No one knows how much oil remains untapped beneath the Earth’s surface, but it’s a lot. To the surprise of many, we are not going to run out anytime soon, and there are a lot of people with vested interests in making sure no one knows. Big Oil, OPEC, speculators are all in the business of driving up oil prices to make a profit and as long as there’s uncertainty, they can manipulate prices. Also, the oil won’t dry up overnight. There will be a gradual decline where we find ourselves unable to extract the oil faster than the world consumes it.
It’s a fact that some day, even the most oil rich nations that supply the world with oil will reach a point when their existing well production rates will start to decline. In addition to this, environmentalists lobby against the drilling of new oil in Alaska, off the coast of the United States and on Federal Land which limits the potential source of billions of barrels of oil. As our consumption increases, and our sources of oil decrease, will we reach a point where there isn’t enough oil being extracted to keep up with demand?
This is referred to as “Peak Oil”, coined by an American geophysicist named Marion King Hubbert. He came up with the term after he created a method of modeling oil reserves and production rates back in 1956. Remarkably, and to most people’s surprise, his models were very accurate. Production rates of oil from conventional sources peaked in the continental United States around 1965-1970 and have since been in a terminal decline, just as he predicted. Hubbert made another bold prediction and said global production would peak about 50 years later (1956 + 50 = 2006). Based on Hubbert’s model, we should be nearing or perhaps even passed the point at which global oil production rates have entered terminal decline. Is he right?
It’s hard to say. Finding oil is easier now than it was a decade ago. New technologies such as 3D-imaging allow geologists to better understand and visualize the underground geologic structures which contain the oil. From this they can determine the best method of extraction and how much oil there is. Horizontal drilling has opened the doors to new pockets of untapped oil that would have otherwise been too expensive and difficult to extract. In years past, not all the oil could be extracted from the underground wells. New technology has made it possible to extract even greater amounts that would have otherwise been left in place. So as each day passes, we use more oil, but we find ways to extract more oil as well.
Although no one can estimate with any sort of reasonable certainty how much untapped oil exists within the Earth’s crust, a vast majority would agree that there is a lot out there. Now that the price per barrel has exceeded $100 USD, other sources of oil which were otherwise considered too expensive to extract, become more financially feasible. The federal government estimates that the shale oils in the Rocky Mountains, which was previously too expensive to extract, holds more than a trillion barrels of burnable fuel. The oil trapped in the shale sands in Canada also has the potential to unleash enormous quantities of oil onto the global market.
However, even with all these possibilities, it’s tough to say if oil extraction rates are currently running at their full potential, or if we can find the oil fast enough to keep up with demand. OPEC keeps their production rates under secrecy and they too probably don’t know exactly how much oil they are sitting on. As more oil is extracted from the wells, the harder it is to keep pumping at the same rates.
So in short, it looks as if there is still a lot of the black gold just beneath the Earth’s surface. And the near-term fear isn’t if we’ll run out (eventually we will, but probably not soon), it’s if we can pump it out of the ground fast enough to keep up with growing demand. There’s been a lot of debate about the United States becoming more independent with regard to oil. Instead of importing about 75% of our oil, perhaps Congress should allow offshore exploration and domestic drilling. There is quite a bit of oil waiting to be tapped of the coast of California and Florida, but environmentalists and the EPA make this a very difficult endeavor. Despite this, I wonder if there is enough usable oil to keep up with the ever growing demand here in the United States?
Perhaps it’s time we slowly wean ourselves off oil as much as possible? The problem is, what should we use instead of oil? There is no other energy source that comes close to producing the same amount of energy as oil. Not to mention, one 42-gallon barrel of oil creates 19.4 gallons of gasoline while the rest of it (more than half) goes into producing 6,000+ other products like tires, asphalt, rubber cement, hair coloring, lipstick, Aspirin, toothbrushes, shaving cream, ammonia, dentures, drinking cups, footballs, shoes … the list goes on, and on.
It will be nearly impossible to wean ourselves off fuel anytime soon, but we can try. The only problem is, of we try, expect everything that’s made form oil to get more expensive.