End of Oil?
If the actions—rather than the words—of the oil business’s major players provide the best gauge of how they see the future, then ponder the following. Crude oil prices have doubled since 2001, but oil companies have increased their budgets for exploring new oil fields by only a small fraction. Likewise, U.S. refineries are working close to capacity, yet no new refinery has been constructed since 1976. And oil tankers are fully booked, but outdated ships are being decommissioned faster than new ones are being built.
If those clues weren’t enough, here’s a news item that came out of Saudi Arabia on March 6, 2003. Though it went largely unremarked, the kingdom’s announcement that it could not produce more oil in response to the Iraq War was of historic importance. As Kenneth Deffeyes notes in Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak, it meant that as of 2003, there was no major underutilized oil source left on the planet. Even as established oil fields have reached their maximum production capacity, there has been disappointing production from new fields. Globally, according to some geologists’ estimates, we have discovered 94 percent of all available oil.
The Saudis’ announcement arrived right on schedule—at least, once the three-year delay imposed by OPEC’s anti-U.S. embargo and production cutbacks of the 1970s was factored in. In 1969, the prominent geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that a graph of world oil production over time would look like a bell curve, with a peak around the year 2000. Thereafter, he argued, production would drop—slowly at first, then ever faster.
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