When the oil runs out

When the oil runs out

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By Andrés Buenfil Friedman

Although there is still a little more than half of the conventional oil that nature created, it is going to be increasingly difficult and expensive to extract. Currently only one barrel of oil is discovered for every five that are consumed worldwide.

The depletion of reserves, closer than you think

Although there is still a little more than half of the conventional oil that nature created, it is going to be increasingly difficult and expensive to extract. Just as the best seats in the cinema are occupied first or the best lands are cultivated before the worst. Unfortunately, only millions of years of very particular ecological and geological conditions can create more oil or any other fossil resource. Currently, only one barrel of oil is discovered for every five that are consumed worldwide

Oil represents almost 40% of the energy we consume globally and is by far the fuel that makes the world possible as we know it.

Let's do an experiment. I propose that you leave this newspaper for a moment and look up to imagine what our world would be like without oil. Now, let's send everything that is made with oil to an imaginary black hole, starting with objects that contain plastic in any of its forms. There goes his daughter's doll, the pen with which she writes, half her 50% cotton / 50% rayon shirt, the phone and the computer. Let's see his deodorant, the paint on the walls, the asphalt on the street disappear, now, his glasses and these letters. Let's suppose that the ink is not made from oil and let's continue, but first light a candle because the power has just gone out: 45% of the electricity in Mexico is generated with oil. If you live in a building, eventually the water, which is pumped with electricity, will not run through the pipes either.

We eliminated all synthetics, and the world still doesn't look that different. Now those things that have had to be transported long distances to reach our hands are disappearing since more than 95% and 85% of transport in Mexico and the world, respectively, depend on oil. I suggest you read the labels: there go the Brazilian fabric pants manufactured in Bangladesh and the T-shirt made in El Salvador. But not even his shoes, proudly Mexican, are saved, because in addition to containing Chinese rubber soles and petroleum-based glues and dyes, the leather with which they are made had to be transported to the factory in León Guanajuato, from there to the warehouse, then to the point of sale and from there to your home. Then eliminate everything that requires transporting. There goes, too, the other half of his shirt.

Although we are now half naked, there is still the wooden table (without varnish) and the appetizing plate of enchiladas that I was about to eat for breakfast. Until we consider that the wood is cut with a gasoline chainsaw and it is required to transport it from the forest to the carpenter's workshop who works with power tools. "Okay, but not enchiladas," you must be thinking by now, "food can't come from oil." No, not food, but pesticides, fertilizers and diesel to move the tractor and pump the water to plant and water the corn, tomatoes and onions. The chickens, meanwhile, grew up in plastic crates under a constellation of spotlights, and eventually everything was transported. The more industrialized a food is, the more oil is used to make it, as is the case with most food found in the supermarket. Anyway, cold enchiladas are not very tasty to say the least, and remember that LP gas is Liquefied Petroleum.

Why imagine a world without oil if there are still around 1 trillion 200 billion barrels on the planet? The reason is simple: although there is still a little more than half of the conventional oil that nature created in previous geological eras, it is going to be increasingly difficult and expensive to extract because the easy and cheap oil to produce already was consumed.

Although more is invested in exploration, smaller deposits will be discovered every time because all the big ones were discovered half a century ago (Graph 1), just as the best seats in the cinema are occupied first or the best lands are cultivated before the worse. Currently only one barrel of oil is discovered for every five that are consumed worldwide.

Graph 1.The growing deficit between oil discoveries and production worldwide (1 Gb = 1 billion barrels). Source: ASPO, Bulletin No. 57 - September 2005.

This phenomenon is known as peak oil production, a term devised by the American geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who found that oil extraction can be graphed as a bell (where the base represents the years and the height, the production oil company). When half of the oil has already been extracted, the highest point of production has been reached (the top of the bell) and soon an irreparable decline begins. In 1956 Hubbert correctly predicted peak oil in the United States, which occurred in the early 1970s.

Currently more than 50 producing countries, including Mexico, have already passed their production peak and there are only a dozen countries left with the capacity to increase it. This model of fossil resource extraction, as well as the fact that cheap oil is running out, is widely accepted by the scientific community and, increasingly, by the oil industry. The controversy centers not so much on whether oil production will peak, but on when it will. The Association for the Study of the Peak of Oil and Gas (ASPO) estimates that the world peak will occur in 2007, 10 years after Hubbert predicted (Figure 2). On the other hand, there are those who assure that we are already at the peak of production, and that is that the main problem to predict it with certainty is that most of the countries do not give true figures or inflate the reports of their reserves to increase their production quotas. or to attract investors. In this light, there would be even less oil than is believed.

Graph 2. Oil production worldwide (in billions of barrels), including unconventional oil (heavy oils, reserves under deep sea waters [AMP], in polar regions and liquefied natural gas [LNG]). The areas under each curve or "bell" represent reserves by region or by fuel type. According to this model, the world peak of oil production would occur in 2007 (peak of the total "bell"). Source: ASPO, Bulletin No. 53 - May, 2005.

At the rate at which oil was consumed worldwide in 2004 (close to 29.3 billion barrels), we would run out of what is left in less than 40 years. Although it is difficult to believe, for Mexico the situation is even worse. It is estimated that only approximately 15 billion barrels remain in our territory. At the current rate of production, which amounts to about 1.4 billion barrels per year & shy; of which we sell almost 45% to the United States & shy; Mexican oil would not be enough for 11 more years. However, because, as we mentioned before, the remaining oil is increasingly difficult to extract, it would be impossible to maintain such a level of production and, by producing less, the life of the fields is extended.

No matter how much Pemex invests in exploration, regardless of whether the money is federal or private, oil reserves will not grow enough to even increase by 50%, which would be equivalent to less than six years (at the current rate of production). The alarming thing is not that in almost a decade we could lose about a quarter of the revenue to the federal budget or that we would then have to import oil at perhaps $ 300 or more a barrel (instead of practically "giving it away" to them). to the United States, as now), but almost no one is talking about this in the country! And as, ironically, a recent announcement by the Ministry of Energy says: "a country with energy is a country with a future."

Geopolitical leaders like the president of the United States, George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, know perfectly well that oil is the fuel that fuels the engine of the economy and, therefore, that its scarcity would destroy the American way of life . The United States, with 5% of the world's population, consumes 25% of the oil produced in the world, and of which it imports half.

Approximately 62% of the world's remaining oil is located in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia being the country with the largest reserves (262 billion barrels). However, some experts such as Mathew R. Simmons, an oil consultant and author of the book Twilight in the desert, the coming oil shock and the world economy, they consider that that title would correspond to Iraq (115 billion barrels) because the Saudi reserves are actually much smaller than those reported.

As the invasion of Iraq demonstrates, control of the remaining reserves is a matter of life and death not only for the American empire, but for all humanity. The financial and economic systems of the modern world are based on perpetual growth. It is normal for the economy to grow by at least 3% each year, which leads to doubling the demand for resources every 23 years (China, with an annual growth of 10%, doubles its demand every seven years). We have insisted on believing that these models of constant growth are reality, something like confusing the map with the territory, when in a finite biophysical world, perpetual growth is impossible.

To a large extent, this myopia towards biophysical reality is due to the fact that since the beginning of the industrial revolution we have dedicated ourselves to living & growing & shy; accelerated from the savings account that we appropriated the land (first it was with coal and then with hydrocarbons). We spend hundreds of times faster than the planet's sustainable income (renewable energy) is generated and since we had never reached the limit, where savings are barely enough to pay the bill for our global consumption, we do not have a historical reference at the planetary level of its implications.

Savings (soil fertility, minerals, forests, fish, etc.) were always running out locally, but in this global era the insufficiency of the main fuel of the neoclassical economy would lead, sooner or later, to the collapse of international financial systems and markets. . This would lead to a global economic depression that would generate all kinds of conflicts, such as political and social destabilization, inflation and massive unemployment, crime, wars, mass migration and famines.

On the other side of the coin there are those who claim that there are 100 more years of oil left. This group consists mostly of politicians and economists who include unconventional oil in their calculations. This is, for example, the one found in asphalt sands; or heavy oil (similar to tar); or the one that is located outside the continental shelf at great depths within the sea.

Its production is much more expensive than conventional oil and requires using so much fossil energy (coal, oil or natural gas) that the resulting net energy is almost nil, that is, if 8 liters of oil are consumed directly and indirectly to produce 10 liters, the net energy is only 2 liters and therefore it is not very convenient to produce this type of fuel. Depending on the case, the net energy could even be negative. The problem is that if the net energy is negative, there is no excess energy to promote economic growth, regardless of the price at which oil is sold. Technological advances can help increase net energy and extend peak production a little, but not create more oil.

Although for most politicians and economists 10 or 40 years is an eternity, even half a century would be a very short time to change our addiction to black gold and modify all the infrastructure based on this ephemeral natural resource for one that uses renewable energy. Well experts say that current government energy policies to deal with this situation amount only to "rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic."

On the other hand, there is a widespread impression that when the oil crisis begins, natural gas and alternative (renewable) energy will come to the rescue. This, in the first place, is impossible and, in the second, it creates a feeling that there is no big problem, thus fostering the passivity of the media, the apathy of politicians and the blindness of businessmen.

It is impossible, because everything indicates that natural gas, which represents 24% of the primary energy consumed worldwide, will reach its peak of production, too, in about 20 or 30 years (probably sooner, if there is a shortage oil). In addition, it does not have the same versatility: natural gas (methane) is the simplest of hydrocarbons and cannot be distilled like oil to derive the infinity of petrochemical products that we use daily. Renewable energy also does not have the versatility of oil and since there are no reserves of sun, wind or the kinetic force of the tides, you cannot get as much juice from renewable energy as from geological hydrocarbon stores.

Let's review some of these alternatives: the industrial production of biofuels to replace gasoline, as in Brazil based on sugar cane, or biomass to generate electricity, are processes highly dependent on oil (sowing, irrigation, harvesting and transportation) and natural gas (fertilizers). In turn, the hydrogen used in the famous hydrogen cells is not an energy source but a transporter ( carrier) of energy and requires huge amounts of coal or hydrocarbons to produce it, which again results in too little net energy to fuel economic growth.

Furthermore, fossil energy is required, especially oil, to develop and install any alternative; for example, to melt silica in the manufacture of solar panels or to produce and install wind turbines. Similarly, replacing the world's fleet of diesel or gasoline-powered internal combustion vehicles with more efficient cars and trucks, such as Toyota's Prius or Honda's Hybrids, would require at least 45.5 billion barrels of oil to run. production (65 barrels to produce a Toyota Prius for 700 million vehicles in the world).

As a result of peak oil, we are surely going to see a resurgence of nuclear fission plants to generate electricity. Despite the claims of environmentalists for the high risks of nuclear contamination, as well as governments that see in it the potential for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear energy can be essential to cover the electricity deficit and maintain the systems of telecommunication, the Internet, as well as medical and educational services. Furthermore, since a lot of energy, especially electricity, is required to produce and install renewable alternatives, nuclear energy is going to be increasingly important to counteract the oil shortage. However, even uranium, which is used as fuel in nuclear fission, is a finite resource.

For its part, nuclear fusion seems to be the energy panacea since it would be quite clean and almost unlimited. Unfortunately, after half a century of extensive research, scientists are still a long way from sustaining this type of reaction under control for more than a fraction of a second. Indeed, there is no material on Earth that resists and contains the temperature of more than 10 million degrees Celsius that occurs when, as in the sun, two hydrogen atoms fuse into one of helium, setting off a chain reaction.

Although this all sounds very catastrophic and pessimistic, the more we ignore this gigantic issue we will be wasting precious time to begin taking drastic measures that could literally save millions of lives. It is essential that we become aware of the gravity of the situation and begin to conserve energy, invest in renewable alternatives and, above all, that we begin to change the current egocentric and consumerist paradigm for a more "ecocentric" and sustainable one. In historical terms, it is irrelevant if peak oil is already here or if there are 10 or 30 years to go, because at this point the only true solution to the imminent energy crisis that is approaching is a change in mentality, a kind of cultural revolution at the level planetary, an evolution of human consciousness.

( Most of the figures were obtained from BP's "Statistical Review of World Energy 2005": )
* Andrés Buenfil Friedman is a doctor in energy analysis and ecological systems from the University of Florida. Email:
For more information on Peak Oil: (in Spanish) (in English)
Masiorare / La Jornada
Photos: Reuters

Video: If The Oil Runs Out (June 2022).


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