Is Oil an Infinite Resource?

I wanted to be a geologist once — even claimed it as my major at the University of Georgia. Then they made me take calculus. I decided on a degree in English not too long thereafter, thinking I’d read books about oil and rocks instead.

Research for last week’s column on the oil discovery in the Gulf intrigued me, as did the responses I received. Like addicts worrying about where our next fix will come from, we all seem to have an opinion on the future of oil. Back in the 1950s geologist Marion King Hubbert posited that crude oil was a finite resource and went on to illustrate when the U.S. and world would reach a peak in production by using a bell curve. The curve rises from left to right, as new oil is discovered and infrastructure is put in place to extract it. The curve goes back down as supplies dwindle. Somewhere about the middle of this diagram known as “Hubbert Curve” is the point referred to as “Peak Oil.”

» Source: Citizen Times

The oil that is easiest to extract — shallow deposits of light, sweet crude under pressure with no ocean involved — drives the uphill climb to the Peak. Once the easy supplies have been extracted, reserves that are beneath deep water, in smaller quantities and not-so-sweet (higher in sulfur and therefore more costly to refine) mark the decline.

Hubbert predicted that U.S. oil would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970. In 1970, U.S. oil production was at an all-time high and Hubbert was quietly forgotten. Only with hindsight do experts acknowledge domestic production peaked between 1970 and 1972 (peaks can only be determined by looking backward in time).

In 1956, Hubbert told the American Petroleum Institute he thought worldwide oil supplies would peak in about 50 years. In 1974 he predicted that the peak would come in 1995, though conservation (yes, we have actually cut oil consumption in the past) and a push towards natural gas use messed him up. Still, other analysts confirm his earlier prediction of a peak about now. Princeton Professor Kenneth S. Deffeyes, author of several books on the topic, has even gone so far as to put a date on the Peak. He claims earth’s oil production peaked sometime between Nov. 12, 2005 and Jan. 7, 2006, with Dec. 16, 2005 the most likely date.

Taking a look across the political spectrum, here is a sampling of viewpoints I encountered surrounding last week’s column and the future of oil. Let’s take a look, starting on the far left.

“There is no such thing as ‘peak oil.’ It’s a fabrication of Big Oil and the GOP to make profits, and it is working. Gas prices are more closely tied to the upcoming election than anything else.”
“Oil is a finite resource, and plans should be made now to get off the stuff. We need to invest in research for working alternatives to clean up our air, strengthen national security and keep our economy strong.”
“Who really knows? One side says the sky is falling, one side says not to worry. Still, I try to drive less. I’d like to see us use less oil for the good of the country and air.”
“Oil may be a finite resource. We don’t know yet. But free-market capitalism and technology will find new sources of oil and extract it from places we never thought possible before. And at some point, capitalism will provide us with an alternative fuel to wean us off oil.”
“There is no such thing as ‘Peak Oil.’ Just last week, Abdallah S. Jum’ah, president and CEO of Aramco, the Saudi Arabian state-owned oil company, said, ‘The world has only consumed about 18 percent of its conventional potential.’ We’ve heard this ‘chicken little’ stuff for years and there is still plenty of oil.”
“God has designed the earth so that oil will replenish itself and our energy needs will be met. For example, the Eugene Island oil field off the coast of Louisiana is refilling itself. The earth will produce enough oil to power our economy until God shows us how to use the next energy source he has provided us with.”

No matter which view(s) you take, somewhere there is a study, an expert or a book to back you up. It’s another matter of what I call “current event faith,” like global warming or WMDs in Iraq.

I am not a geologist (dang calculus), and don’t have an expert opinion to share. I do think the oil companies jerk us around on gas prices unrelated to supply, that we need to research alternatives seriously and use less gas for the good of the air, the country and the world, and technology and demand will bring new oil supplies to the surface until it costs more to extract it than it is worth.

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One Response to “Is Oil an Infinite Resource?”

  1. Vincent Muller on March 11th, 2007 at 1:11 am

    I’ve heard that crude oil is made by the magma in the earth, and that seemingly empty crude oil wells that have been covered & forgotten in the past would now be full of oil. Is there scientific evidence to confirm or deny this? In that case, this hype of ‘no oil’ would be a total fabrication, wouldn’t it? Is there scientific evidence that states that the world is running out of oil? If so, where is it?

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