Daniel Yergin: Are We Running Out of Oil?

Roundup: Media's Take

Daniel Yergin, in the NYT (April 4, 2004):

[O]il is a finite resource, and fear of running out has always haunted the petroleum industry. In the 1880's, John Archbold, who would succeed John D. Rockefeller as head of the Standard Oil Trust, began to sell his shares in the company because engineers told him that America's days as an oil producer were numbered.

After World War I, the American government's top oil expert predicted a coming "gasoline famine." One solution was to cobble together the three easternmost provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire into a new country, called Iraq, believed to be rich in oil resources and safely under British control.

After World War II, fears of shortages spiked again, and the industry invented offshore drilling. (Today, 30 percent of America's crude oil comes from the Gulf of Mexico.) Reserves in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, discovered just before World War II, were rapidly developed.

The oil crises of the 1970's - the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the 1979-80 Iranian revolution - were also seen as the harbingers of the "end of oil." In 1972, an international research group called the Club of Rome predicted the world would soon run short of natural resources. Spiraling oil prices in the following years - from $3 a barrel to $34 a barrel - seemed like a confirmation.

Of course, that's not what happened. Supply steeply increased from new non-OPEC sources like Alaska and the North Sea; coal and nuclear power plants pushed oil out of electricity generation, and conservation reduced demand. By the mid-1980's, oil, supposedly headed for $100 a barrel, instead fell to as low as $6.

Historically, then, dire oil predictions have been undone by two factors. One is the opening (or reopening) of territories to exploration by companies faced with a constant demand to replace declining reserves. The second is the tremendous impact of new technology. After World War I, seismic technology, used for locating enemy artillery, was adapted to oil field exploration. And in the 1990's, it became feasible to drill into deep offshore fields, which was inconceivable during those crisis years of the 1970's.

Better technology and management have increased Russian output by 45 percent since 1998, making Russia the world's second-largest oil producer. And if United States sanctions are lifted on Libya, new investment there could push up production. In the meantime, advanced information technologies and sophisticated remote sensing techniques are making exploration and production much more efficient, which could make an additional 125 billion barrels available over the next decade, an amount greater than the current proved reserves of Iraq.

Those who don't believe a shortage is imminent do not deny that a peak will eventually be reached. They just believe that it is much farther off into the future.

"You can certainly make a good case that sometime before the year 2050 conventional oil production will have peaked," said the head of exploration for a major oil company. He and others believe, however, that oil production will simply plateau, and then farther into the future begin to decline.

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