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"There's a whole ocean of oil under our feet!"
February 21, 2013 2:09 AM   Subscribe

Daily Telegraph: Why the world isn't running out of oil: "Moreover, as well as bountiful oilfields in North America, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other producers in the Middle East, there are massive, barely tapped reserves in South America, Africa and the Arctic: not billions of barrels’ worth, but trillions. So the planet is not about to run out of oil. On the contrary, according to a Harvard University report published last year, we are heading for a glut. The 75-page study, by oil executive Leonardo Maugeri, was based on a field-by-field analysis of most of the major oil exploration and development projects in the world, and it predicted a 20 per cent increase in global oil production by 2020."

"The Yastreb rig on Sakhalin Island, just off the east coast of Russia, has set numerous industry records and, last August, its operators announced they’d drilled the world’s longest extended-reach well, plunging eight miles into the Earth."

"In the past 10 years Shell has developed a technology called mono-diameter which will allow it to drop one steel casing through another, and then expand it to the same dimensions. In theory, this will facilitate the drilling of much deeper wells, although engineers still have to work out how to stop the steel melting at such depths."

"...so-called 'seismic vessels' trail between 10 and 20 cables, each up to nine miles long, probing sonically for oil and gas deposits."

"'What is going on out there is the marine equivalent of the space programme,' Robert Bryce, an American author and journalist specialising in energy issues, tells me. 'And all of it is privately funded.' ... In total, upstream energy companies (the ones involved in exploration and drilling) spent £800bn ($1.25tn) last year."

Recently on MetaFilter: The Huge Lights in North Dakota and Now, it’s true that no single event makes a trend...

Guardian: Petition to halt oil exploration in Ecuadorean Amazon gets 1m signatures.
posted by Wordshore (69 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
If the 20% increase turns out to be true we are all fucked.
posted by jaduncan at 2:13 AM on February 21, 2013 [11 favorites]


Someone once said that even if we did have unlimited clean energy, we'd completely trash the planet by driving all over everything.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:17 AM on February 21, 2013 [15 favorites]


1. Energy is a fundamental limiting variable. The more you have, the more uses you find for it, so it tends to be used up at an exponential rate, not a constant rate. When gasoline is cheap, people drive cars a lot more. The more cheap energy we have, the more the use of it will accelerate, and we'll be back at a shortage within a generation or two.
2. Running out isn't the only problem. Releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere will further increase climate change.

Because of point 1, there is no ultimate solution to the energy problem other than conservation. Because of point 2, prolonging the recognition of this fact will cause great ecological harm.
posted by JHarris at 2:19 AM on February 21, 2013 [13 favorites]


The real question isn't how much oil there is that we can potentially extract.

The real questions are:
1> How much will it cost to extract it?
and
2> What is the price will we all end up paying if we do?
posted by markkraft at 2:20 AM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


$5/ml, same as in town
posted by mannequito at 2:24 AM on February 21, 2013 [11 favorites]


Oh look, the Telegraph is pimping the "Earth is filled with a never-depletable bonbon of hydrocarbons! And that's all there istothestorylookoverthere!" fantasy. How many full page ads from BP did they sell in this issue, I wonder.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:27 AM on February 21, 2013 [14 favorites]


Well if you can't trust an oil executive that says it's not necessary to switch to alternate fuels, then I guess you just can't trust anyone.
posted by ceribus peribus at 2:28 AM on February 21, 2013 [53 favorites]


Aaargh all of that oil is just saved up solar radiation, and even though the sun is HUGE only a tiny fraction of its energy was "saved" as oil. The notion that oil is limitless, or that pulling as much carbon as we can out of the ground and dumping it into the air is an unalloyed good, is insane.

I think that in 50 years, the notion that we used petroleum for electricity or transportation or single-use coffee stirrers, instead of saving every precious drop for fertilizer, will be recognized as the worst case of mass insanity in human history.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:31 AM on February 21, 2013 [20 favorites]


The idea that we aren't running out of oil seems fundamentally at odds with the idea that, you know, future generations might also want to use precious finite resources of hydrocarbons.

Which generation runs out of oil is the moot point, rather than "ooh look at these shiny new oil fields."
posted by MuffinMan at 2:33 AM on February 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


Heh; yeah, deliberately put that suspiciously worded section above the fold - "... Harvard University report published ... by oil executive ...". Wondered if the editor was trying to give the latter credibility by trailing with the former. Also, no link to report, which can't find (anyone else?).

As per usual, the article also avoids mentioning oil/energy demand increases caused by world population growth (doubled in last 40 years alone, with higher unit transportation also adding to that). This 'oil race', finding ways of getting every last drop to keep up with the demands of a rapidly expanding parasitic life form, will surely not end well.
posted by Wordshore at 2:36 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


We are moving down the path to extract a lot of this oil in the US, however.

Case in point... California might soon surpass Texas in oil production. There are vast oil reserves in California that can be unlocked by fracking, and a considerable amount of it is in largely unpopulated areas, such as San Ardo, California.

Steven Chu is leaving, and there's a lot of money to be made by fracking. It's hard to imagine that areas where fracking will have the least impact on people won't go through in that kind of environment.

Fracking really isn't that expensive, compared to other ways of extracting oil. Right about now, I wouldn't want to be heavily invested in Canadian tar sands. I can see Obama sacrificing the Canadian pipeline and, by doing so, keeping the price of Canadian oil higher, even as he gives the go-ahead for major oil fracking projects in the US.
posted by markkraft at 2:39 AM on February 21, 2013


Lengthy sarcastic response
Much of the capacity and growth Maugeri foresees includes millions of barrels per day of natural gas liquids, of which only about one-quarter are useful as vehicular fuel.
Maugeri generally refers to production capacity throughout his report, not actual production. Therefore, while it is true that reserves do grow over time with the application of new technology, it is disingenuous to imply that it will lead to the enormous increases in production, or the far lower decline rates that Maugeri claims. Again, Maugeri only presents the summary results from his private database and does not disclose the recovery factors he is using, so there is no way to judge how realistic his model is.
Shorter straightforward response
The bottom line is that Maugeri has made some very optimistic assumptions about global average decline rates, failed to provide adequate justification for them and misrepresented the estimates made by others. Adopting more realistic estimates would significantly change his results.
posted by asok at 2:39 AM on February 21, 2013 [11 favorites]


And the reason for this boom? A technological revolution that is transforming the way we both find and extract oil.

And what's fueling that technological revolution? Oil at 100 dollars per barrel with a virtually unlimited demand. Imagine how much oil there will be when the price is 200 dollars.
posted by three blind mice at 2:40 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


You really shouldn't consider it as cost per barrel, but as cost for the energy that a barrel of oil gives you. At some point, it gets cheaper to develop better battery storage and power transmission and stuff like wind and solar than it is to get more oil out of the ground.
posted by empath at 2:44 AM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Hey, you know what word doesn't appear in that article? Depletion. As in global rate of depletion. As in the 7% or so of conventional oil that disappears from the spigot every year.

In the absence of this term, or some statistical comparison of known depletion rates versus current or near-term additions in production from the miraculous new (hard-to-reach, expensive-to-extract, expected-to-deplete-on-sharper-curves-than-conventional-fields) discoveries, I'm inclined to think that there might be less mythbusting going on here than this article lets on.

Can we maybe just barely keep global supplies flat or grow 'em even a bit? Probably yes. Does that negate the fact that we've not found anything even remotely like a conventional source in terms of cost, size and reliability of supply? Probably nope.
posted by gompa at 2:45 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Note. We have proven reserves that are in fact staggering large. The Orinoco tar sands belt is thought to contain as much crude as the entire conventional oil fields combined, some 1.2Tbbls. Athabasca has 1.7Tbbls.

This helps with peak oil not one bit, because there is this little problem of getting the stuff out quickly. Orinoco is too deep to mine, too thick to pump. Athabasca is shallow enough to mine, and they're doing so -- but at tremendous cost in money, environmental damage, and time.

Theoretically, if *every* tar sands play comes in as predicted, they might get 5Mbbl/day out of Athabasca. Which makes it, well, about the same as Ghawar in Saudi Arabia. Of course, by that time, most of the big oil fields will be at dregs. Right now, though, four million of those theoretical comes from Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage, where you try to heat up the tar sands enough that it'll flow and pump. Today, less than thirty *thousand* barrels are being extracted this way, at tremendous cost, and it's not clear that this will work in large scale. If it doesn't, max extraction rates at Athabasca will be on the order of 1Mbbl/day, a fifth of Ghawar.

Peak oil isn't running out of oil. Peak oil is running out of easy and cheap to extract oil that's easy to refine into useful distillates. Even if we replace every barrel of oil that we get from Ghawar with a barrel from Athabasca, what we have done is replace a barrel of oil that cost less than $1 to extract with one that cost $18 (for mining) to $22 (for SAGD). Oh, and then for those latter two, you have to refine that crude bitumen you've extracted into synthetic crude that can be further shipped and refined into distillates, which costs you another $20/bbl, so you are going from ~$1 per barrel to $38-40/bbl.

So, the massive reserves today? They are extremely expensive to extract, and they are extremely slow to extract. Massive mines put out less syncrude per day than the big wells at Ghawar at their peak do.

If the world wants 100Mbbl/day of crude, and can only extract 90Mbbl/day, then, well, 10Mbbl worth of demand cannot, and will not, be fulfilled. That's a state that hasn't existed ever, but it's one, with the fast/easy/big resivoirs fading, that's starting to happen. It doesn't matter if there's 10Tbbl out there, if we can only get 90Mbbl/day, that's the real limit in crude. That's the real peak -- doesn't matter how long we can extract that, if the demand increases and the supply cannot, then we're there.

Doubly so if you can only afford to pay $65/bbl for oil. You? You get none. Peak oil is today.

I think that in 50 years, the notion that we used petroleum for electricity or transportation or single-use coffee stirrers, instead of saving every precious drop for fertilizer, will be recognized as the worst case of mass insanity in human history.

If you give me enough renewable power, I give you fixed nitrogen -- it's called the Haber-Bosch Process, it needs nitrogen (easy, inhale), hydrogen (easy, break water) and energy. It already feeds a vast portion of humanity today, and could easily feed 100% provided we have the raw energy input. We don't need petroleum for that, period.

Indeed, the primary use of petroleum in fertilizer production seems to be powering the various processes, rather than as a feedstock. I'll take it as given that if we suddenly reduce the energy budget of the entire human race by 50% by loss of petroleum, or by the inability to increase petroleum in the face of a doubled human population, that we'd be living in a world of hurt. Literally.

More importantly -- we need petroleum for plastics. You want to destroy the standard of living for the entire world? Go back to the pre-polymer days. Think of all the cost savings we get from engineered materials. Think of assembling almost *anything* without custom molded plastic parts. Think about preservation without polymer materials. Think of the damage we would do trying to get replacement materials. Think about all the medical processes that don't happen without polymer technology. And so on. Yes, plastic has issues, but compared to making everything out of natural rubber, wood, and mined metals?

Pharmaceuticals are just as important, but in terms of needed petroleum inputs, scraper wells could easily handle them, or a small tar sands mine. Even if there wasn't enough for power or polymer usage, there would be enough for that.
posted by eriko at 2:50 AM on February 21, 2013 [76 favorites]


"Well if you can't trust an oil executive that says it's not necessary to switch to alternate fuels, then I guess you just can't trust anyone."

It also seems a bit surreal to have a story on endless sources of oil written by someone best known for being a sports journalist / commentator / columnist for Golf World magazine.

Personally, when I want to know the future of global energy, I like to get it from these guys.
posted by markkraft at 2:57 AM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Fracking really isn't that expensive, compared to other ways of extracting oil. Right about now, I wouldn't want to be heavily invested in Canadian tar sands.

And, I'll be honest -- I'd rather have hydrofracking than tar sands mining, doubly so if it's SAGD tar sands mining. Fracking is far from ideal, but it's not strip mining and burning. I'm not happy with fracking, mind you, but if I get to pick the two devils, I'll pick that one. I can control that far easier, and the carbon load of the process *and* the resulting output is vastly lower than tar sands.

However, for crude, fracking has been used for a long time and it's not nearly as effective as it is for natural gas. Hydrofracking is *very* useful for extracting natural gas from shale, which took a source that was marginally useful and made it into a primary source. Before fracking and horizontal drilling, only a couple of shallow shale gas reserves were economically useful, if only just -- the New Albany fields in Illinois/Kentucky/Indiana leap to mind -- but with fracking and horizontal drilling, vast reserves open. See the Bakken fields in North Dakota and the Barnett fields in Texas. Michigan has a large reserve, the Antrim shales (basically the entire lower peninsula) and the NE has the Marcellus shales, basically played out in terms of vertical drilling, may turn out to be the largest reserves in the nation.

Fracking isn't cheap, but as the cost of natural gas spiked, being able to play those reserves at all made it possible. In places where the shale is very deep, like Barnett in Texas, fracking is unlikely to seriously bother the environment, but in shallower plays, like the New Albany and Marcellus shales, it could be a bad problem. You also need a lot of water -- easier in the Eastern US, where climate (at least for now) is much wetter.
posted by eriko at 3:07 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I wonder if the problem won't be dealing with methane or carbon dioxide, but our treating the planet like one big heat sink, cracking all that petroleum into heat energy. We'll cook our children to death before long.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:15 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, how quickly our collective memory atrophies.

Remember when there was oil gushing uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico because it was economically feasible to attempt to extract it via robots and really, really long pipes waay down on the ocean floor and a mistake happened?

Quell surprise. No need to panic... the finite resource is plentiful. Carry on.
posted by panaceanot at 3:18 AM on February 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


Even if we replace every barrel of oil that we get from Ghawar with a barrel from Athabasca, what we have done is replace a barrel of oil that cost less than $1 to extract with one that cost $18 (for mining) to $22 (for SAGD). Oh, and then for those latter two, you have to refine that crude bitumen you've extracted into synthetic crude that can be further shipped and refined into distillates, which costs you another $20/bbl, so you are going from ~$1 per barrel to $38-40/bbl.

How much oil does it take to extract that barrel of oil?
posted by empath at 3:19 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah here we go -- the equivalent of 1/3rd of a barrel of oil to extract and refine every barrel of tar sands oil, compared to conventional extraction which is 15-1 or more.

So even if we can extract a LOT of extra oil from tar sands, we're going to be using almost as much natural gas and oil to get to it.
posted by empath at 3:23 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


How much oil does it take to extract that barrel of oil?

Right now, not that much.

Natural gas, however, that's a different story. It takes about 700-1100 cubic feet of natural gas to produce every barrel of syncrude. This is still a win, given that a barrel of syncrude produces the same energy as about 6000 cubic feet of natural gas. It is easily conceivable, if the tar sands extraction continues to expand, that Canada might become a net importer of NG just as it becomes a massive exporter of crude oil. In both cases, the primary partner for this trade is likely to be the US, shipping North Dakota natural gas north to power the crude exports south.

Yeah, this is basically Teh Suxxors for climate change.

About 1 billion cubic feet/day of natural gas is used in Alberta for tar sands production, most produced locally. This is about 40% of Alberta's total NG usage. However, realize that while, by area, Alberta is huge, there aren't that many people there -- there's over five million more people in New York City than there is in the entire province of Alberta.

And if you want to know why Alberta has bet so hard on this? With the tar sands in play, Alberta's per capita GDP is nearly CDN $75,000 per capita, median household incomes are nearly CDN $71K after tax, some $11K more than the median for the entire country and basically double that of the Maritime Provinces is the east.
posted by eriko at 3:32 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


How much oil does it take to extract that barrel of oil?

And how many barrels does it take?
posted by forgetful snow at 3:33 AM on February 21, 2013


We will run out of clean air before we run out of oil.
posted by nickrussell at 3:34 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Doubly so if you can only afford to pay $65/bbl for oil. You? You get none. Peak oil is today.

The same thing was true when oil was at $10/bbl of course. Can't pay the 10$? No oil. Supply and demand isn't something that just entered the equation here.
posted by Marcc at 3:38 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


" Supply and demand isn't something that just entered the equation here."

No, but the math has gotten considerably more brutal for the have-nots lately.
posted by markkraft at 3:56 AM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


So a snack food company executive says there's no shortage of snack foods and we ought to eat up because it's yummy and so convenient and we won't get sick or fat at all. Is that what this article is about? And didn't we just read a rebuttal in the NYTM?

So confused.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:30 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


eriko has already said it all better than I could, but I'm just continually amazed at the brazen bullshitty stupidity of these industry-pushed claims, most often made in conjunction as they are here, that:
a) the world is just swimming in oil, as much as we could ever need
b) which is demonstrated by giving examples of insane projects where we drill 8-miles-into-earth with never before used technology, to get a tiny pittance of output compared to all the old easy wells drying up
posted by crayz at 4:59 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's true - there are no problems with oil exploitation in Africa.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:17 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


c) The only thing standing in the way of free energy forever are some pansy-ass liberal environmentalists
posted by goethean at 5:41 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Myth of "Saudi America"
The flaws in the abundance narrative for fracked natural gas are much the same as for tight oil, so I won't belabor the point. Certainly, the current natural gas glut has played a welcome role in the reduced growth rate of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and the climate benefits of switching from coal to natural gas are abundantly clear. But gas, too, is in a Red Queen's race, and it can't be counted on to last out the next few decades, let alone the century of abundance predicted by some boosters. Temporarily cheap and abundant gas buys us some respite—which we should be using to put decarbonized energy systems in place. It will only do us good if we use this transitional period wisely. We won't be much better off in the long run if cheap gas only succeeds in killing off the nascent renewables industry and the development of next-generation nuclear power.
posted by kliuless at 5:43 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


More importantly -- we need petroleum for plastics. You want to destroy the standard of living for the entire world? Go back to the pre-polymer days. Think of all the cost savings we get from engineered materials. Think of assembling almost *anything* without custom molded plastic parts. Think about preservation without polymer materials. Think of the damage we would do trying to get replacement materials. Think about all the medical processes that don't happen without polymer technology. And so on. Yes, plastic has issues, but compared to making everything out of natural rubber, wood, and mined metals?

Peak oil means peak plastic.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:57 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I cannot take this person seriously until he volunteers to be eaten first in the coming cannibal apocalypse.
posted by adipocere at 6:17 AM on February 21, 2013


I'm not so sure about peak plastic though. Most cities have huge landfills full of plastic and metal that will surely be mined by our impoverished descendants. Not all plastic can be recycled, but a large percentage can. The wood, bodies, paper waste and bags of $100 dollar bills in the landfills will be used to fuel the municipal regional heating systems.
posted by sneebler at 6:26 AM on February 21, 2013


But can you drink it? I think that's the question we should be asking.
posted by Sailormom at 6:46 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ok, I'm surprised no one has made any "The Saint" jokes. (To the effect of bad guys improbably having the entire amount of oil in post-Soviet Russia under their living rooms, while a plucky scientist discovers cold fusion or some such!)
posted by lineofsight at 7:03 AM on February 21, 2013


80 years ago, a fellow named Trofim Lysenko told the rulers of the Soviet Union that their farming problems can be solved through a vigorous application of rightly guided sheer will. That is to say, the application of agronomic methods that were guided by his beliefs in Lamarckian inheritance, which he derived as an corollary to communist ideology (mapping the New Soviet Man into the New Soviet Pea Plant.)

Today, we have right wingers telling us that our energy challenges can be solved through a vigorous application of rightly guided sheer will. Sheer will in the form of Randian heroes looking for oil, guided by Julian Simon and his belief that all supply problems can be addressed through price signals.

The parallels are scary.
posted by ocschwar at 7:26 AM on February 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


The parallels are scary.

But Lysenkoism can only be blamed for a few million deaths, tops, whereas climate denial could reach billions. Yay capitalism!
posted by Skeptic at 7:30 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Have we ever "run out" of any natural resource? The only ones I can think of are whale oil and exotic hardwood, both of which were outlawed as supplies dwindled. The usual course is that prices go up, demand shrinks, people make do with some substitute.
posted by miyabo at 7:41 AM on February 21, 2013


Hah, wait'll I tell the neighbors. how they scoffed (or was it cried?) when i pulled my Hummers into my living room, threw open the doors, cranked up the heaters to heat my house through the winter. the bonus is that the exhaust fumes will drive off those pesky honey bees come spring too!!!
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:50 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Outlawed as supplies dwindled

I'd consider this to effectively the same as running out. I don't think we'll ever go back to harvesting those resources again. It isn't like we're just waiting for the supplies to rebuild.
posted by VTX at 7:51 AM on February 21, 2013


Have we ever "run out" of any natural resource?

Passenger pigeons were tasty.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:51 AM on February 21, 2013


Have we ever "run out" of any natural resource?

Ask the Easter Islanders.
posted by Skeptic at 7:59 AM on February 21, 2013


As usual, the pundits are missing the point by the widest margin.

It isn't so much that we are "running out" of oil (though, of course, we are because by definition this is a diminishing resource) but that we are running out of cheap oil. As a rule of thumb, an oil field is profitable by current standards if you work to take about 50% of the oil out of it. Try for more, and the costs go up, fast.

So, those old fields in the middle east and North America they are talking about do have reserves, because they were abandoned decades ago because it was too costly to maintain them.

So, as cheap oil dries up, we go back to the old fields, and look for more fields that are harder to get to, or have lower quality reserves (Alberta, I'm looking at you) and try to use some newer techniques to get the next 50%. Then we will move on. You can't just produce a little oil, either. You have to get enough each time to justify the gigantic opportunity costs of just opening up, or re-opening up, a field.

So, peak oil is not about the actual estimations of oil in the ground, and whether there is a lot or not a lot. It is about the valuation of oil, and how expensive it is to get that oil out. Given that a petrochemical corp is valued based on the total amount of untapped reserves it /could/ produce (creating a sort of devaluation bubble) and that the cost of getting the oil out will always tend to increase, peak oil is about the end of a cheap global oil economy.

And let's be clear here: cheap oil is not at all about cheap gas for your car. This is probably the most unimportant consequence. Cheap oil drives the entire global economy, from making the stuff, that requires moving the stuff that goes into the stuff around, to packaging the stuff, to moving the stuff around the world, and then cleaning up all the waste stuff that we don't want that is a result of the stuff we have just made and moved. Oh, and each level of stuff creation and movement has its own carbon load -- the energy required to get it to the level of stuff that we need.

Cheap oil is the engine that drives all markets, from the local trade in food, to the export economies we are so proud of, to the entire medical and health-care biz, to the gas we put in our cars and the tires we put on them, and all the packaging and fuel for all of it.

The oil companies know this, intimately. Why, otherwise, would Shell look the other way while hired goons kill activists in Nigeria over oil fields and tanker depots there? Costs drive everything, and Shell is caught in an ever-tightening web of costs against a spiralling devaluation that requires they balance production against keeping the stuff in the ground, where _it has the most value for their company_.

It is this tension, and the fact that oil will always get more expensive to extract, no matter how big the global untapped reserves are, that defines peak oil. And once we stop treating the other costs of a carbon economy as an externality, these costs will climb even higher.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:17 AM on February 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


Have we ever "run out" of any natural resource? ... The usual course is that prices go up, demand shrinks, people make do with some substitute.

Easter Island has already been mentioned, but I'll also point out that, in general, it should not be surprising that humans are capable of irreversibly screwing up the environment. The land surface area of the entire Earth is ~148,940,000 square km. There are ~7 billion people on the planet. That gives ~21,200 square meters per person, or about three association football pitches worth. I don't know about you, but I could utterly wreck three soccer fields worth of just about any ecosystem in my lifetime using nothing more than my bare hands. With the right modern power tools I could do it in a couple of weeks. With explosives I could do it in a day. And that's all the land, not just the livable surface area.

Earth—at least an Earth capable of supporting something like the present human population—is not made up of inexhaustible resources. It is not some impossibly large system that we can only nudge or, at worst, dent. We can truly foul it up.
posted by jedicus at 8:17 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Have we ever "run out" of any natural resource?


Paleontologists have found evidence of stone age people undergoing hardship when local deposits of obsidian and flint were exhausted.

The transition between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age was not very pleasant, and driven by the exhaustion of timber in the eastern Mediterrenean (timber for smelting copper, and timber for ships to reach the Tin Islands).
posted by ocschwar at 8:23 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Have we ever "run out" of any natural resource?

Ask the Easter Islanders.


Actually, there's some dispute about what exactly happened on Easter Island and why.
posted by Copronymus at 8:24 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Have we ever "run out" of any natural resource?

That isn't really the issue. Peak oil refers to the production rate, not reserves. We almost never exhaust something completely. Cod aren't extinct, but the fisheries have been effectively destroyed. But we can live without cod. Oil is different because we have become dependent, not just on having oil, but on constantly increasing production of oil.
posted by snofoam at 8:44 AM on February 21, 2013


Have we ever "run out" of any natural resource?

Not in terms of physical elements, but we're heading for a whole series of resource depletion problems. Again, I blame Capitalism.

Here's a BBC version.

We're certainly also heading for major ecosystem and species loss at the same time. We're basically burning down the library while we wait for the oil to run out.
posted by sneebler at 9:30 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


1. Energy is a fundamental limiting variable. The more you have, the more uses you find for it, so it tends to be used up at an exponential rate, not a constant rate. When gasoline is cheap, people drive cars a lot more. The more cheap energy we have, the more the use of it will accelerate, and we'll be back at a shortage within a generation or two.
2. Running out isn't the only problem. Releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere will further increase climate change.

Because of point 1, there is no ultimate solution to the energy problem other than conservation. Because of point 2, prolonging the recognition of this fact will cause great ecological harm.


the issue here is that if the energy is made more available by a decrease in demand from our conservation, there will be new demand. a likely scenario would be increased demand from developing nations who still rely on older and and less efficient transport/manufacturing.

Shinzo Abe Will Ask Obama for Shale Exports as Japan’s Gas Bill Soars
posted by ninjew at 9:40 AM on February 21, 2013


Have we ever "run out" of any natural resource?

Well, extensive burning of forests to create land for agriculture may have contributed to the formation of desert and semi-desert areas.

So, if you look at the history of human energy usage, you basically get:

* Humans use muscle power
* Roughly 350,000 - 400,000 years ago, humans start using fire
* Roughly 10,000 years ago, humans domesticate wild animals and introduce agriculture (which can be thought of as turning energy from the sun into biomass/energy that humans can use).
* Roughly 4000 years ago, water mills and windmills start being used.
* Roughly 200 - 300 years ago, the Industrial revolution occurs. Even at this point, firewood was barely renewable.
* Because (despite large scale planting efforts!) firewood was so barely renewable, things didn't really kick off until inexpensive fossil fuels started to become used: coal, natural gas, and oil.

These fossil fuels let us, on average, generate an enormous amount of energy compared to pure human muscle power. Roughly 80 - 90 percent of total human energy usage is now based on non-renewable fossil fuels. 1 percent of energy is currently being supplied by nuclear fission, but nuclear fuel is no more abundant than oil or gas for conventional light water reactors.

Additionally, using these fossil fuels at this rate can affect the Earth's climate. There's some argument over how accurate certain climate models are, but there is no argument over the fact that all models predict greenhouse warming. The Earth's climate is what we call 'meta-stable'. That means that you can nudge it a bit and it'll be OK (volcanic eruptions and seasonal variations haven't killed us all yet), but if you nudge it a bunch, we don't know what's going to happen (extreme weather events are becoming more common).

It's not all doom and gloom; because energy has been so cheap, people haven't really been thinking of efficiency, and there is some room there. Doing a great deal of manufacturing in places on the other side of the world where labor is cheap and then shipping it across an ocean assumes transportation costs will be negligible, and well, that might be kind of silly.

Finding an appropriate substitute for fossil fuels will not be easy. The difficulty and time scale of the problem means that it won't be solved magically by the 'free market'. Solar power (whether directly with solar panels, or indirectly with wind or ocean currents) will probably be involved. As a major consumer of fossil fuels, even the US Military is conducting research into this.
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:02 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


It should be a crime to post articles like this without the (inevitable) Oil Drum rebuttal.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:04 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Have we ever "run out" of any natural resource?

Whale oil, ambergris, and other products from extinct species of whales.
posted by XMLicious at 10:29 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why the world isn't running out of oil...

Wait. We're consuming oil, yes? And we're not creating more? So.. we're running out. Maybe not as fast as previously thought, but it's still not sustainable.

But then I've always had a problem with the term "oil production": You're not producing it; you're extracting it.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:39 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Again, I blame Capitalism.

I have always thought that if we could recognize and tax the externalities (however imperfectly), we'd be able to use capitalism to solve a lot of these problems.
posted by VTX at 10:40 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Shell has developed a technology called mono-diameter which will allow it to drop one steel casing through another, and then expand it to the same dimensions.

Oil companies have turned to sorcery, then. Not the nice kind of sorcery either. Black gold magic.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:48 AM on February 21, 2013



Again, I blame Capitalism.

I have always thought that if we could recognize and tax the externalities (however imperfectly), we'd be able to use capitalism to solve a lot of these problems.


Rule of law, anyone?
posted by lalochezia at 10:57 AM on February 21, 2013


I have always thought that if we could recognize and tax the externalities (however imperfectly), we'd be able to use capitalism to solve a lot of these problems.

I have lately thought that blindly limiting ourselves to capitalism is unnecessarily foolish.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:04 AM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


BTW, there is lots of new evidence that Easter Island as an example of a classic human created environmental disaster that drove the population, literally, into the ground might not actually be the thing we think it is.
posted by clvrmnky at 12:26 PM on February 21, 2013


things didn't really kick off until inexpensive fossil fuels started to become used: coal, natural gas, and oil.

Agreed. But of those 3 fossil fuels, oil is the only one which is in any danger of limited supply. People could switch to cars that use natural gas, or electric cars that are powered indirectly by coal. Or (most likely) they could stick with today's cars and use petroleum extracted at high energy cost and use some other non-petroleum fuel to pay that cost.

Additionally, using these fossil fuels at this rate can affect the Earth's climate.

Yes, definitely! I am worried that people will think "climate change is bad, but it can't get all that bad because we'll run out of oil and then it will be over." That's not true. We have basically unlimited amounts of other fuels that people will substitute, unless there is some mechanism for stopping them from doing that.
posted by miyabo at 1:58 PM on February 21, 2013


The End of Global Warming: How to Save the Earth in 2 Easy Steps - "Within a decade solar will be cheaper than coal. Within 2 decades, cheaper than gas... We need to give our low-carbon technologies away to other countries" (Capitalism and the end of growth: on whether or not capitalism requires infinite resource exploitation)
posted by kliuless at 3:11 PM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wordshore: "Guardian: Petition to halt oil exploration in Ecuadorean Amazon gets 1m signatures."
I have in my hands an extremely rare early draft of the Star Wars film script, never before published. It may surprise you to learn that the early drafts were written by environmentalists. In this version, the rebels do not of course blow up the Death Star, but instead prefer to use other tactics to slow the intergalactic march of Empire. For example, they set up programs for people on planets about to be destroyed to produce luxury items like hemp hacky sacks and gourmet coffee for sale to inhabitants of the Death Star. Audience members will also discover that there are plans afoot to encourage loads of troopers and other citizens of the Empire to take ecotours of doomed planets. The purpose will be to show to one and all that these planets are economically important to the Empire and so should not be destroyed. In a surprise move that will rivet viewers to the edges of their seats, other groups of rebels file lawsuits against the Empire, attempting to show that the Environmental Impact Statement Darth Vader was required to file failed to adequately support its decision that blowing up this planet would cause “no significant impact.” Viewers will thrill to learn of plans to boycott items produced by corporations that have Darth Vader on the board of directors, and will leap to their feet in theaters worldwide when they see bags full of letters written directly to Mr. Vader himself asking that he please not blow up anymore planets. (Scribbled in the margin is a note from one of the screenwriters: “For accuracy’s sake, when we show examples of these letters, it is imperative that all letters to Mr. Vader be respectful and courteous, and that they stress the need to find cooperative solutions to the differences between the rebels and the Empire. Under no circumstances should the letters be such that they would alienate or anger Mr. Vader. If the letters upset Mr. Vader, the rebels’ letter campaign to the Grand Moff Tarkin would certainly fail as well.”) Other plans include sending petitions and filing lawsuits.
...
In the exciting final scene of the environmentalist version, a scuffle breaks out between Leia, Luke, Han, and Chewbacca on one side, and the pacifists on the other. At last the pacifists chase those four from the room and from the film. They’re never seen again, which isn’t really important since in this version they’re minor characters anyway. The Death Star looms closer and closer. Audience members chew their fingernails as they wait to see whether the letters and petitions and lawsuits will work their magic. Viewers see lasers inside the Death Star warming up to destroy the planet. The lasers glow a hellish red. The camera switches to cover the endangered planet. Suddenly a cheer will rise up from the audience as they see a small bright speck emerge from the planet’s surface and speed into space. “Yes!” they will roar, as they learn that all of the intrepid environmentalist protesters were able to get off the planet moments before it got blown up!

Coda: The final shot of the movie, revealing what a complete triumph this was for the rebels, will be a still showing an article on the lower-left of page forty-three of the New Empire Times devoting a full three sentences to the destruction of the planet. Yes! The protesters got some press!
posted by symbioid at 7:36 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


1 percent of energy is currently being supplied by nuclear fission, but nuclear fuel is no more abundant than oil or gas for conventional light water reactors.

Worse than oil and gas, if we were to magically extract what fissable uranium remains from the earth, we'd only be able to power a meager fraction of global electrical demand for roughly another 30-40 years (ignoring the inevitable Fukushima-scale disasters that would result from large-scale nuclear power).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:30 AM on February 22, 2013


“For accuracy’s sake, when we show examples of these letters, it is imperative that all letters to Mr. Vader be respectful and courteous, and that they stress the need to find cooperative solutions to the differences between the rebels and the Empire. Under no circumstances should the letters be such that they would alienate or anger Mr. Vader. If the letters upset Mr. Vader, the rebels’ letter campaign to the Grand Moff Tarkin would certainly fail as well.”) Other plans include sending petitions and filing lawsuits.

Strained analogy is strained.
posted by empath at 2:14 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


But then I've always had a problem with the term "oil production": You're not producing it; you're extracting it.

Everything is extracted and processed. We call that "producing".
posted by effugas at 2:34 AM on February 22, 2013


This article is clearly bullshit. The author suggests that the Santos Basin is "thought to hold as much as 150 billion barrels of oil" (Wikipedia suggests 25-40 billion barrels), the Orinoco Belt estimated at 1.2 trillion barrels (a 2009 study suggested less than half of that), and then goes on to mention the Linc Energy "discovery" of 233 billion barrels (a rumor that was quickly dispelled by Link Energy themselves). ..and I only checked the claims from a single paragraph.

The numbers mentioned for proven reserves are big, but quickly pale when compared to current consumption rates - about 95 million barrels per day, or around 35 billion barrels a year (if I'm not mistaken).

Anyway, rather than repeat what eriko said, I'd like to ask: Who is the target audience for this article? Who is he trying to convince?

Perhaps that is a rhetorical question.
posted by bigZLiLk at 10:45 PM on February 22, 2013


Who is the target audience for this article? Who is he trying to convince?

It's from a 75 page report written by an oil executive/evangelist, "published" by Harvard University, summarized by a golf journalist and publicly published by a newspaper whose political viewpoints veer between a peculiar brand of British-libertarianism and cricket.

So, yes, good questions :)
posted by Wordshore at 6:43 AM on February 23, 2013


The Deluge - "Rapidly advancing technologies are opening up astonishing sources of oil and gas all over the world. We are entering a new era of fossil fuels that is reshaping global economics and politics—and the planet."
Which brings us to the biggest unknown of all: what this new era means for our rapidly warming planet. More hydrocarbons burned on the ground means more carbon in the atmosphere, which means nastier storms, a melted Arctic, rising seas, emerging diseases, and the rest of the dismal, all-too-familiar litany.

Even industry execs acknowledge that. “There’s enough oil and gas out there to last us right through to the end of the next century, without much doubt,” says David Eyton, head of research and technology at BP. The real problem, Eyton says, is that “we are running out of the carbon-carrying capacity of the atmosphere.”
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:25 AM on March 5, 2013


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