How Much Oil is Actually Left On This Planet? Should We Care?

Editor’s Note: I’m in Houston, TX, this week, celebrating the International Year of the Planet by posting on topics covered at the first ever joint meeting between the American societies of Soil Science, Geology, Crop Science and Agronomy. With a significant focus on biofuels, this conference should be rife with interesting materials.

According to Dr. Peter McCabe, a world-renowned scientist currently working at CSIRO in Australia, any realistic analysis of future energy sources can only conclude that, barring some complete and miraculous harmony between all the world’s economic superpowers, fossil fuels will dominate our energy mix for at least the next few decades — and we should just accept it.

To get a perspective on where Dr. McCabe is coming from, it struck me that he is a man who thinks in terms of quadrillions of BTUs and exajoules of energy. His views come from an analysis of global markets and global energy use. To him it probably seems that a grassroots coordinated global effort is beyond the reach of humanity.

Being a bit of a realistic skeptic myself, it seemed like it would be worth my while to temporarily suspend my deep held belief that not only is it possible for the U.S. and most of the rest of the world to kick its oil habit within a decade, but also a simple requirement for survival, and take Dr. McCabe at face value.

You see, to me all issues are local and don’t work on a global scale. Indeed, local efforts often end up with global results. But the top-down mentality, the self-same mentality that often results in humans thinking that a particular task is beyond reach, is what precludes a person who deals in exajoules from thinking that global change is possible in a short period of time.

With that said, Dr. McCabe does have some significant food for thought. Since 1980, world energy use has gone from 250 quadrillion BTUs to about 500 quadrillion BTUs presently (see chart at right, click for larger copy). The vast majority of that growth has been in Asia, with smaller amounts coming from North America and the Middle East. Europe’s energy demand has remained rather static and Eurasia has actually seen a decline in use since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Of the 500 quadrillion BTUs the world currently uses, roughly 40% comes from oil, 24% from natural gas, 22% from coal, 8% from nuclear, and 6% from renewables (see chart below, click for larger copy). In a way, I can see Dr. McCabe’s point: with 86% of 500 quadrillion BTUs coming from fossil fuels, it’s hard to envision a way to replace that much energy with renewable sources in a short period of time. 430 quadrillion BTUs is, to me, an unimaginably large amount.

So, if Dr. McCabe is right, will the world have enough fossil fuels to keep up with demand? If we can’t completely switch to renewable energy sources for at least another 30 years (and assuming climate change doesn’t kill us off first) will the problem of peak oil rear it’s ugly head and kill us off anyways?

According to McCabe, in a nutshell the peak oil concept is fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t account for external factors.

The way he sees it, the world has plenty of remaining and untapped fossil fuel resources to keep up with demand for at least the next 30 years. From squeezing oil out of unconventional sources such as oil shales, to using new technologies to re-exploit old oil fields that had since been left as dead, to undiscovered conventional oil sources, Dr. McCabe’s opinion is that there is no impending peak oil crisis – and the same thing goes for natural gas and coal.

So, hooray. Score one for fossil fuels. But is this really good news? In some sadistic and drastic way, part of me hopes that Dr. McCabe is wrong — because if he’s right, I’m afraid it will provide no incentive to the world to make the changes that are necessary to ensure the survival of humanity.

Other Posts From the Joint Meeting in Houston:

Opening Image Credit: W.M. Norton, publisher of the Book “Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil” by David Goodstein

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.