GSA meeting: Hydrocarbons not going into the sunset just yet

by Megan Sever
Thursday, January 5, 2012

HOUSTON – Energy — in particular biofuels (and developing sustainable feedstock for biofuels), oil and hydrocarbons — was a primary topic on Monday at the Geological Society of America meeting. And one particularly interesting presentation examined global fossil fuel resources and just how much oil is left.

We’ve all heard warnings about “peak oil,” the idea that we’re reaching (or have already reached) a period where oil finds and production will go into decline instead of increasing or remaining flat. A lot of ink has been spilled over this: Some say we have already reached peak oil, others that we will reach it this decade and still others say we won’t reach the peak for many more decades.

But regardless of who’s right, oil will continue to be the dominant energy source over the coming decades — barring a major scientific breakthrough or a major coordinated global effort to reduce fossil fuel use, according to Peter McCabe, a petroleum geologist at CSIRO in Australia who has spent the last 30-plus years studying fossil fuels. (Full disclosure: McCabe is also president of AGI, which publishes EARTH.)

Ninety percent of the U.S. energy portfolio — including electricity and transportation — comes from fossil fuels. And despite all the talk about renewable energy, the percentage of renewable energy that the United States has used over the past 50 years has remained flat. In the developing world, that percentage has actually steeply declined as countries have moved closer to Western standards of living, which often means dropping traditional forms of transportation (whether bikes or horses or camels) in favor of cars.

So despite a lot of talk, we’re not ready to significantly back off fossil fuel use and ramp up renewable use, especially in the transportation sector, McCabe said Monday at the meeting.

When we’ll reach peak oil isn’t quite as easy to answer, but generally speaking, based on current usage and current discoveries, we have more than 50 years of steady oil production, and possibly up to 65 years, McCabe said. Of course, he warned, that’s dependent on a lot of factors. We could have a lot longer than that if you consider unconventional oil sources, such as deepwater, oil shales and oil sands. We could also have less time if we don’t develop our current fields sustainably, or if the world starts suddenly using a whole lot more oil than we are now.

But no matter how much oil we have left, McCabe said, we can still learn to use energy more efficiently and develop renewable energies. That way, when the sun does start to set on the hydrocarbon era, we’ll be ready.

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