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November 16, 2010

We can't run out of oil. . .

There is a simple truth.

Humans will never see a day when the Earth runs out of oil. At least they won't see it while standing on the surface of the Earth.

Oil is created from biomass. Oil is the condensed remains of algae, microbes, single-celled organisms, multi-celled organisms and most simply put, all of the life that has ever existed on Earth.

That's what it is. It's the plants and animals that lived on the Earth in the past, died, and were interred though natural processes into the ground. Erosion, deposition, geologic events, tectonic plate movement, glacial action and all the other natural forces of the planet Earth turn under the organic life at the surface and bury it further and further underground. Until heat and pressure begin to reverse the process by refining the organic material into a simpler and simpler structure, compacting it and turning it into a liquid (oil), depositing it as a solid (coal) or converting it to natural gas. Petrochemicals in all their forms, whether it be oil, gas, coal, hydrates or some mixture of all these are all created from the same material in essentially the same manner, so we'll refer to all of them from here on out as simply, oil.

Oil is everywhere. Under every square inch of the planet's surface today is some measure of oil. In some areas it's present as large deposits close to the surface, some so close that they bubble up through the ground exactly like depicted in The Beverly Hillbillies. In fact, not far from Beverly Hills, in the middle of Los Angeles, there is an actual oil and tar lake still existing on the surface despite decades of sucking all the oil they could from the ground around it. Further, just for fun, there are nineteen oil wells pulling four to five hundred barrels of oil per day from the ground underneath Beverly Hills High School, and literally hundreds of oil wells around LA pulling as much oil out of the ground as they can and the oil and tar lake still bubbles up in the center of Los Angeles.

Each and every day, we take oil from the ground and consume it on the surface. Each and every day, material from the surface travels further and further down the geologic column and is turned into more oil. If we tap a large deposit of oil and extract it to the point of economic exhaustion, and then leave it alone, in almost all cases and given enough time, the location will fill back up with oil. We are seeing this happen at very rapid rates under Los Angeles and Louisiana where wells drilled in 1914 have gone through multiple cycles of drain and fill, drain and fill. Some would say that this is merely equalization of the "pool" of oil, but it's been shown that it's not. There may be a localized pool based on geology, but there is no global "pool" of oil, it's created everywhere when the conditions are right, and while they aren't exactly right in every square inch of the planet everywhere at every time, there's always new oil being produced somewhere in the planet at every moment in time.

So it comes down to, replacement rate. Which is a great unknown and very complicated if not impossible to model or calculate. Perhaps, in a steady state, such a calculation could be made, but the Earth doesn't exist in a steady state, it has gone through periods of explosions in biomass and times when biomass has shrunk. All of that material is deposited in a very uneven manner on very uneven timescales. So the inputs of material are not constant. The geology of the Earth is more active and less active in spots and the pressures and temperatures throughout the planet are not equal. The folding in of the planet and the recycling of new surface takes place at varying rates. These and many more factors make the replacement rate impossible to calculate.

Our ability to extract also varies. Technology plays a big role here, but again so do a number of other factors including demand, cost, local politics, world politics, resources (human and otherwise) and geology. The planet throws us some curve-balls with earthquakes that change the field and structures that at times confound us and at others make things easier for us to get at the black gold.

While it's true that we use more and more every year, what's also true is that more and more oil has been created since the beginning of the first death on Earth. We simply don't have the capacity now or in the relative future to outpace the millions upon millions of year head start that the Earth has on us in both biomass and subsequently, oil production.

We've been going after oil for a relatively short time. In our early oil using years we went after the surface pools that bubbled up, and still do, everywhere. Humans received great benefit from using oil, we were able to have portable and relatively efficient energy production without harnessing man or beast. Additionally, we got usable land that if managed properly was extremely fertile. Then we started tapping the local pools shallowly buried underground and even offshore as early as 1914. From these we got larger supplies with less contamination and a byproduct was cleaner marshlands and sandy beaches sans oil.

As we do all this, the planet is doing it's thing as well. As we extract deposits, materials in stasis flow and the machine that is planet creates more product, pulling organic soup down into it's refinery where it heats and compresses it into more oil and this lighter more refined product floats up to the surface and fills deposits again.

It may take hundreds or even thousands of years for some exhausted deposits to re-fill, but most will. Those that don't because of fill rate or a changing geology will simply continue along their way across the planet's crust to have the material remaining recycled back into the Earth. In other areas new deposits are forming and the cycle continues.

While it's certainly possible that we could eventually outpace the planet's production, I thin it is highly unlikely that we are at this point. Ninety plus percent (90%+) of the ocean's biomass is microbial. This is a relatively new fact to us. This means our quantitative opinion on how much life there is was just turned on it's head. There is alot more life on this planet than we previously thought, and by extension that means that there has been exponentially more life on this planet than previously thought. Additionally we now know that environments on the planet that were once thought to be devoid of life are abundantly covered with it, and consequently, the periods we thought were relatively lifeless in our planet's history were surprisingly life-full.

All of that material through time is part of the input stream for the planet's oil generator. There is a lot more material in the supply chain than some would like to admit for political reasons, but the sheer volume of past life that is already converted into oil, in process of or waiting to become oil is immense.

This supply chain vastly outstrips our ability to consume the output on a relative human timescale. Of course we could improve our ability to consume, and I hope we will, but our gains in efficiency, diversity and distribution all work against the idea that we will "run out" of oil.

Eventually, long before we have trouble getting oil, we'll fully harness the atom, or partially harness the sun to a usable and efficient degree. We're doing everything we can already to cut out the planet as the middleman for the concentration of energy and it's highly unlikely to near impossible that we'll outstrip the planet's domestically created energy before we begin pulling it from the solar system writ large.

The phrase "We will run out of oil" is a political cudgel, used by either ignorant or deceitful people. The day the planet runs out of oil will only come after we are long gone and the Sun has boiled it all out of the Earth just a short time before it expands to swallow the entire planet.

Posted by JasonColeman at November 16, 2010 12:00 PM

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