Frosting On The Cake

My mother never dared turn her back after making the frosting to spread on a cake. I was right there with a big spoon in my little hand, ready to dunk and run with whatever I could get. Second best was a beater to lick, and third best was the chance to scrape the mixing bowl with my fingers. I always wanted the frosting to last forever. It was much better than broccoli. To me the bowl always looked so big, but unfortunately the frosting always ran out.

A lot has happened in the years since then, but one thing has remained true: nothing lasts forever. As adults of course we plan around things running out; we have contingencies and “Plan B’s.” We even plan for outages of normally reliable things like electricity. For some reason though, many of us find it difficult to plan around the concept that the earth has a limited supply of something we extract from underground: petroleum. Surely we will never run out of that!

The answer is: yes and no. Because the oil industry actually drills for profit, not for oil, there will always be some oil left in the ground. At some point the only oil left in the ground will be so deep, or so contaminated, that it becomes unprofitable for the industry to extract, refine, and deliver. To do so would mean selling it at a cost the market simply wouldn’t bear. So yes, there will always be oil in the ground, and the Earth will never run out. But you and I, and all our vehicles, and all our businesses, and all our governments, we will all definitely run out. Running out of petroleum is not a question of ‘if’ but rather of ‘when.”

Some people make it seem as though the world will run out of oil tomorrow; others as though the Earth has a miraculous endless supply. Scientists have run countless computer models, most of which give us about another twenty years. Here’s how it works:

Remember the bowl of frosting? The first oil mankind drilled was the low-hanging fruit. It was close to the surface, and had relatively few impurities to be refined out. That was easy picking, akin to dipping a spoon in a bowl of frosting.

In the second half of the twentieth century mankind had tapped a lot of the low hanging fruit. In 1972, America’s oil wells began producing less than they used to. It was as if a balloon were deflating. When oil extraction productivity had been maximized and the curve began dipping, the USA had hit what is called “peak oil.” Luckily for us the rest of the world was still highly productive, so we began importing to meet demand. Hello 1973 gas crisis!

Since then many other oil-producing countries have also hit peak oil production and also begun downward slopes in extraction and refining. As a planet, Earth hit peak oil globally back in 2005.

When a country passes peak oil extraction, most of their easy and clean oil is gone. If you can no longer dip a spoon in the bowl of frosting, the next step is to lick the beater. It’s more work for less reward, but it tastes the same. In oil’s case, the next step is to drill in awkward places like the ocean, or by hydrofracturing (fracking). These are terribly expensive methods of extraction, generally result in smaller yields, and the oil extracted contains more contaminants that must be refined out – making that process also more lengthy and expensive. At this point, the costs involved are often so high that it’s simply not worth the oil industry’s investment.

Back in the kitchen, if we cleaned the beater we could always run our fingers through the bowl. Then that was it, the frosting was all gone. In oil terms, if the industry exhausts the easy oil fields, then secondary options such as ocean drilling and fracking, there is one final option left: tar sands. This is the most expensive, dirtiest, petroleum in the world. To extract and refine a usable vehicular gasoline product from tar sand the industry requires a high retail price, one much higher than we are seeing at the pump today. Tar sand oil would be sold at a price many consumers would find objectionable, and most responsible businesses would plan around.

Something to consider: if efforts are already being made to extract oil from tar sand, how close are we really to the bottom of the barrel?

It would be nice to think that business as usual could last indefinitely, but there is only a finite amount of anything that is extracted from the ground. At some point we need to plan for what’s next. That means petroleum’s gradual disappearance from our lives, and embracing the products and energies that replace it.

Do you or your business have a 20-year plan?

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