This is the trillion dollar question. Needless to say there’s no definitive answer. That’s partly because we just can’t tell how much oil is under the ground, discovered or not. It’s also because that’s the wrong question to be asking. Still, here’s one estimate:
“At current rates of consumption we use a billion barrels of oil every twelve days or so. Worst case… we have about thirty-three years of oil left at current rates of use.” Since demand for oil is not static, but rising at 2.5% a year, “we will be burning through a billion barrels of oil every six days by 2032. So, at best, the world’s supply of oil is likely to last for twenty years or so.”
Paul Middleton, A brief Guide to the End of Oil.
That’s the simple answer. However, the bigger issue is not when the last drop of oil will be used, but when rising global demand can no longer be matched by global production, when oil becomes too expensive to be viable. Developed nations are using as much oil as ever, and as China and India and others catch up, the oil industry needs to find more oil to meet the need. If it is finding less than the market requires, prices will shoot up. As Matthew Yeomans says about American oil thirst in his book Oil, “worrying about how much oil is left misses the point. It is the price of oil, not how much physically remains, that will determine the future course of US foreign, economic, and energy policy.”
Libya’s National Oil Corporation chairman Shokri Ghanem summarises the problem: “it may not be possible for supply to increase beyond a certain level, say around 100 million barrels. The reason is that in some countries production is going down and we are not discovering any more of those huge oil wells that we used to discover in the sixties or the fifties.”
Sooner or later, falling production and rising demand will cross over, and there will not be enough to go round. That’s the day we need to look out for, rather than the actual end of oil. And that day may not be far away.
A report from the International Energy Agency in 2007 predicts that world oil demand will grow by 2.2% per year, so that between 2007 and 2012 demand will rise from 84 million barrels a day to 96 million barrels a day. Says Michael Klare in Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: “With luck and a fresh burst of investment… the oil industry would be able to increase output sufficiently to meet this higher level of demand – just barely. Beyond 2012, however, it sees virtually zero likelihood of the industry sustaining further increases.”
Will 2012 be the crisis point for oil? It seems very close. Will London’s Olympics be competing with the end of oil for the headlines that summer? If there isn’t enough for everyone, what kind of desperate measures will we stoop to to ensure that we’re not the ones missing out? At this rate we’re going to find out in 2012. But we don’t have to, and that’s the third part in this series.
pt 1 – What is peak oil?
pt 2 – When will the oil run out?