Running out of oil -- and time:
The news last month that the vast Saudi oil fields are in decline is a far bigger story than most in the media, or the United States, seem to realize. We may begrudge the Saudis their 30-year stranglehold on the world economy. But even the possibility that the lords of oil have less of the stuff than advertised raises troubling questions. How long will the world's long-term oil supplies last? As important, what will the big importing nations, like the U.S., do the day world oil production hits its inevitable peak?
For more than a century, Western governments have been relentlessly upbeat about the long-term outlook for oil. Whenever pessimists claimed that supplies were running low — as they have many times — oil companies always seemed to discover huge new fields. It's now an article of faith among oil optimists, including those in the U.S. government, that global oil reserves won't run out for at least four decades, which seems like enough time to devise a whole suite of alternative energy technologies to smoothly and seamlessly replace oil.
But such oil optimism, always questionable, is now more suspect than ever. True, we won't "run out" of oil tomorrow, or even 10 years from now. But the long-term picture is grim. In the first place, it's not a matter of running out of oil but of hitting a production peak. Since 1900, world oil production — that is, the number of barrels we can pump from the ground — has risen in near-perfect step with world oil demand. Today, demand stands at about 29 billion barrels of oil a year, and so does production. By 2020, demand may well be 45 billion barrels a year, by which time, we hope, oil companies will have upped production accordingly.