Tuesday, 2 December 2003

Bottom of the barrel

The world is running out of oil - so why do politicians refuse to talk about it?

by George Monbiot


George Monbiot The oil industry is buzzing. On Thursday, the government approved the development of the biggest deposit discovered in British territory for at least 10 years. Everywhere we are told that this is a "huge" find, which dispels the idea that North Sea oil is in terminal decline. You begin to recognise how serious the human predicament has become when you discover that this "huge" new field will supply the world with oil for five and a quarter days.

Every generation has its taboo, and ours is this: that the resource upon which our lives have been built is running out. We don't talk about it because we cannot imagine it. This is a civilisation in denial.

Oil itself won't disappear, but extracting what remains is becoming ever more difficult and expensive. The discovery of new reserves peaked in the 1960s. Every year we use four times as much oil as we find. All the big strikes appear to have been made long ago: the 400m barrels in the new North Sea field would have been considered piffling in the 1970s. Our future supplies depend on the discovery of small new deposits and the better exploitation of big old ones. No one with expertise in the field is in any doubt that the global production of oil will peak before long.

The only question is how long. The most optimistic projections are the ones produced by the US department of energy, which claims that this will not take place until 2037. But the US energy information agency has admitted that the government's figures have been fudged: it has based its projections for oil supply on the projections for oil demand, perhaps in order not to sow panic in the financial markets.

Other analysts are less sanguine. The petroleum geologist Colin Campbell calculates that global extraction will peak before 2010. In August, the geophysicist Kenneth Deffeyes told New Scientist that he was "99% confident" that the date of maximum global production will be 2004. Even if the optimists are correct, we will be scraping the oil barrel within the lifetimes of most of those who are middle-aged today.

The supply of oil will decline, but global demand will not. Today we will burn 76m barrels; by 2020 we will be using 112m barrels a day, after which projected demand accelerates. If supply declines and demand grows, we soon encounter something with which the people of the advanced industrial economies are unfamiliar: shortage. The price of oil will go through the roof.

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