Recalculating Future Oil Reserves

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Science  01 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5731, pp. 54-56
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5731.54

In his Policy Forum “Oil: Never cry wolf—why the petroleum age is far from over” (21 May 2004, p. 1114), L. Maugeri claims that new discoveries of oil and other hydrocarbons will stave off oil scarcity for many generations to come. As the physicist Albert Bartlett (1) demonstrated nearly three decades ago, “When we are dealing with exponential growth we do not need to have an accurate estimate of the size of [the] resource in order to make a reliable estimate of how long the resource will last.” Assume, he said, that the entire volume of Earth is oil (6.81 × 1021 barrels). At the then prevailing growth rate in oil consumption of 7.04%/year, “this earth full of oil [would] last only 342 years!” Now, with China and other rapidly industrializing nations dramatically increasing their energy consumption, there seems little hope that exponential growth of hydrocarbon consumption will level off soon (2).

Of course, Earth is not made entirely of petroleum—far from it. Moreover, the alternative hydrocarbon sources that Maugeri mentions, Canadian tar sands and Venezuelan and Russian heavy oil, are no substitute for cheap oil. The petroleum geologist Walter Youngquist has noted that a considerable percentage of the energy recovered from these alternative sources is expended in their processing—two barrels out of every three in the case of tar sands and a similarly low net energy recovery for heavy oil (3). The same statement can be made about oil shale and biofuels. Ethanol from corn or sugar cane sometimes yields a net energy loss. The energy losses in producing and packaging hydrogen for the hydrogen economy will be considerable. Hydrogen is not a primary fuel, and its fundamental properties limit its ultimate utility. Nuclear power has a continuing role to play in generating electricity, but unlike oil, it is not a chemical feedstock, there are intractable safety concerns, and cheap oil and other hydrocarbons still mine and process the nuclear fuel and build the nuclear plants (4, 5).

By referring to the legitimate concerns about oil scarcity as “hysteria” and “crying wolf,” Maugeri deflects us from the only course that can save industrial civilization from the consequences of its overconsumption of energy. We need to begin a crash program to develop and implement energy-saving technologies in construction, manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture while the world still has enough oil wealth left to pay for the job. And at the same time, we have to speedily change a self-destructive mindset that glorifies waste and unnecessary consumption.


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