There are two possible scenarios for what will happen once the world burns up the last drop of oil. The first was depicted in the 1981 classic Mad Max 2: global war, the collapse of civilization, roving bands of marauders terrorizing survivors and killing for whatever sweet crude they can find. The second is that a new industry will emerge, just as the petroleum industry once did, to provide the fuel to power our means of transportation, and life will go un-apocalyptically on.
But when can we expect it all to go down, and what exactly will fill oil’s jet-black shoes? Are we doing enough now to prepare for the inevitable future?
Worries that we’ve hit the production period known as peak oil — when oil production maxes out and then begins to fall rapidly — have abounded since the 1920s. While such fears may have initially been misplaced, some continue to express concern, while others maintain that peak oil isn’t all it’s made out to be.
In its World Energy Outlook 2010, the International Energy Agency announced its belief that we had in fact already passed the peak oil mark in 2006, when oil production was 70 million barrels per day. But in its 25-year forecast, the group predicted a production “plateau” of 68-69 million barrels a day, hardly the significant drop-off usually associated with peak oil theories.
The two years since the IEA’s prediction have not lent the announcement much credence. In 2012, both global production and reserve amounts increased, with production rising 2.9% from the previous year to 75.72 million barrels per day. Also in 2012, Iraq’s production hit 3 million barrels a day for the first time since 2002, and now the IEA foresees the U.S. becoming an oil exporter by 2035. These and other reports are causing some commentators to close the book on peak oil entirely.
It may be that after all the handwringing over using up all the fossil fuels, demand for oil evaporates before the supply itself. Oil consumption slid in several countries in 2012, including in the U.S., where it saw its lowest demand since 1996. According to Royal Dutch Shell, world oil demand will peak no later than 2040 and be replaced by solar power and/or natural gas. Given the fact that reserves alone would last somewhere in the area of 50 years, this scenario seems plausible.
What’s Holding Back Alternatives
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that nothing is being done to foster new sources of energy. In his March 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama called for new technologies and even mentioned drivers being able to “go coast to coast without using a drop of oil.” Nevertheless, with experiments on the electric car going back to nearly the turn of the 20th century, it bears asking what’s taken us so long to get to this point.
- Conversion would be complicated and costly: Of course, it always comes back to money. To date, no ideas for a new energy system have been offered that don’t require at least a decade to recoup the up-front costs of conversion. For example, a recent study by researchers at Stanford University, Cornell University, and UC-Davis found a conversion to wind, water, and solar for New York State’s electricity needs would pay for itself in about 17 years, a tough sell in today’s constricted economy and instant-gratification culture.
Steve Hallett is an associate professor in the botany and plant pathology department at Purdue University. In his 2011 book, Life Without Oil, Hallett called our present rate of growth unsustainable and called for increased action in developing new energy sources. He told us the high initial cost and political pushback are concerns, but that the primary difficulty getting away from “dirty energy” is low ROI.”I think the biggest problem is the lack of energy return on investment,” Hallett says. “The dispersed photons of light striking a photovoltaic (solar) cell simply lack the energy density of a chunk of coal.”
- Conservatives and the oil lobby are fighting it: Much of the fighting between fossil fuels and renewables is now taking place at the state level. Of 29 states with laws requiring utility companies to get a portion of their energy from renewables, 22 have been attacked by conservative lawmakers. At the federal level, 800 lobbyists and $150 million were put to work in 2011 by oil companies and organizations including ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and the American Petroleum Institute. In contrast, groups fighting for renewable energy development like the Renewable Fuels Association and the American Wind Energy Association spent just $53 million.
- Government subsidies to fossil fuels: Such lobbying has paid off, literally. According to a study by DBL Investors, government subsidies to the oil and gas industry totaled $446.96 billion from 1994-2009, while renewables received only $5.93 billion during that time.
Fuels made from biological materials like vegetable oil, corn, and algae are probably the closest to being fully realized of any of the other oil substitutes. They’re renewable, non-toxic, and readily available. Ethanol is already mixed into more than 95% of the gasoline sold in the U.S. at some ratio. However, certain blends have been accused of being damaging to car engines, and may not be much more environmentally friendly than gasoline.
Algae, on the other hand, could provide the material for enough fuel to completely replace petroleum in the U.S. The issue with this type of biofuel, however, is land: according to the Department of Energy, it would take 30,000 square kilometers to host enough facilities to produce the necessary quantity of algae fuel. Other biofuels require similar amounts of land space.
In 2005, The New York Times declared, “After decades of promoting natural gas, federal and state governments … have essentially given up on selling natural gas to ordinary consumers, who have been unwilling to convert their vehicles to use it.” Still today, cars that run on natural gas account for less than 0.1% of vehicles on American roads. But since 2005, our natural gas production has risen 25% thanks to a resurgence in the use of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and we’re now on track to become a net exporter by 2020, according to the EIA.
Using natural gas in cars would lower greenhouse-gas emissions, and clearly we have enough of a supply to be energy-efficient while using it. Nevertheless, electric cars have received the bulk of attention and support in the form of tax incentives and subsidies. And as far as the environment is concerned, the jury is still out on whether fracking is healthy and how much oil and gas it will ultimately produce.
For his money, Hallett is unimpressed by fracking, calling it “a short-lived wonder.” “It’s a fair chunk of oil and gas that will be produced, and that will continue for a good while yet, but it’s not a game changer in terms of global oil and gas supplies.”
It might be tempting to watch the videos from the World Solar Challenge and call Ford to demand they make you a solar-powered F-250. The difference, as Tom Murphy — associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego — points out, is that those cars fit one person, and it’s a snug fit, at that. Americans demand room for passengers and storage.
In an article for his “Do the Math” blog, Murphy found that even using space-quality solar panels (efficiency 30%) in full sunlight, a solar-powered car with room for four people would top out at 35 mph on a flat stretch of road. In a climb, the figure would drop to 15 mph. So, as he puts it, “this dream of a family being comfortably hurtled down the road by real-time sun will not come to pass.”
On paper, hydrogen fuel is a dream oil alternative. Hydrogen is the most abundant substance in the universe. Hydrogen fuel is clean-burning. The fuel cells used to process it are 2-3 times more efficient than gas-powered cars. For these reasons, hydrogen fuel is beginning to attract more research and development.
The downsides, however, are numerous. For one, producing hydrogen fuel requires more energy than it yields. Secondly, that production involves natural gas and fossil fuels like coal, the environmental impact of which is well-known. Storage also poses a problem, as multiple fuel cells are required to drive a car as far as a single tank of gas. Finally, hydrogen is highly explosive and cars running on its fuel must be kept within a certain temperature range at all times.
Making them work
Murphy said that the first step might be to step back and question the assumption that we will even be able to find a satisfactory substitute for petroleum, which he calls “a gift from nature, an inheritance that is being spent down very quickly.”
“Alternatives may prove to be too difficult or expensive to promote a business-as-usual future,” he said. “Among the suite of possibilities for ‘replacing’ petroleum should be 1) reduced transportation; 2) economic contraction; and 3) simpler lifestyles. I’m not saying these things will happen — I just don’t want them to be dismissed out of bias because we have become accustomed to our recent trajectory under the up-slope of the petroleum curve.”
The Electric Car: Room for Improvement
Electric cars have quite the marketing battle to wage before they reach mainstream acceptance. A century of implanted American thinking has trained us to believe that cars equal gasoline. It does seem inevitable that they will catch on eventually, but they’ll need to dramatically improve the production process and the end-user experience.
- High cost: Electric cars are relatively expensive, and not just at first. According to the Congressional Budget Office, electric cars cost about $12,000 more over their lifetime than gas-powered autos. Much of this expense is due to the necessity of replacing electric car batteries, which can cost as much as $6,000 or more. However, recent research has shown ways to improve battery performance and drive this cost down in the coming years.
- High upfront environmental damage: A small fraction of the public would be both willing and able to overlook the electric car’s high sticker price in exchange for the knowledge they’re making a significant impact on the environment. In fact they are, only not a positive one, at least not at first. It takes a huge amount of energy (from fossil fuels) to produce an electric car, and the process releases more than twice the carbon dioxide emissions of a gas-powered car.
- Inconvenience: The total number of gas stations in the United States is 121,446. The total number of electric car charging stations: about 5,000. It takes minutes to fill a tank with gas, but it takes all night to charge an electric car on a home outlet. Electric cars will need a heavy investment in infrastructure before owning a Prius or Leaf becomes anything but a nuisance for Americans who drive more than 30 or 40 miles a day.
The Future of the Gas-Powered Auto
Even while gas-powered cars continue to become more fuel-efficient and less harmful to the environment, experts predict electric cars will become much more prevalent in the next decade. According to a report by Pike Research, the worldwide electric car market will be 3.8 million vehicles by 2020. It also projected the U.S. as the biggest consumer of plug-in vehicles, with an estimated 1.8 million sold by the end of this decade.
As for the future of oil, prices will almost certainly continue to rise as deposits become continually harder and more expensive to reach, like those in shale and deep ocean waters. According to industry website Oilprice.com, the high and rising costs of new technologies to find, develop, and produce new crude sources will continue the rise in price of producing a barrel of oil of 14% per year since 2001. If prices don’t go up, oil companies will lose money on each new well they dig.
It’s hard to imagine that the world would not become more peaceful without the issue of oil complicating global geopolitics. There’s no debate that it would be a cleaner place for the generations that will follow us. The only question is whether we are willing to face the future while we still have time to prepare, or whether we will only change when the that future comes knocking at the door.