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Professor Chris Rhodes

Professor Chris Rhodes

Professor Chris Rhodes is a writer and researcher. He studied chemistry at Sussex University, earning both a B.Sc and a Doctoral degree (D.Phil.); rising to…

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A Severe Decrease in Oil Supply Could Devastate the World Population

The ownership of the largest deposits of oil, notably in the former U.S.S.R., e.g. Siberia and Kazakhstan and the Caspian region generally, in addition to the fields in the Middle East, will likely determine the future balance of world power. "The New World Order" as it is sometimes referred to. It is interesting that it is scientists from the former U.S.S.R. who throng among the ranks of "Hubbert detractors" - those who do not believe in an imminent "peak oil" scenario. There appears to be a conflict of opinion, and probably of interest too, between Western and Soviet oil experts, which revolves around different viewpoints as to the origin of petroleum. The western belief is, as we were all taught at school, that petroleum is a result of "cooking" plant and animal remains over millennia, and proof of its origin thus is taken to be the presence of the same type of organic molecules (porphyrins etc.) as are found in living plants and animals, i.e. the biotic theory.

Soviet thinking, which goes back at least as far as the great Russian chemist Mendeleyev (who devised the Periodic Table of the chemical Elements), is that petroleum is formed in the deep earth by geochemical processes - Mendeleyev thought by the action of water on iron carbides. This is called the abiotic theory.

The explanation for the presence of porphyrins etc. is that they are simply dissolved from higher strata by petroleum moving upward from the depths, and acting as an organic solvent. The essential difference between these schools of thinking is that, if the Russians are right, oil can be considered a limitless resource, while the western view readily accords with an imminent peak oil; i.e. a finite supply of oil. The Russians, however, are sufficiently convinced after more than 50 years of intensive research that their theory is correct and they have made enormous investments in developing "deep drilling" techniques (8 km and more down) with which to reach the petroleum deposits formed deep underground. Of course, while there are differences of opinion about how much oil there is, even conventional oil depending on whether a 90% probability (P90) or 50% probability (P50) scenario is used, and there may well be large amounts of either biotically or abiotically derived oil beyond what has been estimated, if that oil cannot be recovered at a sufficient rate to meet demand for it, then a supply-demand gap for crude oil is inevitable. The event of Peak Oil will rapidly and substantively enlarge that gap.

Either the Russians will secure their position more strongly in the new world order, or affordable oil will run out - for everybody. This is particularly alarming in the context of world population. In 1900, there were less than 2 billion people on the planet (up from about 1 billion in 1800); now the figure has just passed 7 billion, and the exponential curve in population growth that these numbers can be plotted upon is an exact parallel with the curve for oil production. Without the vast quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and fuels to run farm machinery, all of them being made from crude oil and natural gas, we could not grow enough food to feed the rising population, nor even the current number, nor far less than that. Some predict that a "die off" will follow peak oil production, and that the world population will fall from 7 billion to perhaps as few as 500 million (the death of almost 5 billion people, or about 92% of the number now alive).

An analogy can be drawn with the growth of bacteria, which, so long as there is sufficient food available, follows a "sigmoid curve". There is an initial growth in population which multiplies rapidly (the rising upper of the sigmoid), and then levels off abruptly when the food supply becomes restricted relative to the new, far larger population. Then they begin to eat each other instead, and the number of bacteria remaining alive plummets.

Placed in human terms, it is hardly a comforting comparison.

By. Professor Chris Rhodes

Professor Chris Rhodes is a writer and researcher. He studied chemistry at Sussex University, earning both a B.Sc and a Doctoral degree (D.Phil.); rising to become the youngest professor of physical chemistry in the U.K. at the age of 34.
A prolific author, Chris has published more than 400 research and popular science articles (some in national newspapers: The Independent and The Daily Telegraph)
He has recently published his first novel, "University Shambles" was published in April 2009 (Melrose Books).

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  • Fred Banks on December 20 2011 said:
    I don't see the problem, Chris. It's up to the voters to see the light, or they will go under. In the US the voters allowed George W. to steal his first election - which was OK, since Gore was hopeless - but what was the point in reelecting a man who started a war on the basis of a lie. As for Obama, he is just incompetent,As for the UK, I couldn't stand Cameron because of his lies about Libya - another war about oil - but when I heard his reasons for not joining the EU farce last month I realized that I was wrong. He got it right, and I hope that the voters understand that he got it right, because if they do understand they might come out of this smelling like roses.
  • i on December 20 2011 said:
    Unfortunately, even this scenario is optimistic. After the supply of energetically and economically positive oil reaches a point where the supply chains that support its production are no longer self-sustaining, there will be a period where there will still be plenty of viable nuclear weapons, and non-viable nuclear power plants dependent on an external power grid partially fueled by coal, which will no longer be transportable in sufficient quantities to count as a significant source of electricity. If enough nukes are released, and enough nuclear power plants die, Fukashima style, the die-off could be dramatically higher than that caused by simple mass starvation and localized warfare.
  • bobi on December 20 2011 said:
    Well, it's either "devastation of the world population by decreased oil production", or "devastation of the world population by the escalation of earthquakes, volcanic activity and magnetic disturbances in the earth due to the trillions of barrels of oil extracted daily". Damned if we do and damned if we don't. The proverbial, "caught between the rock and the hard spot". :eek:
  • Roland on December 20 2011 said:
    Massive population loss is no fun, but look on the bright side: there's a strong argument that the last population loss (the Black Death) caused the Renaissance. Survivors inherited wealth, and there was a labor shortage causing both higher wages and innovation. If small-scale nuclear/thorium proves practical, there could be an all-electric economy.

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