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Oil Reserves (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Recently, I caught a shocking headline: The Shell Oil Company "lost" one-fifth of their oil reserves overnight, about four billion barrels. That is, they reduced their estimate of the amount of oil in the ground. Alarmed by this news I decided to find out exactly how long our oil will last.

As an engineer I prepared to decipher complex graphs, but what I really needed was a linguist, a fortune teller, and a philosopher of human nature.

Figuring out how much longer we'll have oil appears simple: Find out how fast we use oil, find out the barrels of oil under the ground, then combine the two. This method yields an answer of twenty to forty years of oil reserves. But, of course, it isn't that simple.

In the 1920s observers calculated that by 1930 we'd run out of oil. They overestimated the rate we'd use oil, and they didn't know about oil fields in the Middle East, South American, Africa, Siberia, Alaska, or the North Sea.

So, can we just take the current rate of consumption and use the reserves reported by the oil companies to calculate how long the oil will last? - that's how I got the twenty to forty year figure. At this point a linguist would come in handy. The oil companies report "proven reserves," defined as "those quantities of oil which are known to be in place and are economically recoverable with present technologies." Note those phrases "economically recoverable" and with "present technology." Right now we recover oil from porous underground rock. A significant fraction of the oil sticks to the rocks; we recover, at best, about eighty percent, usually a lot less than that. So, when we estimate how much oil reserves should we include this oil? Perhaps a way will be found to cheaply recover this left-over oil? The same question applies to other sources: The Canadian province of Alberta contains the Athabasca Tar Sands, which have an oil content close to current proven reserves. And in America, Colorado's oil shale also contains vast oil reserves. Now extracting the oil isn't easy, the harsh climate in Alberta freezes the tar solid, and it takes 30 tons of shale to make 1 ton of oil.

So, the answer to when the oil really runs out comes down to a question of faith about the limits of human inventiveness: Will our technological wizards develop ways to cheaply tap other sources; or, have we reached a technological limit? In the past, bets against human ingenuity usually lost, the prophets of dome have nearly always been wrong.

Perhaps, though, in this case, we should follow the old Russian proverb: Pray to God, but keep rowing toward shore. In other words, hope that those engineering wizards will come through, but with the current oil reserves we should conserve, conserve, conserve.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises