In 1998 40% of the World's energy was derived from oil and 23% from coal. Most of the increased energy demand will be met by increased oil production in the OPEC Countries. Oil production in North America is expected to be flat or declining, and other areas do not have the potential for major increases in production.
Estimates of the total world oil supply that is economically recoverable vary, but the consensus is that we are approaching the peak in production within the next 10 years. http://www.hubbertpeak.com/ . These estimates also indicate that by the around the year 2025, we will have used up 80% of the world's oil in roughly 60 years, a remarkable achievement. The various models also show that new discoveries will not shift the production peak, but will merely flatten out the rate of decline.
If the DOE predictions turn out to be correct and the peak is moved farther into the future, the ultimate decline will be steeper. There is a limit to the supply of oil and it is highly unlikely that any large reserves comparable to those in the Middle East will be discovered in the future. Technological improvements can alter the efficiency and rate of extraction, but the total supply is fixed, and reasonably well known.
Natural gas supplies are distributed unevenly throughout the world, with the primary producers being the U.S. and Russia. Since it is not practical to containerize and ship natural gas as it is oil, supplies must be looked at on a regional basis. Estimates are that the U.S has 1102 terra cubic feet of gas remaining. At the present rate that would last 60 years, but the rate of consumption is expected to increase due to the increased demand for clean fuels for electric power generation and transportation. The DOE estimates the annual increase will be 1.8% by 2010 which decreases the lifetime of the resource to 42 years.
The report divides the external costs of gasoline usage into
five primary areas: (1) Tax
Subsidization of the Oil Industry; (2) Government Program Subsidies; (3) Protection
Costs Involved in Oil Shipment and Motor Vehicle Services; (4) Environmental, Health,
and Social Costs of Gasoline Usage; and (5) Other Important Externalities of Motor
Vehicle Use. Together, these external costs total $558.7 billion to $1.69 trillion per year,
which, when added to the retail price of gasoline, result in a per gallon price of $5.60 to
Value of Oil to Future Generations
Our society is based on oil. It appears in cosmetics, foods, plastics, paints, powers the cars we drive and forms the roads we drive on. Is it logical to burn up a resource that could better be used making these other useful items with much higher values, such as the keyboard you are using or the lubricant that keeps the machines of the world turning? What is a reasonable price for oil to make those products? A typical quart plastic food container in the grocery store costs $2.00 and weighs 6oz. which works out to nearly $100 per gallon of fuel. From another perspective that means that driving your car (assuming 25 mpg) for 25 miles deprives some future generation of the raw materials for 20, one quart containers. That may seem like a good deal, after all who needs 20 containers, but it serves to compare the amount of product we burn up for a relatively small benefit.
Other Sources of Hydrocarbons: It needs to be said here that there are other sources of hydrocarbons that future generations could tap when the price of oil rises sufficiently. These include oil shale, tar sands, and methane hydride. Each alternative has its own associated environmental costs related to extraction and processing. When both the economic and environmental costs are considered they may not turn out to be a wise alternative to crude oil and natural gas used, but if we exhaust those resources, future generations may have no other choice.
In addition to the social costs of using up the world supply of fossil fuel, there are serious environmental considerations. Air pollution in the form of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and carbon dioxide are a burden on society due both to current health issues, and future costs related to global warming.. There is also significant damage to the environment by extraction processes, whether drilling for oil in the arctic, or offshore, there are oil spills, roads and pipelines to be built. Coal mining destroys whole mountains and is the source of acid from seeping groundwater that is polluting rivers in the Appalachians. Leaking storage tanks are a concern with ground water pollution, and gasoline additives have been causing health problems ever since lead was added to gasoline, with little improvement with the switch to newer additives like MTB.
What is a sustainable level of fossil fuel use? According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to stabilize carbon dioxide at twice the 1970 levels requires that we reduce carbon emissions to 2 giga-tonnes/year, roughly 1/4 of the current level. That would also extend the life expectancy of oil to close to 240 years. That would be a good start, but the current trend is clearly in the other direction. Even 240 years is short term solution when measured against the history of the human race, which itself is infinitesimally short in relation to life on earth.
What would a long term solution look like? Fossil fuel use would be reduced to near zero, with none of it being used for energy production. With the present technologies, the only truly sustainable energy source is the sun. Photovoltaic and solar thermal power generation could produce all the power needed. For stored energy, hydrogen, produced by electrolysis and used in fuel cells would be a clean and efficient technology. Other technologies may be developed in the future, but we should keep in mind that it is precisely the availability of inexpensive sources of energy that have led to the rapid depletion of most other natural resources. Solving the energy problem by itself will not lead to a sustainable world, but could in fact increase the rate of travel on an already unsustainable path.