We all know that oil is a non-renewable resource, and we know we use a lot of it. So naturally, it makes sense to wonder when we’ll run out of oil. It seems like a simple calculation. First, figure out how much oil we have left. Second, figure out how much oil we’re using each year. Third, divide the oil we have left by the amount of oil we use each year and done!
So what’s the answer to when we’ll run out of oil? Well, it’s not actually that easy. Would you be mad if I told you the real answer is somewhere between 47 years and…never?
How Much Oil Do We Have Left
Figuring out how much oil we have left in the world is the first tricky part. Sure we know how much we have left in oil reserves around the world, it’s about 1.73 trillion barrels. However, that number is not really an accurate representation of how much oil is left in the world for 2 reasons:
- Possible vs probable vs proven reserves
- Undiscovered oil
Possible vs probable vs proven reserves
One of the reasons oil reserves are on the rise is because most oil reserve numbers are based on proven reserves. That means at least 90% of the oil is able to be extracted profitably. There are also probable reserves (less than 90% but more than 50% recoverable), and possible reserves (less than 50% recoverable). So, since probable and possible reserves are not counted in the number above, there are actually more than 1.73 trillion barrels. Also, you’ll notice that in order to be a proven reserve, 90% of the oil has to be proven to be able to be extracted profitably, and whether or not it’s profitable depends on a lot of different economic factors.
We just don’t know what we don’t know. There is almost certainly more undiscovered oil out there that, by definition, has not been discovered yet. Oil companies invest a lot of money in finding new reserves.
How Much Oil Do We Use
This is probably the easiest question to answer: 100 million barrels every day globally. Every year, that’s 36.5 billion barrels. The United States leads the way with 20 million of those barrels every day, or 7.3 billion annually. That’s 4 times as much oil as India, and India has 4 times as many people as the US.
When Will We Run Out of Oil
So, according to our equation earlier, if we just divide 1.73 trillion barrels by 36.5 billion barrels per year, that gives us about 47 years. So, does that mean we’ll run out of oil in 2067? It’s certainly possible, but probably not. There are a few reasons for this:
- As stated earlier, there is almost definitely more oil that could be discovered
- Economic pressure
- Technological advances in oil extraction
The biggest reason we won’t run out of any fossil fuel is because before we run out the reserves will become so low that the price will skyrocket (supply and demand). At some point, it won’t make any economic sense to use oil as a source of energy when we have renewable energy that’s cheaper.
Technological Advances in Oil Extraction
There’s a lot of money in the oil industry. Because of that, oil companies can afford to hire some of the brightest minds and use cutting edge technology. So, it’s no surprise that those industries are constantly coming up with more efficient ways to drain the oil out of the earth. That means the oil we previously thought was not able to be profitably extracted suddenly becomes profitable.
How Predictions Hurt
All of the aforementioned factors have led people to incorrectly predict that we will run out of oil for years. Even all the way back in 1909, we thought we’d have 25 to 30 years of oil left. Like clockwork, we’ve been predicting the end of oil every 5 to 10 years since then.
While it may seem like these predictions would motivate people to curb their consumption – and they might for a little bit – ultimately they serve as ammo for the opposition against current predictions. Detractors and science deniers love to point to incorrect past predictions as “evidence” that current predictions are overstated fear-mongering. This leads them to their own false conclusions, like maybe the earth can’t run out of oil (don’t read this article if you are trying to keep your blood pressure down).
Saying the earth is an oil-producing machine is like saying you can make money finding coins in parking lots. It’s technically true, but it’s not a feasible solution.
The fact is, we absolutely could run out of oil. There is a limited supply and we could use it all. It is called non-renewable for a reason. Unfortunately, it’s just not helpful these days to predict an exact date when we’ll run out of oil. People are numb to it.
What Will Happen If We Run Out
If we run out of oil, we’ll have some big problems. Not because we won’t be able to drive our cars or have cheap energy. In fact, we really shouldn’t even be worried about running out of oil because the real problems will hit long before then.
I’m talking about heatwaves, extreme precipitation, droughts, water shortages, food shortages, and severe economic impacts. All this and more will become the norm if global temperatures rise 2 degrees celsius. Unfortunately, there are 3 times more fossil fuel in reserves as we can burn if we hope to keep the global temperatures from rising 2 degrees celsius, and oil companies are still searching for more.
So the question is not when will we run out of oil, but when will we be screwed if we keep using it.
That question is easy to answer since it doesn’t matter if we discover more efficient ways to extract oil or find it. It doesn’t matter if governments subsidize fossil fuels or renewables. Once the oil gets burned, the damage is done. That makes our equation a lot easier to solve, and a lot sadder.
Barrels of burnable oil before 2C temperature rise (67% of global reserves): 1.16 trillion.
Barrels of oil burned every year globally: 36.5 million.
That means at our current rate of oil consumption, we have about 32 years before we’ve burned enough oil to cause global temperatures to rise 2 degrees celsius.
What Can We Do
Since the world continues to use more and more oil every year, things might seem hopeless, but there are a lot of ways we can decrease our consumption and keep fossil fuels in the ground. 2020 has been a perfect example of the fact that we can use less oil. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is predicting a 9% drop in 2020 in worldwide oil consumption due to COVID-19. Obviously this pandemic has been a terrible thing, but at least it proves that we can change our behavior in times of need. Maybe some of those changes will even stick around after the pandemic and lessen our dependence on oil.
The biggest changes we can make to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels are:
- Stop subsidizing fossil fuels.
- Subsidize more renewable energy.
- Pay for carbon emissions.
Stop Subsidizing Fossil Fuels
Yes, even after the dizzying amount of evidence that fossil fuels are causing climate change, the US government is still directly subsidizing the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $20 billion annually. That has to stop. If the whole point using fossil fuels is because they’re cheaper than renewable energy, why do we need to subsidize them at all?
Subsidize More Renewable Energy
Here’s a crazy idea, maybe we could take the money we spend subsidizing the fossil fuel industry and add it to the subsidies for the renewable energy industry. Instead of betting on both horses in the race, why not bet on the one you know is going to win in the long run?
Pay For Carbon Emissions
We should be paying for the damage we’re doing to the environment. I’m talking about a carbon tax. You pay for your trash pickup service and sewer fees. You get fined if you throw trash on the side of the road or dump it in a river. Why is the atmosphere any different? Why do we get a free pass to spew greenhouse gases? We should be paying for that. If you emit more, you pay more. That way the government gets more money to pay for stuff and people/companies are incentivized to reduce carbon emissions. That’s a win-win.
When we will run out of oil is not the question we need to be asking. All we really need to know is how we can keep that oil in the ground. We have the ability and the tools to curb our oil consumption before it’s too late and move past the age of oil into a more sustainable future.
The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the Oil Age will end, but not for a lack of oil.Sheikh Ahmed Zaki