There is a lot of talk at the moment about fracking, or ‘induced hydraulic fracturing,’ as it is more formally known in the oil and gas industry. It is a way of releasing natural gas trapped in rock layers far below the surface. It is contentious, difficult, expensive, energy-inefficient and resource-hungry, using anything up to 3 million gallons of water per well at the high volume end of extraction. Yet the industry is keen to instigate a sharp rise in fracking activity around the globe. Why is that? The answer is clear: the oil industry knows that crude oil is running out.
The discovery, extraction and consumption of crude oil have accelerated the growth of our consumer society with rocket speed over the last hundred years or so. Naively, it was assumed that anything that gushed from the ground in such copious quantities was never going to run out. Everyone piled onto the gravy train – oil producers, manufacturers, investors and consumers alike. “You’ve never had it so good,” was the euphoric message of the 20th Century. But the party’s over. The oil is running out, and so the mad dash is underway to find alternative sources of energy before the gravy train hits the buffers.
Nowhere along the way did anyone on the train stop to think that there is no such thing as an unlimited resource on a finite planet or, if anyone did, it was only to add, “But the planet is huge – we can keep going for 10,000 years.” Now the grim reaper waits for the demise of the last great civilisation. Most of our major so-called ‘resources’ will run out in the lifetime of children born today. Despite this knowledge being out there, however, it still seems as if there is very little understanding of the seriousness of such a challenge or how it came about. I have already looked at this in my post of 18th April (The Steep Rise to Oblivion), but I just want to highlight some figures in a bit more detail.
Albert Bartlett’s lecture on the principles of exponential growth is as clear and concise as it is sobering, but it obviously also hits everyone’s blind spot, because most people probably still believe that technology will find a way to solve all our problems. I am sure that technology will indeed continue to come up with some brilliant ideas, but even technology cannot create a solution to an economic model based on infinite growth with finite resources.
Exponential growth shows us some arithmetically irrefutable calculations that illustrate what’s really going on. As I mentioned in the first blog on this subject, one of the principles of exponential growth is that the number for each ‘doubling’ is greater than all of the previous numbers put together. So, looking at oil consumption, what do we see? Firstly, we see numerous attempts to evaluate the challenge of dwindling reserves, some optimistic, others quite the opposite. With a plethora of data ranging from precise geological surveys to wildly inaccurate postulations by uninformed government ministers, we have a lot of figures to look at. Working with data provided by what we might deem a reliable source (BP and other oil exploration companies), what appears fairly clear is that reserves of oil were estimated in 2008 to be around 1250 billion barrels, and that figure remains today. Against that we must plot current consumption of 31.9 billion barrels a year (BP’s figure).
Divide the reserves by current annual production and the answer is 39.18. Thus the known reserves of oil will last less than forty years, provided no new fields are found and demand remains at zero growth. New fields are being found, but not of any significant size. For example, the last enormous discovery, the Kashagan field in the Caspian Sea, was made in 2000 and estimated to hold around 20 billion barrels. Twenty billion barrels sounds a lot but it would satisfy world demand for a mere 230 days – assuming demand does not rise from present levels. That’s a pointless assumption in a global economy based on growth. BP calculated that world oil consumption in 2010 rose by 3.1% over 2009 – that gives us a doubling time of around 22.5 years. To illustrate this with Professor Bartlett’s arithmetical certainty, it means that consumption will reach 63.8 billion barrels a year by 2032 – that’s 20 years from now. And remember that each doubling time produces a figure greater than the sum total of all that has gone before. Thus in the next twenty-odd years we will use as much oil as we have used so far since the first gusher was capped.
Oil is currently being consumed at a rate of four barrels for every barrel that is being extracted. The world’s leading petroleum geologists are agreed that around 95% of the world’s oil has been found. Yes, but the optimists will say that there is no need to worry – we’ll soon have renewable energy supplying all of our needs. Don’t hold your breath. The oil industry’s next best bet is fracking oil and gas from tar sands. This uses the energy equivalent of two barrels of oil to produce three, hardly efficient when one considers that in the good old days of oil extraction the ratio was1:30. As for the other sources of renewable energy, they are currently insignificant in serving global needs and are unlikely to grow quickly enough to meet growing demand, especially burgeoning demand from the world’s most buoyant economies. Time for a long-overdue reality check.
Basically, the good ship Consumerism has now pranged itself on the iceberg of exponential growth. The First Law of Sustainability should have been displayed on the bridge in big bold letters, but it wasn’t. It’s simple enough. It says that population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of finite resources cannot be sustained. So now the ship is holed and many of us will go down with it. In the lifetime of our children, the world will become a very different, very uncertain place. Let’s hope that some of the survivors will remember something about basic arithmetic and will be able to make a better job of it next time around.