March 6, 2013


The Deluge : Rapidly advancing technologies are opening up astonishing sources of oil and gas all over the world. We are entering a new era of fossil fuels that is reshaping global economics and politics--and the planet. (Vince Beiser, 3/04/13, Pacific Standard)

The story of Kern River reflects our entire history with oil: every time we think we're starting to run out of it, new technologies arise that find us more. The widely circulated fears of a few years ago that we were approaching "peak oil" have turned out to be completely wrong. From the Arctic to Africa, nanoengineered materials, underwater robots, side-scanning 3-D sonar, specially engineered lubricants, and myriad other advances are opening up titanic new supplies of fossil fuels, many of them in unexpected places--Brazil, Australia, and, perhaps most significantly, North America. "Contrary to what most people believe," declares a recent study from the Harvard Kennedy School, "oil supply capacity is growing worldwide at such an unprecedented level that it might outpace consumption."
FOR CENTURIES, THE EVER-SHIFTING MAP of where energy comes from has defined much of the character of our world. When people used whale oil for indoor lighting, Nantucket was a bustling center of commerce. Coal drove the rise of places like Newcastle upon Tyne in England and Centralia in Pennsylvania--and then powered the industrial and geographic expansion of the United States. Oil helped fund the creation of Texas and California. Since then, fossil fuels have shaped the development of countries around the world, especially in the Middle East.

Right now, the map of who sells and who buys oil and natural gas is being radically redrawn. Just a few years ago, imported oil made up nearly two-thirds of the United States' annual consumption; now it's less than half. Within a decade, the U.S. is expected to overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to regain its title as the world's top energy producer. Countries that have never had an energy industry worth mentioning are on the brink of becoming major players, while established fossil fuel powerhouses are facing challenges to their dominance. We are witnessing a shift that heralds major new opportunities--and dangers--for individual nations, international politics and economics, and the planet.

Oil is perhaps the only commodity used, in one way or another, by almost everyone on earth. We depend on it for much more than just gasoline. Oil and natural gas provide the raw materials for asphalt, plastics, and chemicals and fertilizers without which modern agriculture would collapse. To say that we're "addicted" to oil, as though it were a bad habit we could kick through force of will, is to drastically understate the degree of our dependence. In short: no petroleum, no modern civilization.

Little surprise, then, that practically since we started using the stuff, we have fretted that we were running out of it. In 1922, a federal commission predicted that "production of oil cannot long maintain its present rate." In 1977, President Jimmy Carter declared that world oil production would peak by 1985.

It turns out, though, that the problem has never been exactly about supply; it's always been about our ability to profitably tap that supply. We human beings have consumed, over our entire history, about a trillion barrels of oil. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there is still seven to eight times that much left in the ground.

Posted by at March 6, 2013 7:45 PM

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