So are we running out of our ‘black gold’ stocks? This is one of the most vexing questions before a nervous world where the view seems to be gaining ground that oil supplies may dry up in the not-too-distant future. A recent article in the Economist described this concern as “the most powerful threat to oil’s supremacy in a century”. This is hardly surprising considering the idea of oil-starved economies sputtering to a grinding halt has never seemed so alarmingly real before, as the media, books, and movies play it over and over again. The threat of international terrorism; the volatile situation in Iraq; potential instability in the Middle East, Nigeria, and Venezuela; and the confusion following the break-up and forcible re-nationalisation of Russian oil giant, Yukos — all apparently have had a role in pushing up oil prices.
Even oil companies that once rubbished the ‘depletion argument’ have now been dragged into the Great Debate. The pessimists point out that the discovery of new oil reserves had peaked way back in the 1960s. Some petroleum geologists reckon that oil could stop flowing by the middle of this century, while others warn that petroleum extraction may even peak before this decade is out — an appalling thought since petroleum supplies 90 per cent of the energy used on the planet. The optimists, however, argue that discoveries have fallen off simply because countries awash in oil like Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia actually had no incentive to drill for more, and that at least 50 per cent more oil than is known is still left in vast reserves that remain to be found.
If this is true, then new technologies could tap these, besides wringing additional supplies from the existing fields. The development of electromagnetic mapping technology, for instance, is very promising as it totally eliminates the uncertainty created by unverifiable estimates of current oil reserves. But that said, it’s time the world stopped this debate from keeping it obsessed with when conventional oil production would — or would not — peak. The focus should rather be on finding renewable resources of energy and developing newer technologies to wean the world off its petroleum bottle.