When Virgin Group Chairman Sir Richard Branson isn’t trying to commercialize space travel, opening health care clinics that offer alternative and holistic therapies alongside conventional medicine, trying to set speed records for sailing across the Atlantic, or hanging out with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Peter Gabriel, he’s worrying about the world running out of oil. As this article from The Guardian reports, the shaggy, bearded billionaire has been telling anybody who’ll listen that modern civilization is facing an imminent, potentially disastrous shortage of petroleum. According to the prepared remarks from Branson’s recent appearance at the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland:
“The next five years will see us face another crunch — the oil crunch. This time, we do have the chance to prepare. The challenge is to use that time well.”
There was a time when such talk would have been dismissed as the dystopian delusion of neo-Luddite granola heads, Malthusian killjoys and fans of the Mad Max/Road Warrior trilogy, in which an assortment of bikers and crazies battle with a leather-clad Mel Gibson in an oil-starved, anarchistic future. But no longer. The “Peak Oil” theory — belief that the industrialized world is rapidly running out of its most critical natural resource — seems to be catching on in high places. Branson is just one of a group of like-minded British business moguls who’ve formed the Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil & Energy Security, which is urging a switch away from oil to alternative energy sources.
Basically, the idea behind the Peak Oil theory is that the world’s supply of oil is finite. At some point, the most accessible deposits will run dry, and the cost of extracting and refining the more difficult-to-reach remainder of the supply will exceed the price that it fetches on world markets. As a result, production will fall. If that happens rapidly enough and there isn’t an alternative energy source available, oil prices will then dramatically spike, and civilization will crumble. (Well, at least in the Mad Max version of the theory.)
Peak Oil is a notion that’s been bubbling up slowly to the surface for a while. Its creator, geophysicist M. King Hubbert, first warned in 1949 that the world oil supplies eventually would run out, and in 1956 used models to predict that U.S. oil production would peak and begin to decline by 1970. (As it turned out, he was off by only a year, at least as far as the lower 48 were concerned.) In a 1974 National Geographic article, Hubbert boldly prophesied that “the end of the oil age is in sight.”
While Hubbert’s gloomy scenario remains controversial, proponents of Peak Oil point to some ominous projections by experts such as the International Energy Agency, which predicts in this 2009 document that output at existing oil fields will drop by almost two-thirds by 2030, to the extent that it will provide only about a fifth of the world’s oil demand. Development of thus-far untapped deposits and/or discovery of new ones would have to make up about 60 percent of the difference, which is a fairly scary variable to have in the equation. (Even scarier: Last November, The Guardian reported an unnamed whistleblower’s allegation that the IEA, under pressure from U.S. officials, has been downplaying the impending shortage and overstating the likelihood of new oil discoveries in order to stave off an economic panic.)
Skeptics of the Peak Oil theory — we won’t call them deniers, for the time being — argue that all this is largely alarmism. Estimates of the world’s remaining supply of oil vary widely, depending upon which expert you consult. (Here’s a recent Cambridge Energy Research Associates report, for example, that estimates that 80 percent of the world’s original supply of oil — about 3.7 trillion barrels — still remains to be extracted.) At the same Davos conference where Branson sought to shake up world leaders, Khalid Al Falih, chief executive of the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., reassured them that fears over future supplies of oil were exaggerated. “The issue of peak oil has been pushed behind,” he said, according to a Dow Jones news service article. “There are plenty of resources out there.”
Visit the “A World Without Oil” forum post to discuss whose responsibility it is to reduce our need of oil. Do you think it’s the responsibility of the general public? The government? Or the responsibility of corporations and businesses?