The Age of Hard-to-Get Oil

The Middle East’s dominance in fossil fuels may be ending

illustration of biggest new oil areas
Illustration: Column Five Media, Brandon Palacio
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The world’s “proven” oil reserves, those that are readily recoverable with present-day technology, are estimated to be about 1.4 trillion barrels of oil. With daily global consumption around 85 million barrels and edging toward 100 million, we’re on schedule to run out of easily extracted oil in a generation. 


So what will the world energy economy look like 30 to 40 years from now? 


IEEE Spectrum spoke to Michael T. Klare, the author of The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (Metropolitan Books, 2012). He sees two major trends shaping the future. First, as the world keeps getting warmer, there will be more pressure to alter behavior. So global demand for oil a generation from now will not be a linear projection from the patterns of past decades.


Second, with production already declining sharply at most of the world’s major existing oil fields, more and more of the oil will come from harder-to-get-at sources—ultradeep-water deposits, Arctic reserves, the oil sands of Canada’s Alberta province, and the extraheavy crude of Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt. If exploited to the fullest potential, Venezuela’s reserves alone could satisfy world demand for another generation. But that oil will not be brought to the surface with the oil rigs we saw in the film There Will Be Blood (2007), notes Klare. The new technology will be more sophisticated, more resource demanding, more environmentally threatening, and of course, much more expensive.


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