If you had to single out one mineral as the driving force of 20th century civilization, undoubtedly it would be oil, the substance that powers everything from lawn mowers to jet airliners. And your next thought might be, how much is left?
Surprisingly, nobody knows. Worse, the world's top experts are far from unanimous about the answer.The divergence among top estimators is so great that they are divided into two major camps. In the words of one professional who attended the recent annual convention of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, held in the Salt Palace, the factions are:
- The "Neo-Malthusians." The nickname comes from Malthusianism, named for Thomas Robert Malthus, a theorist who lived from 1776 to 1834. He postulated that disaster always lurks around the corner because the world's population tends to increase faster than the food supply.
- The "Cornucopians," after the cornucopia or mythological "horn of plenty." Made from the horn of the goat that suckled Zeus, according to the story, the cornucopia is forever overflowing with the good things of life. No matter how much grain and fruit is taken from it, the cornucopia always has more.
In terms of oil reserves, Neo-Malthusians are led by Colin J. Campbell, author of "The Coming Oil Crisis," whose title says it all. Campbell has explored for oil throughout his professional career and is now an associate of the petroleum consultants firm Petroconsultants, based in Essex, England.
Campbell believes that oil will begin to run out within the first decade of the 21st century - as soon as a dozen years from now. With the world's economy driven by abundant, cheap oil, the crisis will be "of historic proportions," promotional material for his book claims.
An advocate of the position that the world may have much more oil than it realizes is Dave B. Buthman of Unocal, a company based in Sugar Land, Texas. During the convention, he told the Deseret News that science may be on the verge of launching a new oil rush, locating reserves in thousands of ancient meteorite craters.
At least a dozen huge ancient craters are known to harbor oil fields. Petrochemicals collected in the crater basins, then migrated into the walls of the crater rims, and the rebound mountain formed in the center, he said.
There may be many, many more. Buthman believes that "astroblemes," or ancient craters from meteorite and comet strikes, pepper the Earth just as they do the moon, Mars and Mercury.
Most aren't easily discovered because they have eroded. But science is developing new methods of remote sensing, such as satellite imagery, seismic testing, drilling, magnetometers, instruments that sense gravitational anomalies and computer analysis that could detect hidden craters, he said.
"I think there are 30,000 to 50,000 that are significant size" on Earth, Buthman said.
Most petroleum scientists agree oil is more abundant than once suspected. But they are unable to say how abundant it is.
"It's a fairly technical discussion," said Tom Ahlbrandt, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's World Energy Project. The project attempts to estimate total world reserves.
"I believe reserve growth is an important phenomenon," added Ahlbrandt, who attended the convention.
While new methods of ocean drilling have opened fields off Africa's west coast and in the deep waters beyond South America, Ahlbrandt said, "for the most part, the largest fields in the world have been found, we would agree."
So how could reserves be increasing at the same time that rivers of oil are flowing to the refineries?
The reason is that oil reserve estimates, made at the time fields were discovered, are too low.
When geologists first stake out an oil strike, they drill some wells and try to map the extent of the field. But years roll by and oil keeps coming in. "You discover that you're draining an area larger than you thought you were," he said. The field turns out to be more extensive in area than it was predicted to be.
Or it may be that the geology is complex and oil is found at several different levels under the ground. "You realize that you should have deepened the well, or you drilled through some potential pay horizons," he said. The levels open up new reservoirs in the same field.
Slant drilling allows companies to move into seams that were thought to be too narrow.
Other advances in technology now are used to extract copious flows from fields once considered meager. In some California reservoirs, oil may be so viscous that only 1 or 2 percent of the reserves could be pumped to the surface. But with injection of steam and heated water, the oil is diluted and it flows into the pipelines.
Suddenly, recoveries approach 85 or 90 percent, Ahlbrandt said.
Other new techniques open up natural gas resources for use as liquid petroleum. In the past, the technology of liquefying natural gas was widely practiced, but a new system called GTL, or "gas to liquid" is far better.
Using methods that are trade secrets, some major companies are able to change natural gas into a mid-range distillate, which can be converted to traditional fuels much more easily.
The process is fairly expensive. But when oil prices increase from the present $15 per barrel to $20 or $21, he said, the system will be competitive with crude.
Oil reserves around the world are abundant, says David Rossiter, associate director of the Utah Petroleum Association, based in Salt Lake City.
That was shown after the 1973 Arab oil embargo, he said. Gasoline prices soared. With higher prices, petroleum companies were driven to search harder for the resource.
"I think that the amount of oil found with higher prices surprised most people," Rossiter said. It was "much more oil than people had been predicting."
As companies ventured into deep-sea drilling, giant fields were discovered in the North Sea. "Around the world, with enough price incentive, the exploration increased and then much more oil than had been anticipated has been discovered," he said.
It is "simply not realistic" to expect supplies to run out anytime soon, he added.
Russia has huge oil fields. Saudi Arabia shows no sign of running out. Utah alone produces 18 million to 20 million barrels a year, though the amount has been gradually declining.
"There is an ample supply of oil," Rossiter said.
"Markets are pretty good at signaling. And the fact that gasoline prices are where they are - the reason that gasoline prices have been so moderate - there's plenty of oil out there to be refined."
Finally, the world has astronomical reserves of less conventional forms of petroleum, such as tar sands and oil shale. If the price of crude ever rises high enough to make extraction feasible - and prices will inevitably go up if conventional reserves dwindle - Utah would become a Saudi Arabia of unusual fuels.
In this state alone, counting only tar sands, the federal government's Mineral Management Service estimated reserves at between 23.85 billion and 45.6 billion barrels of oil.
The Cornucopians seem closer to the mark than the Neo-Malthusians. For once, optimists may be the realists.