Oil And Energy: Bountiful Or Dwindling? Experts Argue

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Love or hate it, oil is an incredibly useful product.

Used to create everything from plastics to pharmaceuticals--and of course, fuel for transportation--its environmental credentials might be low, but it's been an essential substance in creating the world we live in today.

So too have other energy sources, such as gas, coal, and uranium. But just how much--or little--do we have left to keep us going over the next century?

It's a subject of huge debate, and one covered in great detail in a feature published by the McClatchy Newspapers chain.

As with many other resources, oil, coal, gas and other energy sources are subject to the laws of supply and demand. Our major issue is knowing exactly how much supply we have remaining--and how much each product will be in demand over the coming decades.

Half a century

The figures quoted by some research groups don't make for easy reading. The Energy Information Administration's 2011 outlook suggests the world has 126 years of coal remaining, and only 60 years of gas. Using the Oil & Gas Journal's 2011 figure of 1.47 trillion barrels of oil remaining, at current use there are only around 46 years of reserves left.

Worse still, these figures aren't subject to annual growth in consumption--predicted between a conservative 1.6 percent, and the 2.2 percent rate of past decades. At 1.6 percent, oil, natural gas, coal and uranium could run out within 56 years. At the higher growth rate, liquid fuels could be exhausted in 36 years--based on current estimates.

On the flip side, new reserves are being discovered all the time, and in the past this has kept pace with usage.

Finding new resources will undoubtedly begin to get more expensive, but that's just the price we'll have to pay to ensure our reserves last beyond the next half century.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that total undiscovered reserves amount to 681 billion barrels. This includes reserves deemed too expensive to access--and half of that amount would only satiate global demand for another decade.

Action coming too late?

Some feel the Obama Administration's 54.5 mpg 2025 CAFE requirements have come too late--that countries such as the U.S. should have started buying more efficient cars decades ago. Even then, countries like China and India are bumping up demand--and contributing hugely to global pollution as they do so.

Others suggest the figures for remaining reserves are still pessimistic, that they don't take into account advances in technology allowing us to more efficiently drill for oil, or frack for gas. Again, it's unclear whether even those figures take into account a projected 1.7 billion increase in global population by 2035, with 850 million more cars.

It's a debate that will rumble on for some time to come, and nobody is quite sure just how long we have left of some of our most convenient energy sources.

Energy shortage is of course one of the best reasons for increasing focus on whichever renewable sources are most appropriate for any given environment, too. It's still yet to happen on a large scale, but over the next few decades renewable energy may prove vital for taking the pressure off our fossil fuel addiction.

But one thing is for sure--nobody is too keen to find out what happens when we run out...


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Comments (9)
  1. I suspect that there are 36 years of reserves remaining, and there always will be. Of course the oil and gas industry have strong economic incentive to make everyone think their product is scarce. But mostly, if we don't curtail fossil fuel use, then fossil fuel use will curtail us. I must respectfully disagree with the last sentence of this article, Antony. Given our present reserves of solar energy and the way the climate is going, I am VERY keen to find out what happens when we don't use our remaining fossil reserves.

  2. The article says we have enough coal for 126 years, enough natural gas for 60 years, and enough oil for 46 years.

    What the article doesn't say is oil reserves in the ground don't equate to oil supply in the market. Specifically, as we run out of oil, the oil in the ground gets harder and harder to pump out.

    U.S. oil production peaked in 1973, and has been declining ever since. Many wells pump out more water than oil. Tar sands require a lot of time and energy to extract oil. Most of the good wells are in the arctic, or a mile under the ocean. This is what peak oil looks like. It's not like the oil is all gone, it's just harder to extract, so production goes down.

    World oil production will decline long before we run out.

  3. Action coming too late? Yes. Because no one cares until its almost too late, look at the fiscal cliff decision, congress waited till the end of the last day to vote on the stupid thing. People just don't care, we're going to continue to over populate, waste resources, and pollute until its too late. We seem content to clean up our messes after we've made them.

  4. @CDspeed - I certainly agree with you except for the "no one cares" part. The Amercan people used to care a lot more until about 1989 when the fossil fuel industries hired some people from the Tobacco Institute to try to "re-educate" all of us. As for "clean up our messes after we've made them", it's the "after" part that worries me. I really hope there is one.

  5. @Norm, I know that there are people who do care especially those of us who read sites like GCR.

  6. It is rather alarming that global oil production seems to have maxed out in 2006 and remained stable ever since while demand continues to rise. It's like a protracted peak oil or maybe "plateau oil" if you like, a phase in which many existing wells are depleting but the ensuing increase in oil price makes it economical to exploit ever more marginal oil sources to pick up the slack.

    There is still lots of oil left but the easy oil is pretty much all gone by now I think. What's left is expensive, dirty and coveted by many rivalling countries. I think we will live in interesting times.

  7. Unfortunately the question is moot.
    If we humans don't get a grip on our appetite for oil and other fossil fuels, running out will be the least of our worries.


    [Yes I've posted this before but I think those numbers are again sadly way too relevant to the discussion here]

  8. The earth receives enough energy from the solar each day to power the humanity for 1 year.

    We just need to figure out a way to turn some of that energy into a good storage and use it "efficiently".

  9. Cheap easy oil that allows economies to grow peaked in 2006.... everything else isn't cheap and we won't grow, if we do, oil will spike and shut things down with recessions...


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