When the wells run dry

For the past century, the modern world has run on oil. But geologists now warn that the supply may soon begin to dwindle. Should we be preparing for the end of the Age of Oil?

How much oil is left?

About 3 trillion barrels, give or take a trillion; no one can say for sure. But oil is indisputably a finite resource, and the industrialized world is rapidly draining the vast seas of petroleum under the earth’s surface. Pessimistic experts think we’re only about a decade away from reaching what geologists call “Hubbert’s peak”—the point at which oil production reaches its all-time high, and begins to decline. Even optimists think we’re three decades from the peak. Whenever the peak is reached, the reaction is likely to be traumatic, given the worldwide addiction to oil. The world now consumes a record 70 million barrels of oil a day, and by 2030, the daily total is expected to soar to 120 million barrels.

Why are oil prices now so high?

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Political events, such as the war in Iraq and strikes in Venezuela, have played a role. But the main reason oil prices have jumped 30 percent this year is escalating demand. U.S. consumption is 20 percent higher than it was a decade ago, and we now guzzle more than a quarter of the world’s entire output of oil. In recent years, China’s booming economy has also put a great strain on supplies. Experts say that gas prices in the U.S. may never again dip below $2 a gallon; in a decade, some experts think, they may climb to $7 to $10 a gallon. But if the current trends continue, the price of gas could be the least of our troubles.

What else could be affected?

Life as we know it. It’s hard to think of a product that hasn’t been made from, or transported by, petroleum. It powers factories, farms, and ships. It heats homes and businesses. Fertilizers and insecticides are made from oil, as are most organic chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, plastics, and fabrics. The U.S. economy is so tied to oil prices that every recession since the early 1970s has been preceded by a sharp rise in oil prices. To get an idea of what may lie ahead, think back to the worldwide oil shortages of 1973–74 and 1979, when Americans waited in hour-long lines to buy gas. At some point in our or our children’s lives, an even more severe shortage may strike—and this time, it will not be temporary.

Why not?

Because when supply begins to fall off, there will be no new sources of oil to tap. Optimists have been laughing off such predictions since 1956, when a Shell Oil geophysicist, Marion King Hubbert, predicted that oil production in the U.S. would peak sometime around 1970, declining thereafter. Hubbert turned out to be right. (The U.S. produced 9.6 million barrels in 1970, and is producing just 5.7 million today.) There was no crisis, though, because we were able to feed our oil addiction by buying oil from the Mideast, Venezuela, and other nations. The U.S. now gets 60 percent of its oil from abroad. But when we hit the global Hubbert’s peak—somewhere between 2015 and 2040—prices may skyrocket, and true panic will begin to set in.

What could happen?

In the best-case scenario, says physicist David Goodstein, author of the recent book Out of Gas, the U.S. and other industrialized nations will make a frantic and expensive transition to natural gas for heating, while frantically building hundreds of nuclear power plants to generate electricity. In the worst case, he says, “runaway inflation and worldwide depression will leave billions of people with no alternative but to burn coal in vast quantities for warmth, cooking, and primitive industry.” This, in turn, would speed up global warming, bringing disruptions of unprecedented proportions.

Isn’t there a substitute for oil?

Numerous alternative energy sources offer some promise, but they all have drawbacks. Nuclear power has risks, produces waste that remains radioactive for eons, and relies on uranium, which is subject to its own Hubbert’s peak. A different kind of nuclear power, based on fusion (the same kind used in hydrogen bombs), could create limitless supplies of energy. But scientists think we’re decades, or perhaps a century, away from learning how to create controlled fusion. Coal is plentiful, but dirty and inefficient. Hydropower only works where there’s water available. Wind turbines can provide useful amounts of energy—in windy places. Hydrogen fuel cells might help power cars, but great technical obstacles remain. So far, neither government nor private industry appears to feel any urgency to find a replacement for oil.

Why is that?

Because the implications of weaning ourselves off oil are so enormous. Politicians aren’t going to win many votes by telling the public to turn off their air conditioners and give up their SUVs. With the oil still flowing, there’s not much economic incentive for private corporations to gamble tens of billions of dollars developing uncertain alternatives. It’s far easier to think that none of this will happen in our lifetimes, or that some new, miraculous energy source will be found before the world runs out of oil. “People don’t want to face this reality,” says geologist Michael Rogers. “Once you face it as a possibility—not even as a certainty, but just as one of many possible scenarios—then you have to make all sorts of changes in the way you live.”

The hydrogen option


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