A recent survey
on the environment found that seventy percent of people worldwide think that the
planet is running out oil. Only less than one quarter believe that there is enough
of it to keep it as a primary source of energy. Petro pessimism runs especially
high in the United States where a full two thirds think that the point of
depletion is within sight.
Here are some hard facts.
According the Energy Information Administration as of
January 2007 there was more than 1.3 trillion barrels of proved crude oil on earth. Even if this were all the oil on the planet
there would be no immediate danger of shortages, because at the current rate of
consumption – roughly 85 million barrels a day – this supply would last for
more than 40 years.
But the 1.3 trillion in these so-called proved reserves refers only to a tiny fraction of earth’s oil,
designating only that portion which can be extracted under current ‘economic
and operating conditions.’ As it happens, this figure grows with each decade and
usually dramatically so.
In 1882, for instance, there were 95 million barrels of
proved petroleum reserves. This number jumped to 4.5 billion in 1926 and then
to 10 billion in 1932. In 1944 the quantity stood at 20 billion. In 1950 it leaped
to 100 billion and in 1980 it was 648 billion. In 1993 the world’s proved
reserves grew to 999 billion, and today they stand at 1.3 trillion barrels.
These figures show that our ever-increasing consumption has not
over the years reduced the pool of available oil. In fact, the exact opposite
is the case – each successive year we have more of it than ever before. Contrary
to the conventional wisdom, mankind’s oil supplies are not getting depleted,
but they keep continually expanding.
There are several reasons for this. New exploration and advancements
in surveying techniques in particular result in fresh finds almost every year.
We have seen a dramatic instance of this at the end of last
year when a massive reservoir was discovered in the Tupi sector off the coast
of Brazil. Estimated to hold some 8 billion barrels of recoverable crude it was
the second largest find in the last 20 years. Two months later an even greater deposit
was located nearby which may hold as much as 30 billion barrels. If confirmed,
the field would be the third biggest on the planet, behind only the Ghawar in
Saudi Arabia and the Burgan in Kuwait. Many scientists are now convinced that intense
exploration fuelled by high prices will yield comparable discoveries in other places
of the globe.
Adding appreciably to the proved reserves is the continual
perfecting of drilling techniques. This makes it possible to tap deposits which
because of their depth or geological environment were off limits only a few
years ago. Today’s equipment can perform mind-boggling feats of horizontal
drilling and there are oil rigs capable of reaching 35,000 feet under the
surface, about double of what the previous generation could do.
Rising prices also make available oil which was previously considered
unrecoverable commercially, because for whatever reason the extraction cost per
barrel exceeded the price it could fetch on the market. With every jump in
price, however, more and more of such oil is brought up as its production becomes
Finally, improvements in extraction processes make it
possible to more fully utilize currently harvested reservoirs. Due to technical
and economic limitations, normally only a portion of an oilfield can be
recovered (it is this part that is referred to as the ‘proved’ reserve). A few decades ago the average oil recovery rate from
reservoirs was 20%, but thanks to technological progress this rate is nearing
It is the combination of these factors that accounts for the
fact that more and more is added every year to mankind’s stock of crude oil. This
in turn results in a seemingly paradoxical outcome. Even as our consumption increases
with each passing year, the projected depletion point keeps moving further out
into the future.
In 1986, for instance, it was estimated that the world’s
proved reserves would last 38 years. On that estimate we should only have 17
years worth of oil left. But because the figure in the ‘proved reserves’ column
keeps getting larger, we now have more than 40 years.
This dynamic has been in place ever since gasoline began to
be mass consumed. Due to the continuing exploration and technological
advancement, we can be virtually assured that two or three decades from now we
will be talking about another 40 or 50 or more years worth of crude. Cambridge Energy Research Associates,
one of the world’s premier energy advisors, predicts that earth’s proved reserves
could increase by as much as 25% by 2015.
But there is more to the story. So far we have only been considering
crude oil, but crude is not the sole source of this strategic commodity. There
are far greater amounts of it locked in other materials such as shale, coal and
Proven technologies exist to obtain oil from these resources
but they have not yet been widely exploited, because until quite recently the extraction
costs – ranging from $40 to $90 per barrel – exceeded the market price. The
currently high and rising prices, however, are quickly turning these methods
into potentially profitable ventures.
With many companies positioning themselves to take advantage
of the opportunity, we are witnessing the birth of a giant industry and one
that might eventually eclipse that in crude oil. This is because the estimated global deposits
of recoverable shale oil alone exceed three trillion barrels. This is more than
twice the world’s current crude oil reserves.
America is especially well endowed on this front as it has nearly
75% of the planet’s known oil shale deposits. The Bureau of Land Management
estimates that the Green River Formation of Colorado, Utah
and Wyoming alone
‘holds the equivalent of 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil.’ This is three
times the proved oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. At current consumption levels,
that quantity would satisfy America’s needs for 110 years.
Like shale, coal is another enormous repository of oil. Technology
to liquidify it has been around since the 1920s. Germany was the first country to
utilize it on a mass scale when during World War II it sought to compensate for
a lack of crude. Today this technology is successfully exploited by South Africa
whose three liqudification plants produce150,000 barrels a day, the equivalent of
the output from a medium-sized oilfield.
The United States – with roughly 27 per cent of the world’s recoverable
coal – is especially well positioned to benefit from this resource. A couple of
years ago, the New York Times pointed out that ‘the coal in the ground in
Illinois alone has more energy than all the oil in Saudi Arabia.’ It is
estimated that at a standard conversion rate of two barrels of synthetic fuels
from one ton of coal, America’s reserves are equivalent to 20 times the
nation’s proved crude. In other words, liquefied coal could satiate America’s petrol
thirst for two hundred years.
But even coal’s potential is exceeded by that of tar sands
which may hold as much as two thirds of the planet’s petroleum. Tar sands occur
in many parts of the world with large deposits in Canada, Venezuela, the United
States, Russia and various countries of the Middle East. Canada alone is
estimated to have some 1.7 trillion barrels of which about 10% is recoverable
at today’s prices and with existing technology. The country’s tar sands alone make
Canada second only to Saudi Arabia as an oil resource country.
Tar sands account for one million barrels (about 40%) of
Canada's oil production with the number growing each year. America’s largest oil
supplier, Canada provides about 20% of our imports of which a substantial
portion comes from this untraditional source. So vast is its potential that a CBS
broadcast stated ‘the reserves [of tar sands] are so vast in the province of
Alberta that they will help solve America's energy needs for the next century.’
With estimated 30 billion barrels of recoverable petroleum from
tar sands, America’s own supplies are not negligible either. A concentrated
effort to launch wide scale commercial mining was launched in the late 70s, but
the subsequent drop in oil prices led to the project’s abandonment. The $100
plus per barrel rate, however, is likely to change this situation in
All this should make one thing amply clear – there is enough
oil to go around for a very long time. Even on conservative assumptions – accelerating
consumption and few new discoveries – earth’s oil supplies should last for at
least a century.
This, however, is the worst case scenario. We can be reasonably
certain that new exploration and advancing technologies will in coming years greatly
add to the quantities of available oil. So much so that Morris Adelman,
Professor Emeritus in Economics at Harvard, has argued that the ‘amount of oil
available to the market over the next 25 to 50 years is for all intents and
The notion that this planet is running out of oil is one of
the great misnomers of our age. There is more oil available today than there
was a hundred, fifty or ten years ago. And there is every indication that this
trend will continue into the future. Instead of lamenting that we are running
out of it, it would be far more accurate to say that we are constantly bumping
into new oil. This is why two years ago the Economist
headlined an article on the topic The
Bottomless Beer Mug.
The general public, however, is largely ignorant of these
facts. The divergence between the conventional wisdom and reality could hardly
be any wider. Profoundly misinformed and alarmed, people place false hopes in misguided
alternatives. Rather than implementing harmful, inefficient and expensive
substitutes, we should insist that our government lift the obstacles which prevent
us from availing ourselves of this superabundant resource.