What if the world never runs out of oil?

We have more than enough crude to destroy the Earth through pollution, global warming and ravaging of all resources.

 |  5-minute read |   12-02-2016
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The global citizen is the biggest schizophrenic when it comes to oil consumption (petrol and diesel). On the one hand, he's a major consumer and guzzler of oil through cars, public transport and air travel. On the other hand, he cries loudly that it's environmentally destructive and we should put an end to fossil fuels.

Once it was felt that the price of oil would rise forever. When the price of oil soared above $140 a barrel around June 2008, alarmists started crying it would soon cross $200. But in February 2016 it has already crashed to $27! Nobody really knows what is happening and oil seems to be governed by some uncertainty principle.

On one hand, there's an alarmist question asking what happens when oil will run out. Are we ready with alternative fuels when that finally happens? There is also a question that is never asked: what if oil lasts forever?

How long will our global oil reserves last? It's all nebulous and different experts say wildly varying things. There's a concept called "peak oil" which Wikipedia defines as the point in time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which it is expected to enter terminal decline.

So the trillion dollar question is: when will peak oil come? There are dozens of such estimates. One 2002 estimate said that peak oil was reached in 1989; another published in 2004 said that it will come only in 2060! And since then, a lot of oil has flown through the barrels.

Let me explain.

While growing up we were taught that Saudi Arabia had the largest oil reserves in the world and there was no close second. Then from 1985 onwards, the estimates of Venezuela curiously kept increasing and it really shot up after 2005. In 2011, the then Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez announced that his country had the largest oil reserves in the world.

Today it is accepted that Saudi Arabia has 265 billion barrels of oil and Venezuela has 297. So if the Saudis provided most of the world's oil, then Venezuela can take its place any time!

Then something called fracking joined the party. It a totally unconventional and even more environmentally destructive way of getting more oil, via shale. As more and more fracking drilling takes place, the amount of oil available to the world sharply goes up.

America's Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the worldwide reserves of such oil reserves, also called "tight oil", happens to be nearly 345 billion barrels!

Then it gets better, or if you are an environmentalist, it gets worse. There's something called "tar sands". Canada's Athabasca oil sands have potentially 1.7 trillion barrels. Yes, you read that right.

A Canadian official boasted that they were the number one oil nation in the world and that's at par with the conventional reserves of the whole world! In fact conventional oil reserves account for just 30 per cent of the total reserves of all kinds.

Environmentalists are fighting fracking and tar sands tooth and nail and they are currently a small percentage of global oil production. But what can you do if governments of the world push ahead? What if technology helps in having more and more unconventional oil methods?

In fact after the above estimate put the year of peak oil at 2060 you can see that reserves and other means of getting oil seem to be increasing and not decreasing. Another example is oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean. Royal Dutch Shell was given permission and Greenpeace took them head on.

Shell withdrew not because of protests but because it wasn't feasible. Here's an interesting titbit. If global warming happens, then Arctic ice will melt and then it will become feasible! That means the more oil we use and the more global warming we do, more reserves like those in the Arctic will open up!

For a layman it already appears that there's no end to oil. But there are still many more goodies in the oil cabinet. Did you know that it is estimated that there are a massive 200 billion barrels of oil in Antarctica?

Currently experts will tell you oil exploration is banned there. It is unfeasible. Transportation costs are huge. They have currently ruled it out totally. But think it over. What will stop oil in Antarctica from being extracted 50 years from now? Can anyone guarantee that it will not happen? I don't think so.

We have already entered an uncertain zone. For ages Saudi Arabia was the largest oil producer. However, now in any given month it could be America or Russia. And one day Venezuela could beat them all.

Already oil is $27 a barrel and US President Barack Obama has signed a deal with Iran. One of the after-effects of it will be that Iranian oil will flood the market! End the Islamic State (ISIS) problem and a new government in Iraq can get back more Iraqi oil into the global market too!

Think of a future scenario, not so far-fetched.

Conventional oil ends. We can shift to shale. Shale ends. We can shift to tar sands. Tar sands end. We can shift to Arctic (thanks to global warming). Arctic oil ends. We shift to Antarctica. By then technology and business needs will make it happen.

A big point missed by everyone is that we have more than enough oil to destroy the Earth through pollution, global warming and ravaging of all resources. What that means is that oil could well last as long as mankind. Both may come to an end together.

So for mankind at least, oil could, well, last forever!

Writer

Sunil Rajguru Sunil Rajguru @sunilrajguru

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist and blogger.

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