Scientists challenge major review of global reserves and warn that
supplies will start to run out in four years' time
By Daniel Howden
Published: 14 June 2007
Scientists have criticised a major review of the world's remaining
oil reserves, warning that the end of oil is coming sooner than
governments and oil companies are prepared to admit.
BP's Statistical Review of World Energy, published yesterday, appears
to show that the world still has enough "proven" reserves to provide
40 years of consumption at current rates. The assessment, based on
officially reported figures, has once again pushed back the estimate
of when the world will run dry.
However, scientists led by the London-based Oil Depletion Analysis
Centre, say that global production of oil is set to peak in the next
four years before entering a steepening decline which will have
massive consequences for the world economy and the way that we live
According to "peak oil" theory our consumption of oil will catch,
then outstrip our discovery of new reserves and we will begin to
deplete known reserves.
Colin Campbell, the head of the depletion centre, said: "It's quite a
simple theory and one that any beer drinker understands. The glass
starts full and ends empty and the faster you drink it the quicker
Dr Campbell, is a former chief geologist and vice-president at a
string of oil majors including BP, Shell, Fina, Exxon and
ChevronTexaco. He explains that the peak of regular oil - the cheap
and easy to extract stuff - has already come and gone in 2005. Even
when you factor in the more difficult to extract heavy oil, deep sea
reserves, polar regions and liquid taken from gas, the peak will come
as soon as 2011, he says.
This scenario is flatly denied by BP, whose chief economist Peter
Davies has dismissed the arguments of "peak oil" theorists.
"We don't believe there is an absolute resource constraint. When peak
oil comes, it is just as likely to come from consumption peaking,
perhaps because of climate change policies as from production
In recent years the once-considerable gap between demand and supply
has narrowed. Last year that gap all but disappeared. The
consequences of a shortfall would be immense. If consumption begins
to exceed production by even the smallest amount, the price of oil
could soar above $100 a barrel. A global recession would follow.
Jeremy Leggert, like Dr Campbell, is a geologist-turned
conservationist whose book Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the
Global Energy Crisis brought "peak oil" theory to a wider audience.
He compares industry and government reluctance to face up to the
impending end of oil, to climate change denial.
"It reminds me of the way no one would listen for years to scientists
warning about global warming," he says. "We were predicting things
pretty much exactly as they have played out. Then as now we were
wondering what it would take to get people to listen."
In 1999, Britain's oil reserves in the North Sea peaked, but for two
years after this became apparent, Mr Leggert claims, it was heresy
for anyone in official circles to say so. "Not meeting demand is not
an option. In fact, it is an act of treason," he says.
One thing most oil analysts agree on is that depletion of oil fields
follows a predictable bell curve. This has not changed since the
Shell geologist M King Hubbert made a mathematical model in 1956 to
predict what would happen to US petroleum production. The Hubbert
Curveshows that at the beginning production from any oil field rises
sharply, then reaches a plateau before falling into a terminal
decline. His prediction that US production would peak in 1969 was
ridiculed by those who claimed it could increase indefinitely. In the
event it peaked in 1970 and has been in decline ever since.
In the 1970s Chris Skrebowski was a long-term planner for BP. Today
he edits the Petroleum Review and is one of a growing number of
industry insiders converting to peak theory. "I was extremely
sceptical to start with," he now admits. "We have enough capacity
coming online for the next two-and-a-half years. After that the
What no one, not even BP, disagrees with is that demand is surging.
The rapid growth of China and India matched with the developed
world's dependence on oil, mean that a lot more oil will have to come
from somewhere. BP's review shows that world demand for oil has grown
faster in the past five years than in the second half of the 1990s.
Today we consume an average of 85 million barrels daily. According to
the most conservative estimates from the International Energy Agency
that figure will rise to 113 million barrels by 2030.
Two-thirds of the world's oil reserves lie in the Middle East and
increasing demand will have to be met with massive increases in
supply from this region.
BP's Statistical Review is the most widely used estimate of world oil
reserves but as Dr Campbell points out it is only a summary of highly
political estimates supplied by governments and oil companies.
As Dr Campbell explains: "When I was the boss of an oil company I
would never tell the truth. It's not part of the game."
A survey of the four countries with the biggest reported reserves -
Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Kuwait - reveals major concerns. In
Kuwait last year, a journalist found documents suggesting the
country's real reserves were half of what was reported. Iran this
year became the first major oil producer to introduce oil rationing -
an indication of the administration's view on which way oil reserves
Sadad al-Huseini knows more about Saudi Arabia's oil reserves than
perhaps anyone else. He retired as chief executive of the kingdom's
oil corporation two years ago, and his view on how much Saudi
production can be increased is sobering. "The problem is that you go
from 79 million barrels a day in 2002 to 84.5 million in 2004. You're
leaping by two to three million [barrels a day]" each year, he told
The New York Times. "That's like a whole new Saudi Arabia every
couple of years. It can't be done indefinitely."
The importance of black gold
* A reduction of as little as 10 to 15 per cent could cripple oil-
dependent industrial economies. In the 1970s, a reduction of just 5
per cent caused a price increase of more than 400 per cent.
* Most farming equipment is either built in oil-powered plants or
uses diesel as fuel. Nearly all pesticides and many fertilisers are
made from oil.
* Most plastics, used in everything from computers and mobile phones
to pipelines, clothing and carpets, are made from oil-based
* Manufacturing requires huge amounts of fossil fuels. The
construction of a single car in the US requires, on average, at least
20 barrels of oil.
* Most renewable energy equipment requires large amounts of oil to
* Metal production - particularly aluminium - cosmetics, hair dye,
ink and many common painkillers all rely on oil.
Alternative sources of power
There are still an estimated 909 billion tonnes of proven coal
reserves worldwide, enough to last at least 155 years. But coal is a
fossil fuel and a dirty energy source that will only add to global
The natural gas fields in Siberia, Alaska and the Middle East should
last 20 years longer than the world's oil reserves but, although
cleaner than oil, natural gas is still a fossil fuel that emits
pollutants. It is also expensive to extract and transport as it has
to be liquefied.
Hydrogen fuel cells
Hydrogen fuel cells would provide us with a permanent, renewable,
clean energy source as they combine hydrogen and oxygen chemically to
produce electricity, water and heat. The difficulty, however, is that
there isn't enough hydrogen to go round and the few clean ways of
producing it are expensive.
Ethanol from corn and maize has become a popular alternative to oil.
However, studies suggest ethanol production has a negative effect on
energy investment and the environment because of the space required
to grow what we need.
Oil-dependent nations are turning to renewable energy sources such as
hydroelectric, solar and wind power to provide an alternative to oil
but the likelihood of renewable sources providing enough energy is
Fears of the world's uranium supply running out have been allayed by
improved reactors and the possibility of using thorium as a nuclear
fuel. But an increase in the number of reactors across the globe
would increase the chance of a disaster and the risk of dangerous
substances getting into the hands of terrorists.