Plan now for a world without oil
Four months ago, Britain's oil imports overtook its exports, underlining a decline in North Sea oil production that
was already under way. North Sea oil output peaked at about 2.9 mm bpd in 1999, and has been predicted to fall to
only 1,6 mm bpd by 2007.
Even the discovery of the new Buzzard field, the biggest British oil find in a decade, with a total of about 500 mm barrels recoverable, will not alter by much the overall picture of dwindling resources. This prospect would not be so bleak were it not that similar trends are now becoming manifest around the globe.
The three main oil-producing regions are the OPEC cartel, the former Soviet Union, and the rest of the world.
According to papers presented at the latest annual meetings of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, OPEC's future production is expected to peak in 2020 at about 40 mm to 45 mm bpd.
Underproduction in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s has been followed by a new surge in east Siberia and
Sakhalin. Together with new discoveries in the Caspian, this will yield a peak of about 10 mm bpd in 2010. Combining
the models for OPEC, the former Soviet Union and the other 40 or more major oil-producing countries puts ultimate
world oil recovery past and future at about 2200 bn barrels, with production peaking at about 80 mm bpd between 2010
and 2020. To this may be added non-conventional oil and other liquids.
These sources, though at very much greater cost, could provide an ultimate recovery of about 800 bn barrels and might peak in 2050 at about 20 mm bpd. But the combined model suggests a peak from all sources of about 90 mm bpd at about 2015.
Today we enjoy a daily production of 75 mm bpd. But to meet projected demand in 2015, we would need to open new
oilfields that can give an additional 60 mm bpd. This is frankly impossible. It would require the equivalent of more
than 10 new regions, each the size of the North Sea.
Maybe Iraq, with enormous new investment, will increase production by 6 mm bpd, and the rest of the Middle East might be able to do the same. But to suggest that the rest of the world could produce an extra 40 mm bpd is just moonshine.
These calculations place the coming oil crunch some time between 2010 and 2015, may be earlier. Yet no major primary
energy alternative can replace oil and gas in the short to medium term. The implications of this are mind-blowing,
since oil provides 40 % of all traded energy and no less than 90 % of transport fuel.
It is hard to envisage the effects of a radically reduced oil supply on a modern economy. Yet just such a radical reduction is staring us in the face. The world faces a stark choice. It can continue down the existing path of rising oil consumption, trying to pre-empt available remaining oil supplies, if necessary by military force, but without avoiding a steady exhaustion of global capacity.
Or it could switch to renewable sources of energy, much more stringent standards of energy efficiency, and a steady reduction in oil use. This course would involve huge new investment in energy generation and transportation technologies.
The US response to this dilemma is very striking. The National Energy Policy report prepared by Dick Cheney, US
vice-president, in May 2001 proposed the exploitation of untapped reserves in protected wilderness areas within the
US, notably the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in north-eastern Alaska.
The rejection of this extremely contentious proposal forced President George Bush, unwilling to curb the US's ever-growing thirst for oil, to go back on White House rhetoric and accept the need to increase oil imports from foreign suppliers.
It was a fateful decision. It means that, for the US alone, oil imports, or imports of other sources of oil, such as
natural gas liquids, will have to rise from 11 mm bpd to 18.5 mm bpd by 2020. There is, however, a fundamental
weakness in this policy. Most countries targeted as a source of increased oil supplies to the US are riven by deep
internal conflicts, strong anti-Americanism, or both.
The conclusion is clear: if we do not immediately plan to make the switch to renewable energy faster, and backed by far greater investment than currently envisaged then civilisation faces the sharpest and perhaps most violent dislocation in recent history.