Science Questions

Running Out of Oil

Sun, 27th Apr 2008

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Dr Raj, Sri Lanka asked:

During the 1970s we were told oil would run out by the year 2000 but then new reserves were discovered. We're now told 2100 is when we'll be starved of oil. Is it possible we'll find more oil reserves in time and why have we missed them before? Can the price of oil make smaller reserves economically viable?


Alistair Crosby, University of Cambridge:

Predictions of the end of oil have a long and undistinguished history.  In 1874 the state geologist of Pennsylvania said that all the oil would be gone by 1878.  Needless to say, it wasn’t.  In the 1970s pundits predicted we would run out by they year 2000 and they were wrong too.

An Oil Well in TexasThe reason why current predictions of peak oil production are almost certainly wide of the mark is that its price has increased hugely in the last ten years with no reduction in demand.  This allows the production of reserves previously considered infeasible.  The greater the price, the greater the fraction of a given oil field that can be extracted out for profit.

In other words, peak oil depends on price.

A good example is the tar sands of Venezuela.  It is only economic to extract the heavy oil when prices are more than $30 per barrel.  The sands in these two countries alone contain more oil than the conventional reserves of the rest of the world combined.  More importantly high prices allow exploration of previously inaccessible areas such as the deep continental shelves of West Africa and Brazil.  Exploration here is amazingly expensive.  To drill a single well can cost upwards of a $100,000,000 but the rewards are immense. 

It may not be politic to say so, but global warming will also keep us in oil.  As sea ice melts huge swathes of the arctic will become accessible and may contain reserves as large as anything in the Atlantic.  It is no coincidence that Russia, America, Denmark and Canada re all aggressively staking their claims.

In the end of course, we will reach the end of what can be viably extracted although probably not in our lifetimes.  By then I think we will no longer care.  As Sheikh Yamani famously said, “The stone age did not end because we had a lack of stones and the oil age will not end because we have a lack of oil.”  We have not invented oil’s replacement yet, but I think it is only a matter of time.


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Looks like it will be next Tuesday if Grangemouth goes on strike like they plan.

There have been developments in pumping oil to the surface since the initial estimates, like pumping in steam to force out more oil. Who knows if there will be other advances. One thing is sure, if the price keeps rising then people will go to greater lengths to get it out of the ground. turnipsock, Tue, 22nd Apr 2008

Turnipsock do you have enough fuel for your home, cars etc?? rosalind dna, Tue, 22nd Apr 2008

I guess it all depends on how fast we use it. China has now become a big user so things have changed again.

The Grangemouth strike might be a good thing as it will show us how much we depend on the stuff. turnipsock, Thu, 24th Apr 2008

I've got 3/4 of a tank left. And everyone's panic buying!

<Mod Edit - Spam removed>

johnnyfr, Sat, 26th Apr 2008

Aberfoyle Motors is at £1.18 a litre. Lomondview will be even higher, but only a fool would go there.

Like this Top Gear presenter. turnipsock, Sat, 26th Apr 2008

Humans will never exactly run out of oil. It is there in abundance in many forms. It is just that it gets more and more expensive to extract until it is simply uneconomic to do so. As we have seen the economics changes too, so it depends on what alternatives there are and how much they will cost as to when we stop extracting the oil. graham.d, Sat, 26th Apr 2008

WE will not run completely out of oil but fueling your car in 2050 will cost about 80 dollars a gallon net present value, so the extremely rich will keep on driving. Hydrogen will be our salvation but I will be long gone and dead by this time

Alan Alan McDougall, Wed, 25th Jun 2008

"Hydrogen will be our salvation "
where will we gwet it? Bored chemist, Thu, 26th Jun 2008

A world without oil is unimaginable. Everyting will stop. Besides providing fuel, oil lubricates all our moving machinery.

So all power stations will stop,  cars will not run , there would be no electricity, cities will die, farms will have to use animals to plow

From space we will see a complete blackout, no light burning anywhere.

Airplanes will no fly, train will not run, food will become so expensive that billions might die.

Young man/lady invest in a bicycle!!!!!!!!!!!

That is how serious it could become, if timorously action is not taken . But it seems to me anyway our money grabbing leaders continue to sleep. But the wake up call is coming soon

Alan McDougall, Tue, 1st Jul 2008

Do not worry about it I will find something to replace oil.  erickejah, Mon, 20th Oct 2008

Or, mebbe, there's a recession/depression that lasts for years...? EH? Global warming, running out of oil...stupid! Twinkbait, Thu, 13th Nov 2008

Nothing can replace oil
Famine stalked the world,so grain can't replace
bearxu, Sun, 4th Jan 2009

As prices rise, novel solutions become more feasible, such as the manufacturing of oil from agricultural materials. The process has been demonstrated, although not economic at current prices. That could extend the supply of technical oil (lubrication, plastics, etc.) indefinitely. As for energy, ever hear of the hybrid automobile? This is coming on seriously now in the U.S., and with these plut-in hybrids, the effective gasoline mileage can soar to unheard of levels. The electric power itself can be generated by a multitude of different methods, particularly solar, nuclear, and wind -- all of which are also being pursued seriously. These developments could push the "end date" for oil out into the future indefinitely. Atomic-S, Mon, 26th Jan 2009



All valid points, but what about the ethics or morality of using ever decreasing food resources for fuel for vehicles. Famine stalks the world so a balance must be found.

There is an almost infinite supply of energy from the sun we must just learn how to tap into it better

For instance huge solar mirrors places strategically in space etc
Alan McDougall, Mon, 26th Jan 2009

It is true that there is a lot of oil and gas left in the earth.  However, the costs of extraction in monetary terms and more importantly in the amount of energy invested to extract it will become increasingly critical. This is the concept of Energy Return On Energy Invested.
has a nice summary and some of the comments below it are interesting too.

Also pertinent to the issue is that oil may be present in a particular rock, but the rock only becomes a viable reservoir if the pores between grains are sufficiently well connected to allow that oil to flow out.

Mazurka, Tue, 27th Jan 2009

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