follow us like us subscribe contact us
Adbar

What Happens When the Oil Runs Out?

By Professor Chris Rhodes | Mon, 29 July 2013 22:03 | 16

Summary of a lecture by Professor Chris Rhodes to the Conway Hall Ethical Society, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London. 11.00 am, Sunday July 28th, 2013.

The world supply of crude oil isn’t going to run out any time soon, and we will be producing oil for decades to come. However, what we won’t be doing is producing crude oil – petroleum – at the present rate of around 30 billion barrels per year. For a global civilization that is based almost entirely on a plentiful supply of cheap, crude oil, this is going to present some considerable challenges. If we look over a 40 year period, from 1965 to 2005, we see that by the end of it, humanity was using two and a half times as much oil, twice as much coal and three times as much natural gas, as at the start, and overall, around three times as much energy: this for a population that had “only” doubled. Hence our individual average carbon footprint had increased substantially – not, of course, that this increase in the use of energy, and all else, was by any means equally distributed across the globe.

From the latest document that I can find – the B.P. Statistical Review – we see that the majority form of energy used by humans on earth is crude oil, accounting for 33% of our total, closely followed by coal at 30%: a figure that is rapidly catching up with oil, as coal is the principal and increasing source of energy in developing nations such as China and India. Natural gas follows in a close third place, at 24%; nuclear and hydroelectric power at 5-6% each; and the tiny fraction of our overall energy that comes from “renewables”, is just 1.6%. Thus, we are dependent on the fossil fuels for 87% of our energy. Now, such a comparison is almost misleading and naïve, because it tacitly presumes that if our oil supply becomes compromised, we can make a simple substitution for it using some other energy source.

However, this is not so readily done in practice, because oil is a particular and unique substance, having both a high energy content, and that it is readily refined into liquid fuels – effectively by distillation – to provide the petrol and diesel that runs practically all of the world’s transportation. Moreover, everything we depend upon - literally everything: food, materials, clothes, computers, mobile phones, pharmaceuticals etc. – for our daily existence is underpinned by a plentiful supply of cheap crude oil. So, the loss of this provision is going to have a profound, and shattering effect on human civilization.

In the “good old days”, e.g. the Humphrey Jones “Giant Gusher” drilled in Texas in 1922, it was necessary only to drill a hole in the ground to get oil. An oil well contains not only oil, but gas at high pressure, meaning that once the cap-rock that holds it all in place is broken, the oil is forced out in that familiar jet of black gold. The good old days indeed, because then it was necessary only to expend an amount of energy equal to that contained in one barrel of oil to recover a hundred barrels, which is like investing a pound and getting a return of a hundred pounds – a very good net profit. In 2013, the return is maybe twenty pounds or just three for extra-heavy oil, or for “oil” derived from tar sands, once it has been upgraded into liquid fuel.

Of greatest concern is how much oil is remaining. As noted, we currently use 30 billion barrels a year – 84 million barrels a day, or a thousand barrels every second. When it is trumpeted about some new and huge find of oil, e.g. the Tupi field off Brazil, thought to contain 8 billion barrels, in reality this is only enough to run the world for three months. Context should not be lost in these matters. The quality of the oil is also at issue. For example, much of the remaining oil is of the “heavy”, “sour” kind, meaning that it is not necessarily liquid at all, but bitumen, and contains relatively high levels of sulphur, necessitating complex and energy-intensive processing to get the sulphur out – which would otherwise be corrosive toward the steel used in the refinery – and to crack the heavier material into lighter fractions that can be used as fuel, or as feedstocks for industry.

So, it’s not just that we have got through much of our original bestowal of oil, but that what remains is of poorer quality – in other words, we have used-up most of the “good stuff”! Oil shale is not oil at all, but contains a material called “kerogen” which is a solid and needs to be heated to five hundred degrees Centigrade to break it down into a liquid form that in any way resembles what we normally think of as “oil”. So, when it is claimed that there are “three trillion barrels” of oil under America, really this is only to encourage voters and investors, because the actual Energy return on Energy Invested (EROEI) is so poor that there has been no serious commercial exploitation of oil shale to date, and probably there never will be.

Not only are we entirely dependent on crude oil for all our fuel and materials, but without cheap crude oil, and natural gas to make nitrogen fertilizers, we could grow no food. If we look at a field of soya beans being harvested in Brazil, we see a number of features. For one, those beans are not consumed at source, but are transported around Brazil and around the world. So, oil-derived fuels are necessary not only to run the tractors and combine harvesters, but the trucks, ships and planes to move the crop onto the world markets. In addition, we see the vast clouds of dust being thrown up behind the marching array of mighty machines – combine harvesters – which represents the loss of top-soil.

Even if we could solve all our energy problems, we are consuming the living and fragile portion of the earth’s surface that is our soil, and upon which we are utterly dependent to grow any food at all. We have “lost” around one third of our soil in the past half century - much of this through unsound and unsustainable agricultural practices - which does not bode well for the survival of a burgeoning human population. Another feature is that this land was once rain forest, which has been cleared to use the land for farming.

This is done either simply by setting fire to the forest, or by more exquisite means, such as taking a ship’s anchor chain, four hundred feet long - and if it is two inches in diameter, weighing five tonnes – then stringing it between two one hundred tonne tractors and simply driving over the terrain, so that the chain rips through everything that is there, tearing the trees out by their roots and destroying the structure of the soil in the process. The upshot is that the soil becomes unproductive within only a few years and so it is necessary to move on and do the same thing elsewhere.

In Britain we import about 40% of what we eat, and we use around 7 million tonnes of crude oil each year to fuel our food-chain. It can be said that we literally “eat oil”.

The concept of “Peak Oil” is due to Marion King Hubbert, a petroleum geologist working for the Shell Development Company in Texas, who predicted that oil production in America would peak in 1970. At that time, Texas was “awash” with oil – America being the world’s major oil-exporting nation then - and so no one took him seriously: but when in 1970, he was proved correct, Hubbert’s Peak entered the realm both of hard science and folklore. According to Hubbert, there is a 40 year lag between the year of peak discovery and that of peak production. If we apply this to the world situation, where global oil discovery peaked in 1965, we expect a global production in 2005. Indeed world production of oil has been on a flat line since 2005, and it is thought that we are at the production limit.

The price of oil has quadrupled in the past 10 years, reflecting the more strenuous efforts that are necessary to maintain production: deepwater drilling, fracking, tar sands, all of which have much lower energy returns than for conventional crude oil. Indeed, oil that is recovered from fracking costs about $105 a barrel to produce which until recently was more than it could be sold for. However, the price of oil is creeping up, and the industry is prepared to bear the loss for now, because it knows that the price of a barrel of oil will shortly rocket, and having cornered this “new” portion of the industry, will make big profits. Oil companies are not charities, after all. I emphasis the word “new” because fracking – properly called hydraulic fracturing – has been around since 1947: what is new is the combination of this technique with horizontal drilling, meaning that porous but impermeable rocks can be drilled-out laterally, then “fracked” to break them open thus releasing the oil or gas that they contain.

Fracking is a controversial matter, and there are grave concerns about groundwater contamination from the process. It is not only the fear that the chemicals that were originally present in the fracking fluid might migrate upward into the water table, but that other toxic materials, e.g. radon, that were confined safely within the natural prevailing geology, might be exhumed too. The Royal Society (U.K. equivalent of a national academy of sciences) has concluded that the procedure is safe, so long as it is strictly regulated, but how can this be guaranteed, when profits are the order of the day, and if the technology is to be employed across the world?

What too will become of the millions of gallons of contaminated water, injected under great pressure into the wells to fracture the rock, that remains? Will this be disposed of safely or simply left behind, potentially to leak into and contaminate the groundwater and the soil? This would be a tragic and cruel legacy for future generations.

Analyses made by both the International Energy Administration (IEA; effectively part of the U.S. Department of Energy) and its counterpart organisation, the Paris-based Energy Information Agency (EIA), concur that we will have lost around half our production of conventional crude oil by 2030. This is equivalent to four times the present output of Saudi Arabia, and it seems highly unlikely that this gap in supply can be filled from unconventional sources. Since we are entirely dependent on crude oil to fuel the world’s transportation, and looking at the amount of oil we are likely to be left with, we may conclude that it will be necessary to curb transportation by about 70% over the next 20 years.

This means the loss mainly of personalized transport and it is unfeasible that there will be 34 million electric cars in the U.K. (the current number of oil-fuelled cars) any time soon, and in reality, never. The only sensible means to move people around using electric power is by light rail and tramways, i.e. mass-transit systems.

If we can’t address the problem from the supply side we have to curb our demand. In the absence of cheap and widely accessible transport we will need to produce far more of our food and materials at the local level. Such a metamorphosis of human civilization from the global to the local, will be underpinned by building strong, resilient communities in which people share their skills and knowledge, to provide as much as possible at the local, grass-roots level. This is the underpinning philosophy of the growing network of Transition Towns. Frightening though all of this is, we may evolve into a happier and more fulfilling state of living than a perceived status quo, that in truth is all too rapidly running through our fingers.

By. Professor Chris Rhodes

About the author

More recent articles by Professor Chris Rhodes

Mon 29 July 2013
What Happens When the Oil Runs Out?
Tue 19 February 2013
Governments Must Work together to Avoid a Peak Oil Scenario
Sun 10 February 2013
The Petroleum Rollercoaster
Sun 27 January 2013
Why EROEI Means Mining in Space will Never Work
Thu 24 January 2013
Low Energy Light Bulbs Not So "Green" After All?

Leave a comment

  • Stan Gore on July 29 2013 said:
    We can produce 30 billion barrels for a long time if we'd do like the Russians did starting in the 50's.Stalin had the same synthesis reports from the Germans that we had.Stalin had his engineers start to drill 42,500 feet,and they found oil.By the 70's Russia became the worlds no.1 producer.Why? They just drilled down to where the oil was being made.But it's worth a lot more if we're about to run out.
  • oh-heck on July 29 2013 said:
    The best answer of what will we do when the oil runs out is to re-examine the assumptions and try to find a better way. The conventional oil production in TX peaked in the 1970s and has been in exponential decay since. Then in 2008, the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing was utilized to produce natural gas and some oil. The initial drilling targeted dry and wet natural gas until the success of the drilling technique drove down prices. Then better mapping and exploratory drilling showed oil could be produced cost effectively. The growth in additional oil production has been exponential (the increase from 1 million barrels a day which is where the decay had effectively plateaued from the 1970s peak). Now the state is producing 2.5 million barrels a day. Once we collected the oil that made it to the surface. Then we drilled whenever we could find a big pool trapped under a rock formation. Now we are tapping the source rock. I don't know what will be next but predict something will.
  • Blount on July 30 2013 said:
    Only a complete energy illiterate can fail to understand that all future energy roads will lead to advanced nuclear power and heat.

    Advanced generations of nuclear power will produce more than enough electricity and cheap heat to facilitate production of unconventional liquid fuels for many hundreds of years. That should be long enough to convert to a mainly electrical infrastructure from the hydrocarbon base.

    A great global collapse caused by war, disease, government engineered economic disaster, or unanticipated natural disaster such as a cosmic collision could change the balance completely, of course.
  • MrColdWaterOfRealityMan on July 30 2013 said:
    I'll have to agree with Blount on this one. The only industrial scale energy substitute that has any hope of replacing hydrocarbons is nuclear power, specifically, thorium based nuclear power, combined with better battery technology.

    The blase assumption that something better will always come along to exploit more of the oil in the hydrocarbon horizon is just silly. There's only so much oil, and it takes energy and money to get at it. This is clearly demonstrated by the results of fracking, melting oil sands in situ and deepwater drilling. Yes, we're still producing our 30 billion barrels a year, but the price of oil per barrel in 1997 was $12. Sixteen years later, it's hovering around $100 a barrel - a near 10-fold increase. All technologies eventually run in to diminishing returns. Drilling technology is no exception.
  • SpeakingTruth on July 30 2013 said:
    I completely disagree with the nuclear argument. Studies have shown that nuclear power (in its current state at least) is at best net energy neutral. That is because there are extremely high energy costs associated with the construction of the plants and the mining and processing of the fuel that eats all energy gains produced by the plant. And that's before one even considers the costs (and energy) associated with disposal of the nuclear waste. Plus, there is only 30 years of uranium globally available at current rates.

    One premise of the article that seems to be lost on some of the commentators is that it takes energy to produce energy- and we are at the point where the equation turns negative for all forms of energy (including many renewables, by the way). Battery technology doesn't create energy, it only stores a fraction of what it took to charge that battery.

    The other elephant in the room that this article doesn't touch on is the conflict between energy production and water use. It takes a LOT of water to produce energy (all kinds), and we are running out of available water supplies. For power production,l the temperature of the water used for cooling is as imporant as the supply of water- and global warming is causing water temperature to reach their limit along many of our nuclear plants here in the US. Soon we will have to choose whether to use our water for personal consumption, agriculture, or energy production. In some parts of the country they are already having to make this choice.
  • Adam eran on July 30 2013 said:
    Worth a look: http://www.ted.com/talks/amory_lovins_a_50_year_plan_for_energy.html
  • lsjogren on July 30 2013 said:
    I agree with most of the professor's commentary but some facts are overstated. One example:

    "without cheap crude oil, and natural gas to make nitrogen fertilizers, we could grow no food"

    No, we could of course produce some food by primitive agricultural methods. But far less than what could sustain the current human population. In other words, the professor's point is fundamentally valid, but he expresses it in such an extreme form that he makes himself vulnerable to being criticized for assertions which are literally invalid, although functionally valid.

    Another beef I have is his notion that a happy human society could emerge from a world without oil or some other abundant energy source.

    Cheap energy which is what liberated mankind from a life that was short and grim. It enabled specialization, so that people could pursue lives focused on science, art, or music. If and when the cheap energy goes away, the human race reverts back to a short and grim existence.

    For that reason, we had better hope that mankind does come up with viable energy alternatives to fossil fuels.
  • Synapsid on July 30 2013 said:
    The EIA is part of the US government. The IEA is based in Paris.
  • Mark Goldes on July 30 2013 said:
    Oil can be left behind much more rapidly than might be imagined.

    Revolutionary new technologies are en-route. Some can turn future cars into power plants, able to sell electricity when suitably parked. No wires needed. Cars, truck and buses might even pay for themselves.

    Others, such as replacements for diesel and gasoline by Joule Energy, recently partnered with Audi, will soon be commercial.

    Since these are hard to believe breakthroughs, a means has been required to increase support for the best of them.

    An engine has been invented that needs no fuel. It could trigger a perpetual commotion.

    See NO FUEL ENGINE on the AESOP Institute website.

    Since these engines will not get hot, after a prototype is validated by an independent lab, small plastic desktop piston engines are planned that will run a radio and recharge cell phones.

    Metal versions are expected to power homes 24/7 and replace diesel generators. They might provide an on-board recharge for electric cars.

    Making the "impossible" possible will open a surprisingly practical path to rapid reduction in the need for all fossil and radioactive fuels.
  • Steve Bull on July 31 2013 said:
    Michael Ruppert, in his documentary Collapse, nailed it when he argued that the convergence of peak oil with an economic system that can only survive with exponential growth (which is impossible on a finite planet) will end in a global collapse of civilisation. And there is so much evidence to support his thesis.

    The professor's argument is in line with what Ruppert argued years ago and Hubbert long before him. I suggest that everyone should view this documentary along with University of Colorado's Professor Albert Bartlett's presentation on exponential growth.

    www.olduvaiblog.wordpress.com
  • Chris Rhodes on July 31 2013 said:
    I'm glad to see that the article has attracted so many comments, most of which I agree with. I will now try and respond to some of them:

    Stan Gore alludes to the ultra-deep drilling done by the Russians, which I believe was prompted by the Russian-Ukrainian theory of abiotic petroleum formation, that the material is formed within the earth by geochemical processes. I have discussed this with western geologists who are dismissive of the notion, but I have been told privately by Russian geologists that they can indeed tap into vast oil reserves at depth. My main comment is that drilling at such depths is likely to be very energy intensive, and so that oil will have a poorer net energy return than conventional crude.

    Oh-heck suggest that there may be other sources of oil found, though new technology, as happened with fracking. That is almost certainly true, but the cost is likely to be high, and there are many fields that are not yet worth exploiting until the price of a barrel of oil is far above what it is currently.

    I am a fan of thorium power and wrote an article about the subject recently: http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/thorium-based-nuclear-power-current_8.html

    Nuclear power provides thermal energy, which is normally extracted to make electricity. Deriving liquid fuels on the 84 million barrel a day scale, using nuclear as an energy source - in replacement of a supply of conventional crude that is predicted to be just about half of the present amount by 2030 - would be a considerable undertaking, in terms on energy, new engineering, materials etc., and I doubt it could be done... or not in time to avert a liquid fuels crisis. Electric vehicles are an obvious option, but not on the global one billion number of road vehicles currently running on oil-derived liquid fuel (again, not any time soon. Mass transit is more practical, to move people and goods by electric power, trains and tramways.

    Isjogren makes a fair point, that indeed I am referring to the present industrialized agriculture, and should say so. it is indeed the 7 billion of us that probably could not be fed without cheap oil and gas. David Pimental reckons that the carrying capacity of the earth is 2-3 billion, i.e. without all these cheap and plentiful energy and other inputs, and I have seen a similar estimate from one of the major permaculturists. That said there are more sanguine practitioners of permaculture who think that we could feed even more than the current global population. I am dubious about this, however.

    Synapsid is correct too. There are a couple of typos here, and the EIA and IEA are as he states them to be.

    I am interested in what mark Goldes says, about Joule energy and his allusion to other forms of energy technology. My comment here is not a dispute to this, but a question of how quickly might we really bring them on-stream against the rapidly falling oil supply, if the EIA and IEA forecasts are correct?

    Finally, I take Steve Bull's point about an oil supply that will no longer be able to underpin exponential "growth", which is what our current economic system depends on. It may well be that civilization will collapse, and only in the idea of localisation and "Transition" can I find an possible antidote to this.
  • Kristoff on July 31 2013 said:
    Professor Rhodes is mistaken if he believes that oil substitutes need to completely replace crude oil at any one point in time. In real economies they only need to supplement crude oil, to provide breathing room and a marginal supply.

    Crude oil is not on an "on-off" switch. The transition away from crude oil will eventually mimic a slow decay, similar to a radioactive half life. Alternatives to crude oil will grow as economically viable and as logistically necessary -- over time.
  • Mark_BC on July 31 2013 said:
    This is a good article, a great summary of the problem to newcomers. I am not at all optimistic about nuclear energy -- the US can barely keep its current reactors going, how is it going to be able to pull together to build tons of new ones based on NEW thorium technology (even though the idea has been around for a while, working prototypes have not), and manage to go through the demonstration phase, financing, and then construction, all within the next 5 years? Are these people mad? Plus, since America has offshored so much of its tech industries, hardly anyone knows much about engineering, how are they going to be able to develop these reactors? Who is going to design and build them? Everyone these days is an arts major. The amount of capital and social stability needed to pull off a transition to nuclear is very high, and when oil production tanks and the US enters its final economic depression to end all economic depressions, we won't have any of that. Sorry, nuclear is pure fantasy.

    Solar is our only hope, and its advantage is that it is scalable down to the micro scale, so even in the event of social collapse, as long as a factory can keep cranking them out, it could flourish.

    Chris, I have done some indepth energy calculations for many of the topics you discuss, especially food production and its reliance on fossil fuels. You can see them at markbc.net
  • Chris Rhodes on August 02 2013 said:
    I agree with Kristoff that we will need "breathing space" as the oil supply declines, but this will entail behavioural changes, i.e. moving goods and people around less, and that "space" is to enable/support us, as we move toward a finally sustainable way of living.

    I agree that it would take quite some time to install a whole new swathe of thorium reactors, and it is not obvious that these will provide "breathing space" against a declining supply of cheap liquid fuels. If we don't need to replace oil "barrel for barrel" as it were, we have to install a Plan B for transportation, including using less of it in the future. This is the Transition, that we have to make.

    I've just looked at some of your sums, Mark, and they look right on the nail! It's only hard numbers that make a real case. When I started my blog http://ergobalance.blogspot.com I used to crunch the numbers too. Maybe I'll go back to doing that, prompted by you!
  • Kvakernaak on October 22 2013 said:
    Speaking of oil reserves, the reality of it is that there is still a lot of oil to go around http://dailyfusion.net/2013/10/not-running-out-of-oil-yet-oil-reserves-overview-22786/ . What we should do about it depends very much on a point of view: we could either assume that we have enough time to slowly replace the core energy generation capacity with other energy sources, or that oil won’t go away by itself and should be replaced via policy decisions and other mechanisms.
  • Bruce on December 07 2013 said:
    I'm quite surprised at how civilized this discussion is in the comments section! I would like to applaud both the author (and moderator?) and the participants for such interesting viewpoints.

    As an middle-class family with two young children, I'm very concerned about the future. I believe that in reality, the solution is multifaceted and all of the topics have been touched on in this discussion (water, food supply, transportation, economy, etc).

    There are many groups attempting to educate people on these problems but there is no unified approach that has approached a 'tipping point' in changing peoples' way of living. Does anyone know which organization is working on the best unified approach? I think TED.com does a good job with delivering information but there's nothing viral happening. Sorry, I can't help but feel pessimistic but I'm willing to look to the bright side if I knew where to look.

    I do what I can as an individual (eat local, eat very little meat, drive less, work from home, consume less)... what else can I do?

Leave a comment