Running Out of Oil - and Time

Category: Middle East, Nature & Science Topics: Energy Industry, Oil & Gas Views: 3295

The news last month that the vast Saudi oil fields are in decline is a far bigger story than most in the media, or the United States, seem to realize. We may begrudge the Saudis their 30-year stranglehold on the world economy. But even the possibility that the lords of oil have less of the stuff than advertised raises troubling questions. How long will the world's long-term oil supplies last? As important, what will the big importing nations, like the U.S., do the day world oil production hits its inevitable peak?

For more than a century, Western governments have been relentlessly upbeat about the long-term outlook for oil. Whenever pessimists claimed that supplies were running low - as they have many times - oil companies always seemed to discover huge new fields. It's now an article of faith among oil optimists, including those in the U.S. government, that global oil reserves won't run out for at least four decades, which seems like enough time to devise a whole suite of alternative energy technologies to smoothly and seamlessly replace oil.

But such oil optimism, always questionable, is now more suspect than ever. True, we won't "run out" of oil tomorrow, or even 10 years from now. But the long-term picture is grim. In the first place, it's not a matter of running out of oil but of hitting a production peak. Since 1900, world oil production - that is, the number of barrels we can pump from the ground - has risen in near-perfect step with world oil demand. Today, demand stands at about 29 billion barrels of oil a year, and so does production. By 2020, demand may well be 45 billion barrels a year, by which time, we hope, oil companies will have upped production accordingly. 

At some point, however, production simply won't be able to match demand. Oil is an exhaustible resource: The more you produce, the less remains in the ground, and the harder it is to bring up that remainder. We won't be "out of oil"; a vast amount will still be flowing - just not quickly enough to satisfy demand. And as any economist can tell you, when supply falls behind demand, bad things happen.

During the 1979 Iranian revolution, the last time oil production fell off significantly, world oil prices hit the modern equivalent of $80 a barrel. And that, keep in mind, was a temporary decline. If world oil production were to truly peak and begin a permanent decline, the effect would be staggering: Prices would not come back down. Any part of the global economy dependent on cheap energy - which is to say, pretty much everything these days - would be changed forever.

And that's the good news. The term "peak" tends to suggest a nice, neat curve, with production rising slowly to a halfway point, then tapering off gradually to zero - as if, since it took a century to reach a peak, it ought to take another 100 years to reach the end. But in the real world, the landing will not be soft. As we hit the peak, soaring prices - $70, $80, even $100 a barrel - will encourage oil companies and oil states to scour the planet for oil. For a time, they will succeed, finding enough crude to keep production flat, thus stretching out the peak into a kind of plateau and perhaps temporarily easing fears. But in reality, this manic, post-peak production will deplete remaining reserves all the more quickly, thus ensuring that the eventual decline is far steeper and far more sudden. As one U.S. government geologist put it to me recently, "the edge of a plateau looks a lot like a cliff."

As production falls off this cliff, prices won't simply increase; they will fly. If our oil dependence hasn't lessened drastically by then, the global economy is likely to slip into a recession so severe that the Great Depression will look like a dress rehearsal. Oil will cease to be viable as a fuel - hardly an encouraging scenario in a world where oil currently provides 40% of all energy and nearly 90% of all transportation fuel. Political reaction would be desperate. Industrial economies, hungry for energy, would begin making it from any source available - most likely coal - regardless of the ecological consequences. Worse, competition for remaining oil supplies would intensify, potentially leading to a new kind of political conflict: the energy war.

Thus, when we peak becomes a rather pressing question. Some pessimists tell us the peak has already come, and that calamity is imminent. That's unlikely. But the optimists' forecast - that we don't peak until around 2035 - is almost as hard to believe. First, oil demand is climbing faster than optimists had hoped, mainly because China and India, the sleeping giants, are waking up to embrace a Western-style high-energy industrialism that includes tens of millions of new cars. Second, even as oil demand is rising, oil discovery rates are falling. Oil can't be produced without first being found, and the rate at which oil companies are locating new oil fields is in serious decline. The peak for world discoveries was around 1960; today, despite astonishing advances in exploration and production technology, the industry is finding just 12 billion new barrels of oil each year - less than half of what we use. This is one reason that oil prices, which had averaged $20 a barrel since the 1970s, have been hovering at $30 for nearly a year.

Oil companies, not surprisingly, are getting anxious. Despite the fact that the current high oil prices are yielding massive company profits, companies are finding it harder and harder to replace the oil they sell with newly discovered barrels. On average, for every 10 barrels an oil company sells, its exploration teams find just four new barrels - a trend that can go on only so long. Indeed, most Western oil firms now say the only way to halt this slide is to get back into the Middle East, which kicked them out during the OPEC nationalizations of the 1960s and '70s. This has, in fact, become the mantra of the oil industry: Get us back into the Middle East or be prepared for trouble. And the Bush administration seems to have taken the message to heart.

Now, of course, the Middle East is looking less and less like the Promised Land. Western analysts have long feared that the Saudis and other oil-state leaders are too corrupt, unstable and bankrupt to step up their oil production fast enough to meet surging world demand. Last week's revelations, in which some Saudis themselves expressed doubt over future production increases, have only heightened such concerns. 

Put another way, we may not be able to pinpoint exactly when a peak is coming, but recent events suggest that it will be sooner than the optimists have been telling us - perhaps by 2020, or even 2015 if Asian demand picks up as fast as some analysts now expect. What this means is that we can no longer sit back and hope that an alternative to oil will come along in time. Such complacency all but ensures that, when the peak does arrive, our response will be defensive, costly and hugely disruptive. Instead, we must begin now, with every tool at our disposal, to find ways to get "beyond petroleum" if we are to have any hope of controlling the shift from oil to whatever comes next.

Paul Roberts writes about the energy industry for Harper's Magazine and other national publications. His new book, "The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World," will be published in May 2004.

Source: Los Angeles Times

  Category: Middle East, Nature & Science
  Topics: Energy Industry, Oil & Gas
Views: 3295

Related Suggestions

The opinions expressed herein, through this post or comments, contain positions and viewpoints that are not necessarily those of IslamiCity. These are offered as a means for IslamiCity to stimulate dialogue and discussion in our continuing mission of being an educational organization. The IslamiCity site may occasionally contain copyrighted material the use of which may not always have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. IslamiCity is making such material available in its effort to advance understanding of humanitarian, education, democracy, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and such (and all) material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Older Comments:
Quite the contrary Romesh ol' chap, the people who respond to you do read your posts carefully, most others rigthly ignore them as the same old recycled rantings and ravings of hindu fanatic pretending to be a moderate.
As Asgher has suggested, you may want to learn about the facts for a change. But I have little hope for your kind ever understanding such concepts.

Romesh said: "like it or not, no amount of praying is going to produce a drop of oil."

What makes you think that msulims pray for oil! It sure shows how little you know about Muslims. Get a life man and read a little about islam.

This is for free: We pray for the Only One God, The Creator of this Universe, The One and The Only Eternal Lord. Some of us even go as far to say that adding a PERSONAL wish list AFTER each prayer can be a sin! let alone praying for oil!! WHat utter rubbish and nonesense besides most of the common people in oil producing countries of the Middle East don't get to see much of the cash for oil anyway. So, it would be like praying for god to give another Rolls Royce to your already rich neighbour! How preposterous.

The idea that one worships material stuff is totally alien to Islam. Please read before you dribble. Truly we waste our time with such ignorance. Go visit another site please since you are unable to contribute to a healthy and balanced forum.

Don't let Chander deviate you from the subject at hand folks. The TRUTH is finally out. A Western mind with Cowbow contents has finally confessed that the motive for entering the Middle East was oil, and NOTHING else! Unfortunately for them the oil is finishing pretty soon. So work done= 0? Yes.

As for me I know I can and will survive living the life of using palm oil bushlamp in a small hut in either a desert or any forest wherever in the world. What of you? Are you ready for that?

Oh Allah continue to guide us unto the path that is straight to YOU.

As a person from the Middle East, I have always thought that oil has been our curse whereas God has given us this resource as a blessing, we seem to have squandered the wealth that it has generated and little if any ahs been spent to further humanity, the ummah and the casue of Allah.

Still, the sooner we run out the better, if only America and its incs would leave us alone to get on with life, even if we get back to the basics. It may teach us that wealth must be nurtured and shared, a lesson we have not learnt yet despite 100 years of God's great bounty.

As for Ramish: a smart person buys insurance to safeguard against adversity. It does not hurt one bit - and no cash is demanded - to believe the existance of One God and Life after death. When you die, as we all do, and discover that there is no life after death- will you would have lost nothing at all! BUT if you find that there is life after death, then bingo!! you are a winner too. Smart people buy insurance, so let this be your insurance and no sales person will knock on your door for cash, like I said.

But hey, you have the choice and if you choose to make fun of my remarks, I'd love to be the fly on the wall when death comes knocking on your door, not because I am sadistic but it makes a good case study. Peace be upon you.

For Yakub:

As usual, people don't read my posts carefully. Praying is for individual satisfaction. But, like it or not, no amount of praying is going to produce a drop of oil; and this industrial world (and you and me are part of this industrial world) is dependent on energy, especially oil.

I am too old to worry; let the younger generation worry about their own life. Moreover, worrying is not going to produce any oil either; so why even worry. I will be long gone before the problem hits. May be I will be re-incarnated as a bird, and will laugh at the stupid human beings to destroy his civilization; birds will pick on the corpses. Birds will take over the world.

As-salaam Aleykum brothers,
I am sorry to go off topic my brothers, but I have a post for Mr. Chander. Your comment about "no amount of praying.." struck a chord with me. Despite an upbringing by good and pious parents, I once professed atheism myself. I had many difficulties and adversities growing up and felt that God (great and glorious) was not in the business of answering prayers. I later decided to believe, astaghfirullah, that with such trouble in the world, God (great and glorious) could not exist at all.
That is, until even greater adversities fell upon me and I returned to prayer as a last resort (there is a saying that runs, "there are no atheists in foxholes"). God (most merciful) responded to my pleas and delivered me from certain destruction.
I now see that professing atheism was little more than an attempt to "hurt" God (great and glorious) for what I percieved to be unfairness and neglect. I now know that it is not possible for us to comprehend God's plan, but turning away from our creator out of impatience or dissatisfaction only reduces our share in God's mercy. We only hurt ourselves.
I do not pretend to know your reasons, but I sincerely hope that you reconsider them before you meet your own "foxhole", or worse yet, die suddenly without ever claiming your share in the mercy of your lord.

Was-salaam my brothers
(And a sincere wish of blessings and peace for you Mr. Chander)

P.S.: It seems vaguely ironic that you have no concern for the future of this world, if you believe this is the only life you will have. Wouldn't your "only life" be better spent trying to make positive change for future generations since you don't believe you have a future of your own to work toward.

Today oil is used for 2 things.

1. Generate wealth for oil companies and associates.

2. And provide a cheap source of energy for the wealthy and expensive source of energy for the poor.

Oil is not Needed as much wanted.

It is Not a Need but a wanted product.

I wonder how many of us (6 billion) have cars to go to work, less than 10 percent.

more than 90 % of us donot have access to cars.

In some limited cases it is needed.

For that we have plenty, for today and tommorow.

And even if we ran out of oil.
We (less than 10%) wont have plenty for ours wants. But that's OK.

We (less than 10%) will still have plenty, to full fill our needs.

As far as West's stealing oil process is concerned. This article tell us their living style will no longer be possible and have to change.

Their system will face severe challenges and most probably collaspe.

Cant say wheather a century old, "The Great Western Civilization" will come to an end or not.


To Akbar Khan and Yaha Bergaman:

I hope you don't need 'oil' to live the 'afterlife'; if you do need oil, how are you going to live that 'afterlife'. As an atheist, I don't believe in 'afterlife'. May be one could be 'reincarnated' as a bird, and will be able to live (and enjoy) without oil.

There will be no energy crisis. This is the time to look at alternative fuels. Hydrogen cells WILL be the wave of the furture. Smart companies, countries, and people are looking into this now.

No worries, Romesh. God willing, I shall pray for you to get smart enough to make a difference. We shall see what comes of it, God willing.

Peace! (And may "fortune" smile upon you.)

AKBAR KHAN FROM CANADA said: are ya, nice to see you. It's been a while. You are correct that no amount of praying is going to save us from the destruction of the Earth, nor is God going to intercede and save us somehow from death. As this is in accordance to basic Islamic belief. We pray and pray to God for our lives in the next life. We expect and realize that this life is temporal, and will inevitably be obsolete when the day of resurrection begins. So yes I agree with what you just said, and when I see how this is in accordance to my faith, that is why I am a Muslim (I trust in God). I pray that you will find the path to acquiring faith, and believing in a life after this one. I must congratulate you on being an athiest, because you are only moving closer to realizing that you need faith to feel alive, and realize that you don't just die and become dust. There's more waiting for you on the other side.

So very true and scary. I remember when I was a mere child I used to watch in awe the huge Ajax steam locomotives puffing their way at what seemed then tremendous speed and power. By the time I became a teen-ager they were long gone, replaced by Diesel engines. My early youth saw the rise of the electrical locomotives. It seemes that the transaction from the gasoline engines to whatever comes next won't be as easy as from steam to electrical. I wish I knew how things will develop and in what. It seemes that all the efforts done by now were either too futuristic or not viable for an economic profit. Consider the hybrid cars, gas and electric from Honda. They are not at all popular, they are expensive and more sluggish. In the North American culture a car used to be muscles, then it changed to brains, less carburant consumption for more pickup, speed and reliability. Whatever comes will not be a spectacular advancement of todays car but rather a setback. A more feable car using whatever energy by means of whatever converter, very unpopular with consumers. Maybe then people would use more transit systems on electricity created by nuclear stations. The consumers need to change their interpretation of their beloved car. It is something like one used a beautiful horse for riding in which he prided much and now he is compelled to use a llama. Convince a cowboy to change his horse for a llama!? If he had no way out, how frustrated he will be? Who knows whom he will shoot in his dismay?! 2020? Gosh, I'll still be around, inshallah, I hoped this agony would be beyond my time..., well, Allah knows better and his purpose is unseeable. May we all hope for the best to come..., inshallah.

On the same subject, just finished the book HEINBERG: THE PARTY IS OVER. Very similar conclusions regarding oil/energy depletion. I have been reading about this subject for about 20 years or so and have not changed the conclusions so far.

Could be that the END OF WORLD is coming in about 50 years or so; and no God is going to save the world; and no amount of praying is going to be of help either (And that is why I am an atheist).

Am I worried?. No, not at all. I am too old; won't be living too long. I wanted to see the End of the World, but won't live too long to see it. Let the younger generation experience it. To make the movie End of The World, you need energy; and to see it, you need energy too. That is why, nobody is going to make the movie, just experience it till the END actually comes.