Time running out for oil, gas reserves
By Jessica L. Aberle
World oil discoveries have been steadily declining for decades, while oil consumption has continued to increase dramatically.
Individual oil fields reach a point of peak production, where about half the oil has been retrieved, and production, though it does not stop, declines. And no one argues that only a finite amount of oil exists in the world and that our consumption of it continues to rise.
So, at some point the world's oil production, the sum of all the individual fields, will peak and demand will exceed production. When that peaking will occur has been the subject of much debate in recent decades. Some experts say the reserves are peaking now. Others argue demand won't exceed production for another 20 or 30 years.
Regardless of the timing, the known oil reserves will not last through the next 50 years and natural gas reserves are predicted to last only another 80 years, according to Tomasz Wiltowski, an associate director of the Coal Research Center and a professor of mechanical engineering and energy process at Southern Illinois University.
"The only solution right now for today and for the energy industry's future is coal," said Wiltowski, who has received more than $3 million in grant money to produce transportation fuels from coal.
If you assume we know all the reserves for oil, coal and natural gas, in Illinois alone at current production levels there is more than 300 years of coal, he said. "The future of coal also is transportation fuel," he said. With the implementation of clean coal technologies, all of this is good news for the high-energy coal found in Illinois.
Wiltowski said recent research shows the known oil reserves currently are peaking and will be depleted 30 to 40 years from now at the current rate of consumption. "It's a simple mathematical equation," he said. "Not rocket science."
And even if new reservoirs are found, they won't keep up with the ever growing demand, Wiltowski said, adding demand has outpaced discovery for decades.
"We are approaching peak oil," according to Stephen Andrews, co-founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas - USA. "Although political and economic events could shift the timing, we are nearing the date when there will not be enough oil left in the ground to permit a continuing increase in oil production. After that point, oil production must inevitably decline," Andrews says in an introduction to the group's Web site.
Geologists view peak oil in terms of resource depletion, with annual production depending on how many recoverable barrels of this finite resource there are on the planet, according to ASPO. For economists, it means the demand for gasoline, diesel, propane, heating oil and thousands of other petroleum-based products will exceed the supply of oil.
"Shortages of these commodities are inevitable," according to Andrews, who says resource depletion ranks in the top three issues facing humanity.
In 2005, the United States is predicted to consume an average of about 21 million barrels of oil per day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And even with high crude oil costs - currently below $60 a barrel but as high as $70 after hurricanes decimated the Gulf Coast - the demand continued to rise at a rate of about 1.4 percent over 2004.
As of Jan. 1, the U.S. had 21.9 billion barrels of proved oil reserves, according to the Oil and Gas Journal, the 11th highest in the world. The reserves are concentrated overwhelmingly in Texas, Louisiana, Alaska and California. And these reserves, according to the DOE, have declined 17 percent since 1990, with the U.S. still importing about 60 percent of its oil demand.
World oil demand is forecast to grow 50 percent by 2025, according to the DOE.
"If large quantities of new oil are not discovered and brought into production somewhere in the world, then world oil production will no longer satisfy demand," Robert L. Hirsch, the lead author of the 91-page DOE study on peak oil, explains in his nine-page oil primer, "The Inevitable Peaking of World Oil Production."
Peaking, however, does not mean production will suddenly stop, or that the reserves are depleted, only that production cannot increase and will decline.
Peak oil opponents argue the current crisis marks the fifth time the world has "run out of oil," and each time more oil suddenly was found. However, the world's last super giant oil field, like those in Saudi Arabia, was discovered in the 1960s, Hirsch said.
"The era of plentiful, low-cost petroleum is approaching an end," Hirsch says. "The good news is that commercially viable mitigation options are ready for implementation.
"The bad news is that unless mitigation is orchestrated on a timely basis, the economic damage to the world economy will be dire and long-lasting."
The technology exists or is on the verge to temporarily replace oil and oil-based products and fuels with coal. Chemical feed stocks, plastics, dyes, fertilizers all were once produced from coal tar and coal gasification. Significant progress already has been made into developing transportation fuels - diesel and hydrogen - efficiently and cleanly from coal.
"If we don't do something about it, in a few years when you go to the supermarket there won't be an option of paper or plastic," SIU coal researcher Ken Anderson said of the peaking of oil supplies.
"If we're smart we can use coal to fill in that gap. Because it's still cheap, it's available and it's available here on our own soil," he said. "We just have to use it. We've got to be smart."