Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service, recently offered an optimistic picture of our petroleum supply, based primarily on the potential for Canadian oil sands to produce bitumen, a “tarlike goo” that can be refined into gasoline and other petroleum products.
The Canadian deposits are enormous — more than a trillion barrels. Mr. Fumento reassures us that the petroleum doomsayers are wrong: At current rates of use, the oil sands could supply us with energy for another 500 years.
This bright prospect — an enormous reserve of non-OPEC petroleum just across a friendly border — sounds almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, it probably is.
Petroleum extraction from oil sands is expensive, energy-intensive and dirty. Deposits often lie beneath 100 feet or more of earth, and about 2 tons of sand must be mined to produce a barrel of oil. The result isn’t the light sweet crude that comes from Saudi Arabia; it’s an extra-heavy oil that requires considerable further processing to yield gasoline and other products. Finally, each barrel of oil leaves behind about 2 barrels of murky wastewater, retained in vast contaminated ponds near the production site.
In short, Mr. Fumento presents an over-simplified and -optimistic perspective on the future of oil. A more realistic view can be found in “The End of Oil” by Paul Roberts, who begins with the obvious fact we will someday run out of petroleum. Like Mr. Fumento, Mr. Roberts believes the world’s petroleum reserves could last a long time. However, he contends the real petroleum crisis will occur, not when we finally pump and burn the last barrel, but when worldwide production begins declining.
The science of predicting oil production owes much to geologist M. King Hubbert, who said in 1956 that production in the United States would begin to declining in 1970; he was right. Using his principles, others have predicted the peak of worldwide production, as well: The optimists say it will come in 25 to 30 years; the pessimists say that it is peaking right now or has already started downhill.
What will happen when worldwide production peaks? Mr. Roberts paints a chaotic picture of world powers, heavily invested in an oil infrastructure, competing for the last of the “easy oil,” the cheap, accessible crude found mostly in the Middle East. Since most of the military conflicts of the 20th century developed out of competition for oil (World War II is the best example), it’s not hard to imagine a series of “oil wars” fought over declining production.
In fact, history may look back on our current war in Iraq as the first of the post-peak oil wars. Despite our rhetoric about bringing democracy to Iraq, it’s clear we wouldn’t be very interested in that part of the world if it didn’t sit on top of some of the world’s best petroleum reserves.
Of course, the worst prospect may be that Mr. Fumento is right. More efficient petroleum extraction could extend the hydrocarbon age. But if the global warming alarmists are half right, could the Earth withstand 500 more years of the greenhouse gas assault on its atmosphere?
At best, Mr. Fumento’s perspective encourages an unfortunate complacency that distracts us from preparing for the post-hydrocarbon age with efficiency, conservation and development of alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and hydrogen. Counting on developing safe and abundant petroleum resources nearby is whistling past the graveyard and wearing rose-colored glasses at the same time.
Professor of English
Del Mar College
Corpus Christi, Tex.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service)