The Coming Energy Crisis

Glenn R. Morton, ASA Member
Aberdeen Pouch c/o Kerr McGee
16666 Northchase, Houston, TX 77060

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (December 2000): 228-229

For as long as the oil industry has existed, there have been those who claimed that the world will soon run out of oil. Such claims have usually been attacked as being too pessimistic. And they were. One would seem to be a fool to say the same thing today. However, some fundamental laws of nature that cannot be avoided will show their teeth during this century. Sometime between 2004 and 2020 the world oil production will peak around thirty billion barrels of oil per year. After that, a slow but inexorable production decline will occur, creating a major societal impact enhanced by an increasing world population and the rising standards of living in the third world.

This prediction is based on the work of M. King Hubbert, who in 1956, after analyzing USA oil production, projected that USA production would peak in 1970 at around ten million barrels (bbl) per day.1 Everyone thought Hubbert was a terrible pessimist. History has confirmed what Hubbert predicted. The USA production rate peaked in 1971. Since that time, the USA oil production has declined at a rate always within 5% of Hubbert’s original prediction.

Hubbert had captured a law that governs the production of all natural resources from oil, coal, and metals.2 Many energy analysts, using Hubbert’s methodology, are predicting that the world will soon see a declining availability of oil, with oil depleted in thirty-five years and natural gas in fifty years.3 These estimates include projections of future discoveries of petroleum resources, most of which lie outside the U.S. The past and predicted world production curve is shown in the figure below.

Can this decline be avoided? From my experience, the answer is no. In the early 1980s, the oil industry engaged in a massive search for oil. The graph of the USA production shows that all that effort did was flatten the decline for those years. We were unable to turn the production around.

For twenty years, the world has been using more oil than we have been finding.4 Presently this deficit is 15 billion barrels per year. Prudhoe Bay (the oil field in north Alaska) will only produce 12.5 billion barrels. To maintain oil production, we need to find more than one Prudhoe Bay each year! We are not doing that.

The world uses 390 quadrillion British thermal units (quads) of energy per year. Oil provides 162 quads; coal, 112 quads; natural gas, 92 quads; renewable energy sources, 20 quads; and nuclear, 4 quads.5 In the next fifty years, we need to find a replacement for 65% of our energy supply. But energy use will grow. Energy use in Asia is expected to double by 2020.6 If this turns out to be true, Asia will require the equivalent of all today’s oil supply, 160 quads.

Easy answers cannot be found. We cannot use oil shale, because it costs as much energy to make the oil from shale as is contained in the oil recovered. Using coal requires tripling of the bituminous coal output with a consequential environmental cost. Tripling coal usage will also result in the depletion of coal resources by the year 2200.7 Biomass conversion would not work. If we harnessed every wood fire, all the agricultural wastes, and all the grain alcohol in the world, they would provide only 15% of our needs today. Hydropower today provides 5.5% of our energy but could only provide 25%. Solar energy is unlikely to be a viable replacement. Solar power cannot be generated at night and even during the day there is only a 12–15% efficiency of conversion.8 Some have suggested a hydrogen economy where we split oxygen from hydrogen via photocells and then ship the hydrogen like natural gas. This is not a primary energy source. It requires energy to do this, which is what we would not have in the future.

Nuclear fission is an extremely unpopular source of energy. People are afraid of it and there is a risk that nuclear weapons would be produced.

Hydrogen fusion, the process that powers the sun, is unlikely. The technology is still in its infancy and most feel that it would be decades before we solved the problems, if ever.9 But in the long run, it is the only viable solution to the energy problems over the next two centuries. The energy in one percent of the earth’s deuterium (the form of hydrogen used for fusion) represents 500,000 times more energy than all the fossil fuels burned to date.

Some might delight in the demise of the oil age, thinking that we could use clean electric power. Electric power must be generated from other forms of energy. Today electricity is generated from coal (39%), nuclear (16%), natural gas (15%), oil (10%), hydro and other sources (20%).10 The loss of oil and natural gas over the next fifty years will result in a 25% reduction of electrical power.

Failure to replace this energy is not an option. Besides heating and fuel for vehicles, petroleum is used to manufacture a wide range of products, such as synthetics used in clothing, plastics, styrofoam, detergent, lip gloss, paint thinner, furniture polish, insecticides, fertilizer, and hundreds of other things. Petroleum has come to occupy a very important place in modern civilization. Many of these products will be lost to us as the fuel stocks will no longer be available or affordable as the price of oil rises. Conservation in the face of higher prices will spread these effects out, but the fact is that conservation will not produce more oil. Conservation will extend the life of the oil era, but not indefinitely.

By the middle of this century the auto will be a thing of the past. Mass transit will become a way of life, which will require major restructuring of how cities are laid out. People will need to live close together and close to work. Currently our economy depends upon vehicles to move products to market. Without fuel, trucks will not move and gross national products will decline. Raw materials will not get to the factories and finished products will not get to market. How can an economy survive that?

Modern agricultural methods are possible only because we have tractors that can plow, fertilize, and harvest the crops. They run on petroleum. Without fuel, tractors cannot plow or provide the power needed to run harvesting equipment. Without natural gas it will be harder to make fertilizer. Since pesticides are made from petroleum, insects will reduce the crop yields even further. The world simply cannot support the present population on nineteenth century farming methods.

Politicians will feel pressure to ensure their country’s oil supplies. This will create squabbles over who gets the oil, resulting in wars. Oil exporting nations may come under pressure from their citizens to cease exporting and simply use the oil for their own need. Of course, such a policy will cause grave concern in petroleum dependent countries.

All of these issues present severe concerns. Some pessimistic persons believe that a massive die off and a new stone age is upon us.11 While the concerns about future energy requirements are certainly valid and we have no clear path forward today, like previous energy crises in human history, we can hope that an unexpected solution will appear that will solve the problem. Regardless of what happens, Christians are called to be witnesses in both good and bad times.



2 The Hubbert curve for coal shows that at current production rates it will be totally depleted by 2400. A tripling of the rate of mining will accelerate that total depletion to the year 2200. But long prior to 2200, the amount of coal will be so small as to no longer suffice as the energy supply for the world.

3 David Price, "Population and Environment," A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies vol. 16, no. 4 (March 1995): 301–19. See also for the USGS assessment which in general has been optimistic.

4 com10.gif

5See for the current energy consumption of 400 Quads per year. See and jpg for the percentages of various forms of energy.




9Some think that the physics is so complex that we might never solve the fusion problem. Joel Cannon, Personal communication 15 Jul 2000.


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