, Mexican imports are expected to completely dry up with the next five to ten years. Furthermore the demand for oil is still going to be strong as ever as we move out of this recession and preserve the American way of life.

President Bush's 2006 State of the Union Address was dead-on. But he neglected to mention something when he admitted that the world, and the U.S. in particular, is addicted to oil. What he forgot to mention was that the world economy and the strength of the dollar are directly related to oil supplies and cost.

Energy and Capital, Copyright © 2012, Angel Publishing LLC. All rights reserved.

 

 

The world press, especially the Western press and specifically the financial press, has jumped all over the headlines of the discovery of a huge oil field in Brazil's continental shelf.

It's a concession within a series of blocks or zones earmarked for exploration, over which very little technical data has been offered and which apparently involve the Brazilian company Petrobrás, the Spanish company Repsol-YPF and the British concern, British Gas. The press in each country involved (an involvement created when the head offices of these enormous multinational firms are in a certain country and have close links with political power in their country of residence) has exulted in the discoveries, as something truly impressive. So much so, that stock markets have experienced significant fluctuations.

Naturally, if verified, it would be the greatest discovery in several decades and would skew, to a certain extent, the observed tendency toward a steady but inexorable decline in the volume of the world's discovered petroleum, while worldwide consumption continues its relentless increase.

Peak Oil and its Impact

This trend was emphasized a decade ago by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere, two important oil geologists, who published a well-known article titled "The End of Cheap Oil," in Scientific American, which touched on the problem of the arrival at the maximum limits of production of a substance as vital as petroleum, and what it would mean for humanity, given that logically and obviously, oil's geological and physical limitations are finite; its underground formation taking tens of millions of years under geologic pressure and temperature, but its exhaustion by man taking place in barely two hundred years, with the proverbial voracity of an industrial capitalist society in perpetual growth.

A basic rule of thumb, for which no engineering or serious economic knowledge is needed, is that undiscovered petroleum can't be consumed. It's known that plenty of oil producing countries have gone through gradual growth in their discoveries of petroleum deposits, until they've reached their peak. As a consequence of not finding any more oilfields, or of finding smaller ones and producing (actually, extracting) more than what is discovered, the peak of production comes some 30 or 40 years afterwards.

We know that this has happened in the United States and in the North Sea, in Kuwait, in Indonesia (a curious case, continuing to be a member of OPEC through incomprehensible inertia despite the fact that it is already a net oil importer) and dozens of other countries.

We're already seeing that the world as a whole, reached the peak of its discoveries in the 1960's. Yet we haven't wanted to draw the conclusions from this relevant fact.

Scientists and experts who do want to draw those conclusions, created the Assocation for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO, www.peakoil.net), which went on to extend its studies to the analysis of the arrival of peak natural gas production worldwide, coming a few years or decades after that of oil.

The data put forth at the time has been updated as the industry has released its own jealously guarded data, but without any significant variation in the scientists' predictions that we are at or near oil's peak (between now and 2010) and the peak for natural gas will come a decade or two later, in accordance with the quantities that are going to replace petroleum where functionally possible.

In Spain, ASPO is represented by the Association for the Study of Energy Resources (Asociación para el Estudio de los Recursos Energéticos - AEREN), which publishes studies and reports at its website: www.crisisenergetica.org. ASPO already counts on resources from groups in a variety of countries, all of them nonprofit, including those of such importance as the United States, China, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, South Aftica, Egypt, Japan, Switzerland, Hungary, Finland, Australia and Holland.

This group of scientists and geologists has as its unique nexus, its concern for humanity as this historic moment comes about. For this societal model, the moment when the oil and gas runs out is not as important as the one that comes much earlier; the moment when geology and physical reality combine to extract resources at the maximum level, followed by an inexorable decline in production which must clash with economic growth (and therefore the energy consumption demanded by an industrial capitalist society). This type of growth is imagined to be automatic and infinite, without alternative energies in sight to fill the growing abyss created by a forseeable drop in production.

More than 55 of the world's oil producing countries have already passed this moment respectively, and can be found with declining production or in clear decline. This decline is in the approximate form of a bell curve, with slight variations due to certain relevant political or economic events that may affect its shape; in any case, the end of stable or flat production never comes as a vertical drop. But the peak moment is very delicate and important for humanity. Therefore, it's also known with some accuracy, how fast production can fall, through the dwindling deposits of countries already in decline: between 4 and 12% less for every passing year, depending on the field and above all, the more or less rational or irrational form of exploitation it has experienced.

M. King Hubbert was the first geologist to detect, in his own country, that oilfield production followed a bell curve. Observing the tendency of individual wells and oilfields in various places throughout the U.S., he deduced as early as the 1950's that the United States, which was then the world's largest producer, consumer and exporter, would reach its production peak around 1970.

Although Hubbert was the object of much ridicule and criticism during the same period when films such as "Giant," about an apparently unlimited and abundant fuel supply, were being shown in theaters, a few years after 1970, both the accuracy of his prediction and the curve as a predictive model for the behavior and limitations of a limited and finite production, were verified. Neither the entire technological nor financial power of the United States (paper currency cannot produce physical assets where none exist) have been able to avoid the fact that today the United States finds itself in the unfortunate position of having to import around 70% of the oil it consumes; a percentage that increases visibly every year.

After Hubbert, other techniques such as "linearization" of the Hubbert curves or so called "skimmed curves" have been developed, and geologists and economists still argue over their degree of precision and predictive value, while oil prices continue to rise and the resource demands increasing effort to extract.

The imminent arrival of peak oil production will be the first historical moment in which fuel production diminishes, globally and without remission. There will be no corner of the world left to explore and provide hope of further production, or in any case, to bridge the growing gap between growing demand and shrinking supply.

For this reason, the discovery of a "gigafield," a gigantic oilfield in Brazil, has brought recriminating, or at least condescending glances at the ASPO scientists, in the sense that much more remains to be discovered and that their predictions, categorized by many as "catastrophic," were wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. A "gigafield," according to the definition of those who coined the term, is a field that has between 500 million and a billion barrels of oil, from which a flow of at least 1 million barrels a day can be extracted.

ASPO has always asserted that the world's oil resource supply has not been completely discovered. In general terms and with the profound knowledge that has come from more than 150 years of scientific exploratory activity, much has been learned. Exploratory technology has improved considerably, and geologists and geophysicists know with a fair amount of accuracy which areas may have "possibilities" (prospects) where money can be directed at exploration, although there may be rare exceptions that simply confirm the rule. ASPO says that it believes that a figure of around 10% of all petroleum discovered so far and classified as proven reserves, remains to be discovered.

Given that the proven reserves are around 2 billion barrels, of which 1 billion has already been extracted, if the latest discovery in Brazil proves to be confirmed, we would be talking about approximately 6% of what remains to be discovered; although calculating an exact number is an exercise in futility. What matters are the orders of magnitude of the known major oil deposits around the world; an order of magnitude impossible to escape.

Developments of recent decades toward unconventional oil provide proof. According to some press releases, they concern the world's third largest oil reserve and could reach 33 billion barrels.

Since the 1980's, the world has discovered every year less oil than it has consumed, with the difference having been enlarged and reaching such an outrageous level in recent years that almost no-one wants to think about it. In recent years, despite a considerable increase in exploratory activity and the application of the most up-to-date quadra-dimensional seismic technology, annual discoveries amounted to between 4 and 6 times less than what was being consumed at the same time from known and proven reserves. That is, in the words of the geologist Mariano Marzo, we are pawning our grandmother's jewels in order to throw the proceeds away.

To put the figures in their proper context, something that the financial press tends to blur at its convenience, the maximum supposed quantity of the discovery in Block BM-S-9, known as Carioca, 2,000 meters under the Atlantic Ocean, would represent one year's worldwide consumption of petroleum, well above the 30 billion barrels. This is more or less the result when the 85 million barrels produced as a daily average are multiplied over 365 days.

Also, to clarify the importance of the oil discoveries, certain characteristics must be considered that are not always emphasized by the press, but are essential to achieving an accurate valuation.

1. Conventional and Unconventional Oil

So-called "conventional" oil is that which is generally found underground or very close to a coastline at a depth of less than 500 meters under the water's surface, in accessible zones and reasonable depths and with certain qualities that can later be processed with a reasonable degree of certainty in refineries and existing installations. Since 2006, this oil, which represents around 66 million barrels of daily production, has reached its peak and is at a plateau with a clear downward trend. The decline is compensated for only with great difficulty by what geologists call "unconventional" oil; that which has begun to be drilled in less accessible and more costly places in order to satisfy a demand that conventional oil cannot cover.

Thus, in 2007, "unconventional" oil accounted for more than 22% of worldwide petroleum production: 19 of the 85 million barrels produced daily come from the following:

• 4.5% of some 3.9 million barrels daily from heavy or extra-heavy crude (Canada's tar sands, oil shale such as that of Venezuela and others).• 7.6% of some 6.5 million barrels daily are from deep water. Deep water means a depth of more than 500 meters in seas or oceans which demand sometimes astounding technological force. This is the case of the platforms in the Gulf of Mexico or the gulf of Guinea and that are now claimed off the coast of Brazil.

• 1%, or 900,000 barrels daily are extracted from polar regions. It is considered "polar" oil if it must be extracted above the Arctic Circle, given the extreme difficulties of the attempt.

• 9% or some 7.7 million barrels daily are the result of liquefication of certain combustible gases in order to give them a more versatile use. This is very important, because it shows the other great weakness of conventional oil and the worldwide demand that drives the liquefied gas refineries with increasing force, through costly and complex processes so that the resulting liquids can be diverted to a society that demands more and more fuel of all kinds, but of liquid more than any other, which accounts for more than 90% of transportation worldwide.

This is a clear indication of the growing difficulties the oil sector has in finding fields in more accessible areas and how geologic limits have forced the industry to go to increasingly difficult and inaccessible places.

2. Calculus of Probabilities

In today's world of petroleum production and reserves there are several important additional factors to consider. In the first place, the product's valuation. The industry describes reserves as P4, P50 or P95, according to the theoretical probability, in percentages, of finding supposed oil. For example, the extremely optimistic U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), estimates that proven reserves could be as much as 3.8 trillion barrels, but qualifies that by saying that there is only a 5% probability of this. There is a 50% probability of 3 trillion barrels, and a 95% probability of 2.2 trillion barrels (very close to the two trillion calculated by most sources).

Probabilities are also described as P, PP or 2P, and PPP or 3P, which means respectively, Proven, Proven + Probable, and Proven + Probable + Possible, in decreasing categories of probability assigned to exploration or development.

Another way of classifying petroleum is the following: "Oil Initially in Place" (OIIP). Still another is the recovery factor which will give an idea of the extractable resources, or Ultimately Recoverable Resource (URR) which are data pertaining to geologic values that help clarify the state and viability of recovery of underground resources. Suffice it to say that for reserves in situ, for physical reasons (porosity, type of rock, pressure, etc.) the recovery percentages for many wells do not surpass 35 or 40% of the underground total.

In the past, geologists and oil businesses tended to be very conservative when it came to the valuation of their discoveries and generally estimated less than they thought they could extract, once the field's dimensions and structure had been well measured. This was done by carrying out the exploration in the zone whose geological formation seemed promising, and once something had been discovered in one of the drilled areas (a "dry hole" if nothing was discovered), quality, density, depth, type of rock, width of the field and various other data were measured. Then they went on to drill the surrounding area, in order to establish the field's perimeter. If the field was of a certain size, many exploratory holes were drilled before delimiting the field, in order to see if it was fractured, contiguous or not, and other questions. Finally it was catalogued as a "proven reserve," leaving possible interconnecting or nearby spaces that had not been drilled as "probable."

The nature of "unconventional" oil, such as that in Brazil, or the polar regions, is that it is breaking with these best practices of delimitation, declaring with certainty and with the greatest possible precision a figure that is merely possible, due to the stratospheric economic and energy costs of marine or polar exploration platforms. There is also the factor of industry pressure to make increasing appearances before the financial world in order to continue to have the necessary credibility to acquire funds.

The world suffers today, paradoxically, more than in the past, from confident publications about the certainty of prospecting, discoveries, level of exhaustion in existing reserves and so on, while the explorations are being handled exclusively by the Seven Sisters - the largest capitalist oil businesses whose technological supremacy is disputed by practically no-one. What a time to be longing for a measure of scientific and accounting seriousness from the big multinational oil companies!

3. Second Helpings were Never Very Good

It should be noted that the type of petroleum extracted brings with it various difficulties when the time comes to turn it into liquid fuel for the market. The quality of the resource is always essential.

In a recent debate between the economist Michael Lynch and the representatives of ASPO USA, the argument supporting their analysis was that generally, given that man has a certain intelligence, the richest fields tend to be exploited first; in other words, the largest, the least buried, with the most internal pressure (this saves quite a bit on pumps and pressure injections) and the least contaminants, like sulfur, which is measured in varying degrees of acidity or density (light or heavy crude) in grades assigned by the American Petroleum Institute (API - which sets the measurement standards) that refer to its density in comparison to the density of water.

These are important factors, because they demand more work and expense in refineries that may not be prepared to handle them. It demands increasing quantities of energy to result in the same quantity of combustible fuel at the gas station, at the service of society, when dealing with fields of poorer quality which are what remain.

It should also be remembered, although there are economists who have denied the basic principle that peak oil production occurs more or less toward the middle of the resource's possible extraction; worldwide, as we've already seen, the second half of the petroleum era will take place increasingly through oilfields further away, deeper and smaller, demanding the same maneuvers of prospecting machinery to obtain less fossil fuel. That is, by definition the oil is less accessible, of worse quality, and demands a greater economic expenditure and above all, energy, leaving less net energy delivered to society in the end, for the same effort.

If on the one hand the technological advances are admittedly impressive, on the other they indicate the fragility that comes with them. Let's look at some examples.

Improved Techniques

In the large fields already in existence (called "mature," meaning they are old and well exploited) various techniques are being used to try to extract the maximum possible at the greatest possible rate of extraction, because the market has a fierce demand that is beginning to exceed availability, as is openly acknowledged; for example in the El País daily newspaper on April 13, which reads:

The demand for crude oil is expected to grow to an average of 87.5 million barrels a day, according to the IEA (International Energy Agency) which at the present time does not believe it necessary to go to strategic reserves in order to reduce the price. The oil producers believe that in the present situation it's impossible to imagine that the oil supply would reach 95 million [barrels], because of the simple fact that there are not sufficient reserves or production capacity. The result is that demand may exceed supply capacity sooner rather than later.

In these conditions, the large producers resort to very sophisticated and expensive (always speaking in energy rather than economic terms) techniques, with mixed results. Among them, the "Enhanced Oil Recovery" type; improvements in the recovery of oil it was said would end up remaining underground because it costs more money and energy to extract than it returns.

Horizontal drilling to arrive at layers that previously couldn't be reached is one of these. Another is the injection of gas or water, usually saltwater, in the wells in order to augment decreasing pressure that results from the extraction of a resource from a space. Apart from the extra cost assumed by these complex techniques, in some cases they are proving that in the long run, they provide bread for today at the expense of tomorrow's hunger. The multimillionaire Texan Matthew Simmons, a specialist in oilfield investing and president of Simmons International, suggests that the "water cut" or level of water injected into some of Saudi Arabia's important oilfields, while initially allowing an increased recovery rate, once it reaches a certain level in the oilfield, can contaminate (and indeed has contaminated) the drilled holes and lead to a sudden fall in production.

Oil Mining Instead of Drilling

The extraction of heavy oil in Canada or Venezuela is demanding enormous quantities of water and natural gas and even hydrogen, which comes from treating natural gas with steam in order to perform the necessary "lightening" process to extract fuel (obtaining a molecular structure shorter than that of heavy crude) in a form ready for the commercial market, so as not to strand around a billion of the world's internal combustion engines, designed to work with refined fuel.

This, without even mentioning the environmental problems posed by these gigantic transfers of material and the resulting muddy water, which can be seen from space by satellites. The limits of such production are set by the difficulty of extracting a sufficient quantity at the necessary speed, by the availability of water and natural gas and the low net return.

According to Professor Charles A.S. Hall, at the University of Syracuse in the state of New York, and one of the worldwide authorities on the study of net energy (that which is obtained after subtracting the cost of energy to obtain it), conventional U.S. oil in the 1930's had an energy rate of return of 100 to 1 (in other words, an expenditure equivalent to one barrel of oil for every hundred barrels of oil put at society's disposal). Today, U.S. oil has fallen to a rate of one barrel's energy equivalent for every 8 to 20 barrels delivered from an oilfield. Heavy oil such as that in Canada remains below that considered a "minimal level to sustain civilization," that according to him, is a rate of five to one, for all the talk of hundreds of billions of "potential" barrels in reserves made up of tar sands or oil shale.

A mordant comment is attributed to Sheik Yamani, Saudi Arabia's oilfield manager, criticizing those who would have us worry about the gradual exhaustion of fossil fuels, something the sheik refuses to acknowledge even peripherally, that "the Stone Age didn't end because the rocks ran out." He has a point. The age of oil will come to an end and huge quantities of oil will remain underground, without a doubt. But printed banknotes and technologies will not be enough to extract them, because the first don't pump and the second consume more energy (which was the whole point to begin with) the more advanced and complex they are, and it has been so on a global scale ever since we've had industry at our disposal.

This is a very important aspect, essential to emphasize, because there are many people trained in classical economics, amongst whom can sometimes be found engineers, for whom it is very difficult if not actually impossible to understand that if the extraction of a unit of energy resource costs more than this unit's value to extract, the resource may exist, but it will remain underground through the simple laws of geology and physics, which have nothing to do with money spent to investigate or extract it. That's how you get to oil at $20,000 a barrel; if it costs more than a barrel of energy to extract a barrel, the barrel will not be extracted. Although this would seem self-evident, it appears not to have entered the minds of many big thinkers.

Very Deep Water

In the case of deep water, it's impressive to see the technology that's been acquired by Petrobrás, a company that knows how to drill to depths that hardly any other business has managed.

Petrobrás said at the time that its Tupi oilfield, near to the newly discovered Carioca had some 6 billion barrels. But aside from doubts over the number of delimiting holes drilled which would grant the figure some credibility, the oilfield is found under more than two thousand meters of ocean water, another two thousand meters of salt layer and yet another two thousand of rock. In other words the drilling tubes have to extend more than six kilometers through very different media in order to arrive where the oil is.

For example, the ocean's depth makes it impossible to anchor a platform to the ocean floor, and even that would be subject to winds and currents. This demands a permanent expenditure of energy to maintain the platform with many and very powerful motors, which consume highly refined energy, not the crude oil that is being extracted through exactly the same vertical sounding at all times, in order to avoid breaking the extremely long tube. This is done with a lot of energy and sophisticated GPS controls. When there are storms, the rig has to be disconnected and put on standby, in order to avoid breakages, cutting production for a world that has no desire to stop its consumption for meteorological reasons.

Moreover, the enormous salt layer that must be traversed is in a viscous state at such depths, very corrosive against the material employed (not the normal deep-sea drilling tubes, because these depths require very special and costly tubes with enormous capacities of resistance) with the result that it is very difficult to penetrate. Finally, the fluid obtained 6,000 meters below has to be pumped to the surface. This is equivalent to 20 Eiffel Towers stacked one on top of the other [translator's note: or 13 and a half Empire State Buildings]. To obtain a flow of half a million barrels a day from this field, which would barely manage to cover a tenth of the annual fall in production after peak oil, would require many drilled holes at a depth of 6 kilometers, given the viscosity of the crude and the depth from which it must be pumped to arrive at the surface.

The recently announced Carioca field appears to be of a similar geologic structure, although the rambling and disjointed news that trickles out is more financially than geophysically related, and doesn't allow a clear glimpse of the underlying geography. As if that were not enough, Petrobrás' own news agency indicated on April 16, 2008 that:

Following the normal exploration schedule, on March 22, 2008, the company began to explore a second well, 1-BRSA-594-SPS (1-SPS-55) which is located in the smaller area of the block, but it has yet to reach the pre-salt layer. The ongoing exploratory activities include drilling new wells, long-duration formation tests and new geological studies to prove the range of the discovery.

4. All that Glitters is not Black Gold

Ultimately, it seems that the announcement of this new discovery of 33 billion barrels at Carioca, some two hundred plus kilometers from the coastline off Rio and Sao Paulo, conforms less to a proven geologic reality than to the new game of "paper barrels" that feeds the stock market rather than the energy market; it's apparently necessary to play in both.

Harold Lima, the Brazilian manager issuing the statements that have stirred the speculative dust in stock markets worldwide and the values of the companies involved in the explorations, has disassociated himself from the statements' evident stock implications.

However, I believe it's useful to reflect on the societal model that triggers such voracious and immediate speculative action in the world's stock markets (tens of billions in euros on a day of frantic movement) on the basis of barely tested information. This speaks volumes, none of it good, about the general state of the social system in which we are immersed, with sharks willing to eat everything up to and including the sucker fish that are meant to clean them, at the least opportunity.

This fever over "paper barrels" happened before in the middle of the 1980's when Kuwait in particular, taking advantage of OPEC's rule for allocating quotas which depended on declared reserves, presented itself at one of the organization's meetings (at that time the war between Iraq and Iran was in its heyday) and said that it suddenly had twice the reserves it had reported up until then. The rest of the OPEC membership, instead of throwing up a fuss and demanding proof of geologically tested explorations, swallowed the tale and Kuwait walked out of the meeting with the largest quota on the market.

But the joy was short-lived. In a couple of years, the rest of the OPEC countries were appearing at successive meetings with increasing declarations about their own oil reserves, of the same size and bulk percentage as that of the Kuwaitis, and equally doubtful exploratory justification. The result was that the OPEC production quotas returned to where they began, but with all the members in a brotherhood of mutual deception that no-one dared to put in question.

These overstatements were calculated by Colin Campbell to be not less than some 200-250 billion "paper barrels," that today are officially counted as part of the almost trillion barrels of reserves remaining on the planet. Almost a quarter.

To make matters worse, the figures countries give each year on their oil reserves appear untouchable, unchangeable, despite the fact that they continue to be extracted continuously according to well known rhythms. Hardly any are declaring less reserves each year. It's a kind of miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes because such "stability" does not correspond with the discoveries resulting from serious exploration. The secrecy is tremendous. And there's a formal excuse and a real reason for this departure from reality.

The formal excuse is that the oilfields are experiencing the famous "reserve growth," that is, growth in the proven reserves that were initially declared. Given the secrecy of the majority of the sources, it's impossible to verify if this is true or false.

It may be that some cases were certainly founded on the conservative estimates of the good old professional geologists of yore, who were not under the kinds of political and economic pressure from their supervisors that their counterparts face today, and when it came time to declare the results of their work, always estimated the discoveries toward the low end.

It also could happen that some technological improvements have actually increased the percentage that was initially believed possible to extract. But the fact that the reserve figures for each country, given by the International Energy Agency (IEA) or for example, British Petroleum's annual estimates, continue to remain constant (neither cold nor hot, but always at zero, as the joke goes) in many cases, is very suspect and likely to be an accounting based more on financial engineering and accounting artifice, than on geophysical reality.

The formal excuse mentioned, is that oil producing countries enjoy greater financial credibility. Quotas have ceased to be a problem for quite some time; now each country may produce more petroleum, if it cares to. The question is whether you can. The only country that seemed to be able to put additional barrels on the market quickly and in a sustained manner, if necessary, was Saudi Arabia, and now even this great totem is in question. Therefore, if the credibility that comes from a patrimony of mortgageable oil deposits ("collateral" in financial terms) can be used to access so much more credit in the international financial system, the declaration of more reserves than one has, is useful to convince worldwide monetary authorities that there's sufficient oil underground to back it, which judging from the visible evidence is not all that hard to do. A whole world of "subprime" energy mortgages dangles over the oil producing and exporting countries in these turbulent times.

The difference between oil and bricks is obvious, yet it appears that the economy of use is not capable of assimilating it: energy is not simply a consumer good, which is how it's treated in the markets; energy is the imperative prerequisite that makes all other goods possible.

If there is a shortage of plastic, perhaps its price will rise and metals or cereals will not be affected. But if there is an oil shortage and furthermore, this occurs for the first time in the history of the new world (non plus ultra!*), every other good is necessarily affected, because oil is the lifeblood of our modern society. It accounts for 95% of transportation worldwide. It's 6/7 of the food consumed in Europe and 9/10 of that consumed in the United States (yes, we eat oil!) and the reason that food prices are shooting up so dramatically. Money can be printed. Barrels, no.

The Carioca reserve, if confirmed, would add another year of oil to the world's supply. It would mean only a few months delay in the arrival of peak oil (all liquids, not just the conventional kind), or if we have already reached that point, it would be a minor mitigating factor in the fall of worldwide production once the field's petroleum reaches the surface, no sooner than five years from now, and in no case without having already spent the equivalent of tens of millions of barrels of oil in energy which will have to be discounted against the future supply. Too slow to catch up with the speed with which existing energy resources are being exhausted.

Despite the fact that it is the largest oilfield discovery announced in the past 30 years and has engendered such fierce speculation, oil continues to dance with wolves at levels of $100-110 a barrel, accompanied by explanations from the economic media that would make you laugh if they didn't also make you weep: In February of 2002 a barrel was at $20. And now, as I write, it's approaching $110, more than five times as much. But in the world of flatland economics, there's always an explanation to justify any kind of upward jump as something circumstantial (an explosion in a pipeline, a strike in some sector, off-the-cuff declarations from an oil-producing country's leader, a hurricane near the ocean platforms, a guerrilla attack on some facilities, and so on). Curiously, there are never any explanations for why the price remains at a high level after the temporary event has passed, nor for why the trend over the last five years has been always upward, to the point of quadrupling over that period of time. There's no choice but to accept that perhaps it is something structural, not cyclical, in other words, that we are touching the untouchable limits of the physical world. There's no choice but to acknowledge that the system is finished. And we'd rather die than admit it.

The comedian Groucho Marx wanted the epitaph on his gravestone to read "Pardon me for not getting up." By way of farewell, I might add that this is what occurred to me when I saw the news about the supposedly impressive oilfield at Carioca.

( Thanks to Pedro Prieto, Tlaxcala )

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