Turbocharged drivers run on Model T oil reserves

Item: a Motor Trend magazine survey finds that American men, of the 18- to 34-year-old species who bought a car this year ranked fuel economy sixth among their priorities. Ranked first: performance, often the opposite of fuel economy. Young women also appear to equate peppy performance with career success. Hence the phenomenon of the Z-car preppy female stock analyst. And many older men tell pollsters that zero to 60 in nine seconds makes them feel younger.

Item: A US Geological Survey report on world petroleum resources shows mankind living beyond its oil means. We currently use 33 to 100 percent more petroleum than we discover each year. (Use: about 20 billion barrels a year. New finds: ranging from 10-to-15 billion barrels a year.) This is the reverse of the situation that prevailed in the 1950s, when annual discoveries totaled 35 billion barrels in the peak year.

Item: General Motors, Ford, and several overseas carmakers exporting to America have asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to postpone enforcement of fuel mileage standards. The main reason: high performance cars are selling like hotcakes, as indicated above. And the V-8 engine, once believed headed for extinction like the dinosaur on the old Sinclair oil sign, has come roaring back to be used on some 30 percent of the two biggest automakers' cars.

But, you may ask, ``I thought we had a world oil glut?''

We do. No doubt about it. And the public may be excused for being skeptical about shortages, having been told in the mid-1970s that the world would run out of petroleum in about 30 years. That would have been only 20 years from now -- somewhere around 2005.

As it is, the Geological Survey report cited above foresees ``potential for substantial oil discovery and production to the middle of the 21st century.'' But it hedges that forecast with a number of warnings.

First, it notes that future oil finds ``likely will come out of the ground relatively slowly and relatively expensively.'' Some of it will be extra-heavy crude or oil from tar sands, both hard to refine. New discoveries are likely to be found in more-remote areas, where extraction and piping to market are more difficult and more costly.

A second warning notes that the distribution of oil around the globe continues to pose an American national-security issue: ``Twice as much oil could be blocked in the Strait of Hormuz as is available around the world in surplus daily production capacity.'' In other words, despite the current disarray of OPEC, future Mideast leverage on Washington is likely to increase because that's where the biggest reserves are.

A third note indicates that the earth has adequate coal reserves to provide energy for many centuries to come, and uranium reserves (if safe breeder reactors can be developed) to yield power for millennia into the future. But it points out that uranium is irregularly distributed around the globe. And there remains the question of coal-burning pollution and nuclear-radiocativity handling.

Charles D. Masters, author of the Geological Survey report, is a careful analyst. He notes, for instance, that even the mid-21st century ``is farther into the future than we have any real confidence in forecasting.'' But his figures, based on the past, the present, and what is known about future reserves, are nonetheless sobering.

The Masters report, written for an exploration symposium last March, concentrated on taking inventory on undiscovered worldwide petroleum resources. It estimates those still-to-be-found reserves at 550 billion barrels. Already discovered reserves are put at 723 billion barrels. If those figures come close to the mark, that means some 64 years at present annual consumption.

Today's glut lets us believe it's all right to relax fuel-economy standards, step into a V-8 model, and feel like the king or queen of the road. But after the glut, what?

There remains, of course, the possibility that the phrase ``farther into the future than we have any real confidence in forecasting'' could mean unexpected new discoveries of crude. But should we count on it?

It's true this century has seen a long series of oil scares followed by new discoveries and rising production. But remember two things. First, over 90 percent of the drilling during the entire oil age has taken place in the US. So, while there's much more natural gas to be found, unproven US oil reserves are iffy. Second, geologists have scoured the earth for likely oil formations. There may be possibilities of major finds in salt dome formations in the Gulf of Mexico, parts of Siberia, perhaps off the China coast, and even in Antarctica. But those are the areas where extraction will be difficult.

World car-selling has become so competitive -- for management and labor -- that we are in danger of forgetting future generations in the rush to sell excitement. It's easy to tell ourselves 21st century ``yuppies'' will have light-weight battery cars recharged from photovoltaic or fusion power sources. But before we go V-8, somebody ought to make sure those inventions are feasible. The country that once trimmed down to 55 is now doing 65 or 70. Does it really need to get there in 10 seconds?

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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