In a recent cover article of The Atlantic, journalist Charles Mann questions the long-held belief that fossil fuels are a finite resource, and suggests that new technology and the discovery of further reserves means we could have an endless supply of oil.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM CHARLES MANN'S INTERVIEW:
"I'm suggesting that there's a long argument that has been going on for decades about whether we're going to run out of oil, run out of petroleum, or not. There's been a lot of attention paid to an idea called peak oil, which is that sometime in the 1970s the U.S. production of oil peaked, and sometime a few years ago the world production of oil peaked, and from this point on, the amount of oil that's available in the world is gradually going to taper off.
"And on the other side is the argument that, yes, we are using up some of our oil, but technology is constantly increasing the amount of oil that's available at an affordable price. These two sides have been arguing for decades. The recent discovery of a whole variety of different types of petroleum, the most famous of which is shale oil and shale gas, have in my view given a decisive edge to the people who are saying, 'Look — we're just not going to run out of oil. And we're going to have to deal with a world of oil plenitude.'...
"We're in a kind of race between increased consumption, which is reducing the amount of oil that's available, and increased technological exploration, which is increasing the amount of oil that's available. So you have these famous examples like, in California, where just north of Los Angeles there's the Kern River oil field, which has been tapped since 1899, and repeatedly people have thought that the oil there was exhausted. ... and time and time again, as new technology has come into play, people have realized, 'Wow. There's more than we thought.'...
"The per capita use of oil is leveling off or even declining. The problem is, there's more and more of us. Places like China are ratcheting up their demand, places like Japan, places like India....
"One of the problems for the U.S. has been that since the early 1970s our foreign policy has been in hock to the need to get more oil, most of it from the Middle East. This has locked us into a kind of toxic relationship with many Middle Eastern states and other petro-dictatorships, Venezuela and so forth. ... So the oil system that we have has created a lot of problems.
"What increasingly you're seeing is predictions from groups like the International Energy Agency that the United States, and maybe other countries as well, will become something like energy-independent. That means we won't be nearly as dependent on Middle Eastern states and other kinds of petro-states. Energy independence is one of the very few goals that unites Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Obviously, this is a good thing in the narrow sense for the United States, but it's a bad thing for world instability....
"Is it good for us to be energy-independent when that might cause lots and lots of strife around the world?...
"This makes the transition to renewables much more difficult. If you have a huge pool of relatively affordable natural gas, it makes the transition to solar, to wind, the other kinds of non-carbon energy much more difficult. ...
"On the one hand, it's good for the U.S. economy; there's all kinds of studies showing that energy independence of this sort would do enormous things for U.S. economic growth. On the other hand ... it makes the task of mitigating the worst parts of climate change much harder."
LEARN MORE ABOUT OIL:
• A number of Western states increased oil production since 2010
"Onshore oil production, including crude oil and lease condensate, rose more than 2 million barrels per day (bbl/d), or 64%, in the Lower 48 states from February 2010 to February 2013, according to recent estimates in EIA's Petroleum Supply Monthly." (U.S. Energy Information Administration)
• Yes, unconventional fossil fuels are that big of a deal
"The evidence is solid that they are well on their way to changing the world's energy choices." (The Atlantic)
• It doesn't matter if we never run out of oil: We won't want to burn it anymore
"Like whale oil in the 1860s, oil today has become uncompetitive — even at low prices — and that will only become truer with time." (The Atlantic)
• No, really: We're going to keep burning oil — and lots of it
"No matter how much we wish it were otherwise, the economics favor burning fossil fuels." (The Atlantic)
• Are methane hydrates really going to change geopolitics?
"Renewables are on a much more solid path to affordability than the exotic fuel." (The Atlantic)