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Ask Slashdot: What If We Don't Run Out of Oil? 663

symbolset writes "The Atlantic recently ran an in-depth article about energy resources. The premise is that there remain incalculable and little-understood carbon fuel assets which far outweigh all the fossil fuels ever discovered. The article lists them and discusses their potentials and consequences, both fiscal and environmental. 'The clash occurs when renewables are ready for prime time—and natural gas is still hanging around like an old and dirty but reliable car, still cheap to produce and use, after shale fracking is replaced globally by undersea mining of methane hydrate. Revamping the electrical grid from conventionals like coal and oil to accommodate unconventionals like natural gas and solar power will be enormously difficult, economically and technically.' Along these lines, yesterday the U.S. Geological Survey more than doubled their estimate of Bakken shale oil reserve in North Dakota and Montana to 7.4-11 billion barrels. Part of the push for renewables over the past few decades was the idea that old methods just weren't going to last. What happens to that push if fossil fuels remain plentiful?"
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Ask Slashdot: What If We Don't Run Out of Oil?

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  • We Wish (Score:5, Informative)

    by Cornwallis ( 1188489 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @07:11AM (#43599171)

    Suggest you read this:

    http://kunstler.com/blog/2013/04/we-wish.html [kunstler.com]

    • by epine ( 68316 )

      Kunstler doesn't add much to the question posed. He burries the meat of his argument under this horrible diatribe:

      You could call these two examples mendacious if it weren't so predictable that a desperate society would do everything possible to defend its sunk costs, including the making up of fairy tales to justify its wishes. Instead, they're merely tragic because the zeitgeist now requires once-honorable forums of a free press to indulge in self-esteem building rather than truth-telling. It also represe

    • I did, or rather, I started to. Every time an author resorts to abuse instead of argument, his credibility gets cut in half. About four sentences in, I realized that that article wasn't worth the time I'd already spent reading it.
    • Suggest you read this:

      http://kunstler.com/blog/2013/04/we-wish.html [kunstler.com]

      Kunstler's op-ed piece provides some compelling counter-arguments arguments that are sadly cobblered up together with invectives to the point of being emotional. If we wanted emotional we could simply tune to BravoTV or some crap like that.

      The "Atlantic" is simply running a hypothetical "what-if" scenario, and the potential consequences of it. It is a "what-if" (something you always want to see and debate if you are truly open-minded), not a "will-be" article as it is being presented (demonized/ridiculed

  • We will (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) * <[mojo] [at] [world3.net]> on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @07:12AM (#43599183) Homepage

    Oil is a finite resource, it will inevitably run out eventually. In the meantime it is getting harder to get out of the ground and tends to involve us with countries we would rather not be too closely involved with.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Lord Kano ( 13027 )

      There is a lot of oil right here in North America, the advantage that OPEC has is that their countries tend to be brutal regimes that shut down environmental activism.


    • Like North Dakota, Alaska, Canada, and the Caribbean?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by BasilBrush ( 643681 )

      Oil is a finite resource, it will inevitably run out eventually.

      Indeed. A better headline for this story would be "Neocon Owned Magazine Presents Cornucopian Myth."

    • Re:We will (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mellon ( 7048 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @07:29AM (#43599277) Homepage

      Well, methane hydrates are actually a pretty plausible energy source, since if we don't mine them and global temperatures continue to go up, they will eventually wind up in the atmosphere anyway. Of course, burning them will make the CO2 situation even worse.

      The bottom line is that taking refuge in the idea that "peak oil will save us from destroying the environment" is incredibly wrong-headed. If we are concerned about global warming, we need to deal with it now and not wait. Getting rid of subsidies for oil exploration would help—a lot of this stuff would be economically infeasible compared to solar if the producers couldn't deduct the recovery costs on their taxes.

      • Donny Deutsch (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Watched the weirdest conversation on @MorningJoe last week while flipping my way up to CNBC-about Winston Churchill changing the British fleet from coal to oil and causing the carve out of Iraq and the eventual radicalization of islam, was the smartest thing i'd heard all week but my brain couldn't compute that it was on MorningJoe......It was the first time i realized Donny Deutsch is actually a huge brain (was between him and The Atlantic editor) of course Joe just uhmed and ahed and cracked dopey jokes.

      • Of course, burning them will make the CO2 situation even worse.

        Except that methane is a stronger green house gas than CO2.

    • by rossdee ( 243626 )

      Unless of course something happens to us in the meantime.
      (We could be wiped out by a meteor impact, or a gamma ray burst, and we wouldn't be using any more oil or coal.
      (or a plague could wipe us out...)

      Of course there is a good side - we could have a break through in fusion (or other technology that gives us lots of energy cheap) and then we wouldn't need oil either.

      • Re:We will (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Robotbeat ( 461248 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @09:59AM (#43600585) Journal

        I am a physicist with no stake in nuclear energy. I doubt fusion will be better than /effective/ fission, at least for a very long time (we'd have to get to aneutronic fusion for it to be significantly better). But the good thing is that fission is /actually/ pretty darned good. Fast breeders, traveling wave, and LFTR (especially) offer enormous advantages over current designs. Heck, even more conventional modern designs are much safer. But we'll be stuck with the old ones (or nothing) because even the slightest accident (if judged by demonstrated fatalities, i.e. none in the case of Fukushima!) means the developed world runs away from nuclear power as fast as they can, largely because they don't understand it (physics is hard). Natural gas explosions happen, um, every single day and kill several people every year (and those are just the direct deaths, not counting global warming, etc).

        And in spite of huge explosions rivaling or exceeding high-profile terrorist attacks, the world is running in a full sprint /towards/ natural gas. Germany, Japan, the US... Abandoning nuclear and building natural gas power plants. Why? Probably because everyone kind of understands it. People cook with it, heat their homes with it. Nuclear still has the stigma of the Cold War nuclear annhilation, but the irony is that most newer nuclear power plants (LFTR specifically) aren't well-suited to the nuclear weapons industry.

        And by the way, nuclear is cheap. What makes it expensive is delays. Delays caused by endless lawsuits of people utterly afraid of nuclear power. And so we CAN'T build new nuclear power plants. Instead of taking 3-4 years, they take maybe 3 decades as construction is stopped by the courts until being given approval to proceed. At, say, 10% interest rate, over 25 or so years that increases the cost by /an order of magnitude/ over what it would be with a quick construction. That is 90% of the reason for the supposed high cost of new nuclear power. This is cited by opponents of nuclear power as reason for why we should oppose nuclear power, but that is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy because lawsuits and political opposition slow down new construction. Meanwhile, we're doubling and soon tripling the carbon dioxide levels. Old nuclear power is cheap, still, because it has been operated for many decades and like renewables its upkeep and "fuel" cost is very low. Which is partly why utilities don't like them, since they have big upfront costs (like renewables) and the lack of fuel costs isn't a huge deal for them since they can just pass that on to the consumer. Both nuclear and renewables have too long of payback periods to satisfy investors wanting 10,15% annual returns. But for an economy growing at a moderate rate, even 5% return is plenty.

        There's enough thorium to last hundreds of millions of years. We most certainly won't be the same species by the time we run out of nuclear fuel, and because of the recycling of the Earth's crust, there'll be more available by the time run out. Of course, the easiest to get stuff is still plentiful, and the tiny contribution of fuel costs to nuclear power generation is why thorium isn't looked at more closely. Also, LFTR reactors can burn up our old nuclear waste, so building new LFTRs would actually /reduce/ the long-term nuclear waste. They can burn up all the long-term waste so that only medium-term waste (which decays fairly rapidly, i.e. half-lifes of decades instead of thousands of years) is produced, which we can deal with until it decays to low levels.

        That said, I support renewables. An idea I'd like to see more of is hybrid geothermal and photovoltaic power plants co-located using the same infrastructure. Geothermal can act as storage or backing power for when the sun don't shine, and solar makes geothermal last longer. Solves lots of problems.

  • global warming (Score:2, Interesting)

    by gbjbaanb ( 229885 )

    what happens is we continue to convert carbon from lumps of matter stuck safely away under the ground to free floating carbon in the atmosphere and we slowly cook ourselves in a greenhouse of our own making, of the additional energy absorbed in the atmosphere doesn't cause such dramatic weather extremes that we starve/drown/fight each other to death first!

  • Roast (Score:2, Informative)

    by mdm42 ( 244204 )
    We all get to roast in the human-induced Global Climate Change that results form dumping all that C into the atmosphere. More realistically, we get to starve as our crops and farming methods fail to cope with the variability implied by climate change, aggravated by the terribly, dangerously narrow genetic diversity in agricultural varieties in use because we've allowed major corporations to "patent" and "exclusively license" the genestock that feeds us.
    • And it's not like the decision makers haven't been informed of the consequences. They just felt the money was better for the moment.

      It's literally sickening.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @07:22AM (#43599245)

    What happens if we don't run out of oil? We continue to pump out CO2 until we turn the planet into Venus. Switching to renewables isn't just about running out of oil.

    • by voss ( 52565 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @07:41AM (#43599357)

      Thats a bit egotistical. The co2 being pumped out will only continue until a massive dieoff because the weather becomes too hot for human food crops and nature will right itself in 10 or 20 thousand years with a lot less people on it. Overpopulation and global warming solved...the hard way.

      • by jamesh ( 87723 )

        Thats a bit egotistical. The co2 being pumped out will only continue until a massive dieoff because the weather becomes too hot for human food crops and nature will right itself in 10 or 20 thousand years with a lot less people on it. Overpopulation and global warming solved...the hard way.

        Depends... if the place warms up enough before it starts cooling down, too much of the oceans will evaporate, and water vapor is a strong greenhouse gas so it will just keep getting hotter.

  • Run Out? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gninnor ( 792931 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @07:25AM (#43599257)

    I doubt we will ever run out. What will happen is that it will become more expensive as the low hanging fruit gets used up and efficiency and alternatives become a better bang for the buck and we migrate to other technologies. I'd rather be on the early adopters end of this one.

  • It's not just about supply. It's about the work you have to do to get to that supply. Deep sea mining? Compare that to an array of solar cells in the desert. Heck, compare just about anything to an array of solar cells.

    We're steadily making inroads on every issue electric has (primarily generation, storage, transmission); and in the interim, the end user already has many advantages. Huge torque from initial RPM for motors (you want a fast car? Electric is your friend. You want individual wheel drive? Electr

    • by Xest ( 935314 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @07:32AM (#43599295)

      One thing I've always wondered about regarding large desert solar arrays, is what happens when there's a sandstorm? I mean, what fills the generation gap when the sky is blanked out, and how does sand get removed from the array afterwards? Are the panels safe from damage from the scraping of sand being blown about or will this damage them? Will the weight of deposited sand after a sandstorm cause them to break or collapse?

      I think people assume solar arrays in deserts are a magical problem-free solution, and I understand not all deserts are prone to particularly bad sandstorms, but the sahara is and it's often cited as a place for such a solar array. Has any effort been made into researching and finding solutions to such problems?

    • Dude, "electric" is an adjective [wikipedia.org].
    • by tibit ( 1762298 )

      Individual wheel drive as usually envisioned is silly. Yeah, it looks cool to have a direct drive motor on a wheel assembly But that's unsprung mass and you want to reduce it, not add to it. Once you have to get power to the wheel through a driveshaft of one sort or another, there's no point in having individual anything as it just adds duplicated mass for stuff like housings, mounting, etc. One motor, one gearbox, and two wheel drive right where the motor is - that's what's the most economical in any and a

  • Fact is, we are and we have put too much crap into the air. The weather is changing. With that change, the food supply is in jeopardy. But it's all pretty well timed as everything else seems to be collapsing at a faster rate not the least of which is the economy. Do you think Europe is in a bubble? It's coming for us in the US soon.

  • Unless we find a way to sink as much carbon as we extract and convert to CO2, it should be obvious what would happen. More AGW.
  • Economics (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Registered Coward v2 ( 447531 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @07:29AM (#43599279)

    There are a couple of economic reasons that will drive renewable adoption:

    It's not the size of the reserves but the cost of extraction that will drive adoption of renewables. As long as natural gas is cheap (and prices can be hedged) utilities will build natural gas plants at the expense of renewables. If prices rise sharply, gas becomes less attractive (since much of the cost per KW is for fuel) and other energy sources become viable options.

    The energy density of the energy source. If a lot of space is required per BTU fossil fuels will dominate in many places. For example, a gas plant is relatively compact compared to a wind farm of similar capacity; so it is much easier to acquire land for a gas plant. For small scale uses, such as automotive or home fuels, the ability to get a long range or have a reasonably small supply pipe vs large panels favors fossil fuels currently. The economic driver here is "what fuel source gives me the best return on my needs;" such as the ability to travel or not want a roof full of solar panels.

    Economics is what limits OPEC's ability to rise prices - eventually alternatives are viable on a cost basis as well as an energy self sufficiency one.

    Quite frankly, global warning is not as major concern to most people than the ability to afford fuel drive, cook, and heat their houses; so selling renewables on that basis is very difficult.

  • by Aaron H ( 2820425 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @07:33AM (#43599303)


    Last year, we consumed 6.8 billion barrels of oil. This has been a pretty consistent average over the past 5 years, all things considered (5 years prior it was 7.5B, but seems to mostly fluctuate around 7B). And this is US consumption *alone* -- not even factoring in the increased rate of Chinese consumption, or any of the European, African, Asian, Australian, South American nations (Antarctica gets a pass, because it's effing cold down there and they can use a little oil to not die while watching penguins)

    7.4B to 11B barrels is 2 years AT BEST if we pare down our oil consumption. Then those resources are GONE.

    Considering "oh, but there might be more than we think left over!" is pretty pointless when we alone are consuming oil at this rate. Absorbing the mild inconvenience of reducing our oil consumption should be priority #1 for all of us. It doesn't solve the problem but it will (a) give us a *little* more time to get off the sauce and (b) start altering our habits and consumption practices in a direction that will prepare us for the inevitable end of oil reserves, which are guaranteed to happen someday.

  • Two possibilities (Score:2, Interesting)

    by GameboyRMH ( 1153867 )

    We use all that oil to make ourselves a Blade Runner/Terra Nova/Modern Chinese environment, or we save it, preserve the planet and use the massive fossil fuel reserves responsibly for space exploration.

  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @07:39AM (#43599341)

    The major oil companies are promoting "No peak oil" stories to influence google results. They need to do this to keep asset prices up, soothe investors and keep the financing on which they depend flowing.

    For a numerate look at exactly what we're facing, start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubic_mile_of_oil [wikipedia.org]

    "Peak oil" itself is a bit of a straw man. The problem is declining net energy from hydrocarbons. Net energy from shallow easy wells that produced light sweet crude was great. Net energy from deepwater gulf wells producing heavy sour crude or oil sands where the bitumen has to be heated in order to be liquid? Not so great.

    So bottom line. The absolute quantity of net energy in the first half of the oil on the plant is much greater than the net energy in the second half. Oil supply is NOT the same as energy supply.

  • Even if we found out we had an unlimited supply of carbon-based fuels, if you factor in all of the associated costs with burning them (production, transportation, environmental, health) ... it turns out they're not really that cheap.

    Unfortunately, we don't factor in ALL fo the costs into the price of our 'cheap' fuel sources ... we're incurring a huge debt because of it, and the books are going to balance sooner or later. The environment will get its pound of flesh.

  • The only reason that things like shale oil and tar sands are economically viable is because the price of oil is so high. [wikipedia.org] Bring oil back down under $50 a barrel or so, and it will be too expensive to extract. Undersea mining? Good grief!
  • How much oxygen do we have, and how does that compare to the supposed quantity of fossil fuels?

    The Earth originally had a reducing atmosphere, and the fact that we now have an oxidizing atmosphere is because it has been "bioformed". Biological activity yanked the CO2 and other stuff out of the atmosphere, locked it away in some other form, and released O2, leaving us with the combination of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, and other traces that we consider - pleasant and essential.

    By burning fossil fuels we'

  • If capitalism doesn't provide a profit motive to develop alternative forms of energy, government should.

    We can create money to fund research into ideas that the free market doesn't immediately reward. The Fed creates money now; but it goes to the banks at 0%, who want to buy T-bills even if they only pay 2% or 3%; but the austerity-pushing Republicans want to limit the sale of T-bills. So the banks sit on the money instead*, and get interest on it if they store it with the Fed.

    Instead, give the Fed's create

  • Pop over to the Do the Math blog. With current energy growth, somewhere between 400 and 500 years from now, the oceans start to boil. http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/galactic-scale-energy/ [ucsd.edu]
  • I'm sure this has been said before, but we probably won't come run out. It will just become increasingly expensive, until the point that other renewable energy becomes more attractive. As per the last 2 "oil ceilings" around $120 (one of many examples [resilience.org]) WTI (or was it Brent? I can't remember), it would seem that currently energy prices for trucks, planes, and consumers can't support >$120 price.

    So basically, this problem is going to solve itself, and we won't run out of oil, because we will (mostly) stop

  • It would be an interesting sight to see morning traffic on the interstates and highways, if we all went back to the horse and mule.
  • by goodmanj ( 234846 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @07:51AM (#43599413)

    “When will the world’s supply of oil be exhausted?” asked the MIT economist Morris Adelman, perhaps the most important exponent of this view. “The best one-word answer: never.” Effectively, energy supplies are infinite.

    This is dead wrong. The economic argument says that oil production is tied to the profitability of ever-more-expensive production technologies. We will never "run out of oil" because eventually we won't be able to afford to extract it, but this will happen while there's still oil in the ground. There's a similar physics argument, based on "energy return on energy invested": fossil fuel production ends when the energy required to pull it out of the ground is greater than the energy of the fuel itself. There will still be some in the ground, and it might be useful for making expensive chemicals, dyes, or lubricants, but it's pointless as a fuel.

    So no, we won't ever run out of oil. But we will reach a point where you can't have any. To characterize this situation as "infinite supply" is ludicrous.

  • Yes fossil fuel will run out. Not tomorrow, Not next year, Not next decade. It will run out. What we do have is time. Time to develop an economical alternative. What we need to do is continue to support research in renewable energy sources and energy storage. We do not need to waste money on implementing uneconomical costly technology that is not competitive right now. Having the government tax low income earners so they can subsidize rich people who want to install solar, wind thermal etc is crazy and bad
  • by buddyglass ( 925859 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @08:06AM (#43599547)
    ...but we might run out of able to be cheaply extracted and processed oil and gas. We keep picking the low-hanging fruit. Technology marches on and fruit that was previously not low-hanging can become low-hanging, but that only goes so far. Over time, the cost of extracting and processing oil and gas will continue to increase. Presumably solar will continue to become less expensive. The hope is that at some point solar will start to be cost-effective relative to oil and gas even without govt. subsidies. At that point we won't completely stop using oil and gas, but global demand will take a nosedive.
    • by imikem ( 767509 )

      But will they be competitive relative to oil and gas, which receive major subsidies today, both directly via the tax code, and also in the form of unregulated and untaxed dumping of waste CO2 into the atmosphere? The playing field is far from level. That also contrasts to the nuclear industry where waste products are massively regulated, and replacement of obsolete plant, as well as new construction all but impossible, because radiation is scary, while CO2 is boring.

  • by Marrow ( 195242 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @10:02AM (#43600621)

    1. Its still a dirty, poisonous product
    2. Its still being priced and controlled by large behemoth monopolies that will gouge us for every penny
    3. It still requires massive installations for refinement and transportation which remain dangerous points of failure
    4. The byproducts are still going to cause massive health issues involving lung disease and cancer
    5. It cant be used in space or on other planets
    6. Regardless of the warming aspects, its still not good for the environment
    7. The companies have a habit of tampering with democracies that are inconvenient
    8. The devices used to convert oil to energy require too much maintenance.
    We need oil to become obsolete.

  • by onyxruby ( 118189 ) <onyxruby AT comcast DOT net> on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @10:35AM (#43600923)

    I read the article several days back and if you read carefully you will see that their conclusions betray their politics. Amongst other things the article literally doesn't even acknowledge nuclear energy when discussing all of the assorted form of low carbon energy. Considering that nuclear power is the cleanest form of main load power that we have this can hardly be an oversight.

    To environmentalists, natural gas is a bridge fuel, a substitute for coal and oil that will serve untilâ"but only untilâ"the world can move to zero-carbon energy sources: sunlight, wind, tides, waves, and geothermal heat.

    The author is well aware of the human toll being extracted by the use of coal:

    In March, for instance, a research team led by a Mumbai environmental group estimated that black carbon and other particulate matter from Indiaâ(TM)s coal-fired power plants cause about 100,000 deaths a year.

    Natural gas would significantly reduce the source causes of these deaths and the author is aware:

    Natural gas produces next to no soot and half the carbon dioxide coal does. In coal-heavy places like China, India, the former Soviet Union, and eastern Europe, heating homes and offices with natural gas instead of coal would be a huge step.

    However instead of supporting a transition to cleaner burning natural gas the author shows what they would rather have happen:

    For years, environmentalists have hoped that the imminent exhaustion of oil will, in effect, force us to undergo this virtuous transition; given a choice between no power and solar power, even the most shortsighted person would choose the latter. That hope seems likely to be denied.

    The authors radical viewpoint is exposed here with the following view which they know has never happened in human history. The fact that this could result in the economic collapse of society is sort of acknowledged by the author:

    Smil is correct - the sort of rapid energy transition we need has never occurred before. At the same time, one should note that no physical law says these transitions must be slow. Societies have changed rapidly, even when it cost a lot of money.

  • by Todd Knarr ( 15451 ) on Wednesday May 01, 2013 @12:57PM (#43602361) Homepage

    For fossil fuels, the extraction rate far exceeds the replenishment rate. Usage will only go up as more countries develop economies that demand more fuel for transportation, more electricity and more raw materials for synthetics. That means that the supply will eventually be exhausted. We can push the date out by finding more supply, but there's a finite amount to be found and it's going to be harder and more expensive to extract as time goes on (because the easier, cheaper stuff gets found and exploited sooner). Eventually though we are going to hit a hard exhaustion date where we just can't find any new supply. When that happens, do we want to have alternatives in place and ready to go with minimal disruption? Or do we want a mad last-minute scramble to replace everything on short notice and with no prep time?

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. -- Henry David Thoreau