Running on Empty

26 April 2005
Sensational claims about the coming end of oil are nothing new. They are probably misleading. And even if they contain a grain of truth, the "peak oil" theory is, as I wrote here, likely to be a diversion from more serious challenges.

A report in today's Guardian fits a familiar pattern:

Matthew Simmons, an adviser to President George Bush and chairman of the Wall Street energy investment company Simmons & Co, says he thinks Middle Eastern countries may have far less than officially stated and that oil prices could double to more than $100 a barrel within three years, triggering economic collapse. (You can read Simmons's own words here).

Well maybe. But then again maybe not. As Retort argue in a 21 April piece for the London Review of Books, the imminence of peak oil is often exaggerated. The US Geological Survey believes that the peak is decades away; Shell puts it the other side of 2030; and the US Energy Information Administration says somewhere between 2021 and 2112.

The whole question of oil reserves is murky for a number of political and financial reasons. Large reserves could yet be discovered in Libya, western Iraq and other places. Deep water drilling has exposed previous inaccessible fields. Further, technological advances are resulting in hugely better recovery rates. The conversion of Canadian tar sands into usable hydrocarbons would fundamentally reconfigure the geopolitics of petroleum.

Even if all the organisations are wrong and oil really is running out, there is more than enough coal and gas to burn, resulting in, among other things a doubling of carbon dioxide emissions.

Caspar Henderson

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