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We're not running out of oil

Despite reports of its demise, oil remains a wonderful source of energy – we should conserve it to make it last as long as possible.

Gary May
Published in the Ottawa Citizen on May 23, 2008

The poetry was not lost on those who sat in Petrolia, Ont's Victorian Hall – an 1890s opera house built by the town's long–gone oil barons – as they listened to the man tell them how they world can cope with the twilight of the age of oil

The speaker was University of Toronto professor Thomas Homer–Dixon, author of The Upside of Down. The message was sobering; predictions of $200–a–barrel petroleum are way off, he told them. Think more in terms of $300.

The fact is that oil is a finite resource. Worldwide discoveries peaked about the mid-1960s and about 95 per cent of recoverable sources are now known. Demand is still growing – not from the usual suspects in the western world, but from the charging economies of China and India.

Amazingly, some countries – including Mexico and India – are keeping oil prices artifically low, further fueling demand. In the American presidental campaign, Sen. Hillary Clinton has promised to do the same thing for her country. And when Canada's Liberal opposition leader, Stephane Dion, suggests a carbon tax as a way to encourage conservation and new technologies while shifting taxes around, Prime Minister Stephen Harper scoffs.

Mr. Homer–Dixon spoke earlier this month to a group of Canadian and American oil historians in Petrolia to mark the begining of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the modern oil industry in Canada. It all began in southwestern Ontario when flowing oil was discovered and a Hamilton wagon–maker started refining it and selling it as kerosene and other petroleum products.

The region's oil production peaked in the 1890s, when oil barons in this little community, once known as Canada's premier industrial town, built their own opera hall. Rebuilt after a fire in the late 1980s, it serves today as the town hall and theater.

The Petrolia region serves as a cold warning to society of what happens when man takes oil from the ground. While reserves here were always miniscule by world standards, more than a century after the industry's heyday, a handful of producers, more intrested in preserving hisotry than becoming wealthy, still pump small quantities of petroleum to sell to Imperial Oil near Sarnia. An old field doens't exactly run dry – it simply fizzles to irrelevance. Here today, petroleum is nothing more than a historical footnote.

Mr. Homer–Dixon pointed out the facts of oil: in order for production to continue climbing, new sources must be found. Yet the law big discoveries are in the past. Little more remains to be found. We are now producing oil five to 10 times fater than new sources are being discovered.

Ceartainly oil will remain an important part of the world' energy picture into the future. It is, after all a fabulously efficient resource; Just three tablespoons produce the same energy as a man working a full day.

Bt it won't last forever in such huge and easily obtainable quantities. Mr. Homer-Dixon believes in a few decades people will look back at the photos of clogged freeways and shake their heads in wonder at how profligate society was in the use of such a wonderful resource. Because just as in southwest Ontario, it's getting harder to come by.

To undertand how hard, look at something called "energy return on energy invested." EROEI is the ratio of energy acquired to the amount that was needed to obtain it. A century ago 100 units of oil could be produced with one energy unit. Today as oil becomes harder to capture, the ratio is anywhere from around 3–1 to 17–1.

Canada's tar sands have an EROEI ratio of 4–1, while corn-based ethanol is 1–1. Meanwhile "king coal" is about 80–1, which is why coal use is skyrocketing in China and India and boosting carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

So, no, the world is not "running out" of oil. And it won't for quite a while yet. What it is running out of is cheap oil.

That is why so many people are urging society to look for alternatives, not to replace oil, but to help it last. These are not radical enviromentalist more intrested in saving polar bears than our way of life. They are rational humans who say there are other ways to maintain our society by depending less on oil and more on solar power, fossil fuels through the carbon capture and storage method, wind and geothermal (tapping the heat within the Earth) sources.

As Ontario's historic oil field show, petroleum will last for quite while - just give it a chance.

Article posted with permission of Gary May.


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