Has global oil production peaked?
(Page 2 of 2)
The USGS added the oil sands to the world's reserves recently, making Canada the second-largest holder of reserves after Saudi Arabia. These sands are already being exploited. But they require the injection of hydrogen to make their tar oil light enough to flow in a pipe.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Meanwhile, estimates of oil reserves keep growing. For example, world oil reserves now are five times as great as at the end of World War II, says Thomas Ahlbrandt, chief of the USGS World Energy Project. And they grew 15 percent in the past five years - without adding in the Canadian oil sands - mostly by upgrading the proven reserves in existing fields.
The world has used up about 930 billion barrels of oil since the 1800s, and has left some 3 trillion in the ground. That estimate includes about 732 billion barrels of not-yet-discovered oil and an assumed growth in reserves in already discovered fields, the USGS reckons. So by now, the world has used up about 23 percent of its total available petroleum resource, Mr. Ahlbrandt calculates. Most people using USGS numbers figure world oil output will flatten in 2036-37, he adds. But non-OPEC oil output could peak between 2015 and 2020.
"I can see no peak for the next 20 or 30 years," says energy consultant Michael Lynch. Since Mr. Lynch has been a keen critic of such early-peak advocates as Mr. Campbell, setting even such a not-so-far-away date is seen as a concession of sorts.
In any case, major oil importers aren't waiting around to find out who's right. The US, Japan, Europe, and China, are scrambling to tie down petroleum resources in the Caspian Sea region, Russia, West Africa, Iraq, Iran, and Libya.
Japan and China are competing for access to Russia's little-tapped Far East oil resources. China, which expects a quintupling of its oil needs by 2030, wants a new pipeline to go from Angarsk in Russia to inland Daqing in its northeastern industrial heartland. Japan proposes the pipeline go rather to Vostochny, on the shore near Vladivostok. One reason Japan is sending 500 soldiers to Iraq this month is to stabilize Middle Eastern oil, the source of 90 percent of Japan's oil, Japan's defense minister, Shigeru Ishiba, told the Financial Times last month.
Pundits say the US has been especially interested in the recent election in Georgia to replace President Eduard Shevardnadze because that nation, though not having reserves itself, is the corridor for a $3 billion pipeline through which huge supplies in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan must pass through to reach the West. A Chinese oil firm last month embarked on its first international venture by buying a 50 percent stake in a Kazakhstan oil field.
The US has just extended trade preferences to Angola, where oil giants ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil are preparing to spend billions of dollars on deep-water developments. Other US oil firms, such as ConocoPhillips, Occidental Petroleum, Marathon Oil, and Amerada Hess are looking carefully at their prospects for returning to Libya should the US government lift sanctions on that desert nation.
According to a New York Times report, a step that put Russian oil mogul Mikhail Khodorkovsky in jail was his plan to sell a major stake in his oil company, Yukos, to ExxonMobil. US oil firms would like to invest more in Russia's oil and gas reserves, if they can negotiate that country's legal and political minefield.
The competition for oil resources not fully under contract is expected to get rougher. It could be especially crucial for consumers in North America, who on average use up more than their body weight in crude oil each week.
Many experts suspect that oil was one reason, among others, the US invaded Iraq. America's longstanding concern with its oil supplies is nothing new. Newly declassified British documents suggest that President Nixon was prepared as a "last resort" to launch airborne troops to seize oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi to end the 1973-74 oil embargo on the US by the Arab nations.
Some countries - even some oil firms - have decided to invest in solar and wind energy. "This reflects the realization that exploring for large new sources of oil is not a realistic way to go," says Mr. Meyer.
Mr. Deffeyes says the US should have stepped up its research on alternative energies 15 years ago. But others don't see a crisis looming just yet. Certainly nations should be researching better sources of energy, says Mr. Lynch. "But it should not be based on imminent scarcity."