National Geographic : 2004 Jun
flow of oil. The Middle East remains the mother lode of crude, but war and instability underscore the perils of depending on that region. And so oil companies are searching for new supplies and braving high costs, both human and economic. Making gambles like Thunder Horse and venturing into West Africa and Rus sia, they are still finding oil in quantities to glad den a Hummer owner's heart. But in the end the quest for more cheap oil will prove a losing game: Not just because oil consumption imposes severe costs on the environment, health, and tax payers, but also because the world's oil addic tion is hastening a day of reckoning. Humanity's way of life is on a collision course with geology-with the stark fact that the Earth holds a finite supply of oil. The flood of crude from fields around the world will ultimately top out, then dwindle. It could be 5 years from now or 30: No one knows for sure, and geologists and economists are embroiled in debate about just when the "oil peak" will be upon us. But few doubt that it is coming. "In our lifetime," says economist Robert K. Kaufmann of Boston Uni versity, who is 46, "we will have to deal with a peak in the supply of cheap oil." The peak will be a watershed moment, mark ing the change from an increasing supply of cheap oil to a dwindling supply of expensive oil. Some experts foresee dire consequences: short ages, price spikes, economic disruption, and a desperate push to wrest oil from "unconven tional" sources such as tar sands, oil shale, or coal. Others think that by curbing our oil use and developing sustainable alternatives now, we can delay the peak and wean ourselves more easily when the inevitable happens. "There are many things you can do to ease the transition," says Alfred Cavallo, an energy consultant in Princeton, New Jersey. "And you can have a very nice life on a sustainable system. Of course, not everyone is going to be driving SUVs." is a freak of geology, the product of a series of lucky breaks over millions of years. The first break came in a life rich ancient sea: Sediments buried the organic material raining down onto the seafloor faster than it could decay. The next break: Eons later the seafloor sediments ended up at just the right depth-generally between 7,500 and 88 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JUNE 2004 "INOUR LIFETIME," SAYS ECONOMIST ROBERT KAUFMANN, "WE WILL HAVE TO DEAL WITH APEAK INTHE SUPPLY OF CHEAP OIL." THAT PEAK WILL BE A WATERSHED MOMENT. 15,000 feet-for heat and pressure to slow-cook the organic material into oil. Then the oil col lected in a "trap" of porous sandstone or lime stone, and an impermeable cap of shale or salt kept it from escaping. Any gap in this lucky chain of happenstance means a dry hole today. The luck held often enough that the world can now feed a daily oil habit of nearly 80 million barrels. In the U.S. about two-thirds of the oil goes to make fuel for cars, trucks, and planes. But the synthetic fabrics in our wardrobe and the plastics in just about everything we touch started out as oil too. We can also thank oil and its cousin, natural gas, for the cheap and plentiful food at the supermarket, grown with the help of hydrocarbon-based fertilizers and pesticides. As Daniel Yergin writes in his oil history The Prize, we live in "the Age of Hydrocarbon Man:' Around the world Hydrocarbon Man is get ting thirstier. In the U.S., where oil consump tion is expected to grow nearly 50 percent in 20 years, carmakers are touting horsepower as they did in the muscle-car 1960s. SUVs and minivans are displacing thriftier sedans and wagons as the standard family car. Even the tax code encour ages consumption, offering people who buy the biggest SUVs for business use a deduction of up to $100,000. Since 1988 the average gas mileage of U.S. passenger vehicles has fallen, while the world has burned up more than a third of a tril lion barrels of irreplaceable oil.