Oil reserves are drying up rapidly
By Bill Boyne
A worldwide oil shortage is due in four years -- not 40 years.
That is the prediction of the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre in London, an organization of scientists and oil industry experts. It was reported by The Independent newspaper in England.
The prediction was made in reply to a report by BP, a British oil company, stating that "the world has enough 'proven reserves' to provide 40 years of consumption at current rates."
Colin Campbell, the head of the depletion center, rejected that statement. He said, "It's quite a simple theory and one that any beer drinker understands. The glass starts full and ends empty and the faster you drink it the quicker it's gone."
Campbell is a former chief geologist and vice president for a number of major oil companies, including BP. He said the actual peak for the supply of regular oil occurred in 2005. Now the supply is coming from heavy oil, deep sea reserves, polar regions and oil from other sources that is more difficult to refine. He predicts that decline in the remaining oil will begin in 2011.
The center's method of predicting future oil reserves is the one used by M. King Hubbert, a U.S. oil industry geologist. In the late 1960s, he predicted that production of oil in the U.S. would peak in 1970 and that proved to be correct.
Part of the problem in determining when the peak will occur lies in the fact that oil-producing countries in the Middle East and elsewhere are believed to exaggerate the volume of their reserves. In Kuwait last year, a journalist is reported to have found documents suggesting that the country's oil reserves actually were half the size that the country claimed.
Some industry observers believe that Saudi Arabia's estimated reserves also are exaggerated.
Some experts have suggested that as soon as consumption of oil begins to exceed production, even by a small amount, the price of oil will rise dramatically.
The Independent's report lists some of the consequences that would follow a global decline in oil reserves:
"A reduction of as little as 10 to 15 percent could cripple oil-dependent industrial economies. In the 1970's, a reduction of just 5 percent caused a price increase of more than 400 percent.
"Most farming equipment is either built in oil-powered plants or uses diesel fuel. Nearly all pesticides and many fertilizers are made from oil.
Most plastics, used in everything from computers to mobile phones to pipelines, clothing and carpets, are made from oil-based substances. Manufacturing requires huge amounts of fossil fuels. The construction of a single car in the U.S. requires, on average, at least 20 barrels of oil."
Unfortunately, most estimates about the time required to build sufficient numbers of high mileage cars and to create an adequate supply of renewable fuels for cars and trucks range from 10 to 20 years or more.
If the analysis center's estimates are correct, the world faces an economic disaster of the worst kind. It is hard to imagine the consequences if most of the world's 500 million cars and trucks stopped running in a very short time.
Major military operations also could be stopped. The high volume of diesel oil and gasoline used by U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East was calculated recently by Michael T. Klare, professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. He said the consumption by these forces averages 16 gallons of oil per person per day.
Klare writes: "Multiply this figure by 162,000 soldiers in Iraq, 24,000 in Afghanistan, and 30,000 in the surrounding region (including sailors aboard U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf) and you arrive at approximately 3.5 million gallons of oil, the daily petroleum tab for U.S. combat operations in the Middle East war zone.
"Multiply that daily tab by 365 and you get 1.3 billion gallons: the estimated annual oil expenditures for U.S. combat operations in Southwest Asia." Worldwide oil consumption by U.S. military forces would obviously be much greater.
It is easy to see that a true global oil shortage of the kind predicted by the Oil Depletion Centre would wreak havoc on U.S. military operations all over the world.
Few government, business or military leaders are brave enough to address this seemingly hopeless issue, but that must be done. The first step should be to ask U.S. scientists with no attachment to the oil industry to review the analysis center's predictions.
If the predictions are confirmed, Congress should take immediate corrective action, including a declaration of a national emergency and appropriate steps to reduce energy use, including a 55-mile-per hour speed limit.
It might also be desirable to pass a substantial increase in the gasoline tax. That would encourage an immediate reduction in gasoline use and buy time for developing further strategies. It would also raise substantial funds that could be used to produce more renewable fuels.
Those obviously are painful choices and they might or might not be truly effective. However, they make more sense than waiting four more years to confront an unmanageable crisis.
Bill Boyne is a retired publisher and editor of the Post-Bulletin who writes a weekly column.