• How Much Oil Have We Used?

Fuel for Thought

How Much Oil Have We Used?

Apr 30 2015

It is nearly a year since Harvard economist, Morris Adelman, passed away on May 8th 2014 at the age of 96. He was best known for saying that we will never run out of oil – not because he could prove that the supply is infinite, but because oil production would never stop as long as technology continued to advance, and the price was still high enough to make extraction worthwhile.

To find out about the Enhanced Oil Recovery methods used today, read: What is the Difference between Primary, Secondary & Enhanced Recovery for Oil Extraction?.

Although many argued that this was a pointless assertion – designed to shape policy regarding oil extraction, and bolster a free market for oil – it raised interesting questions about our oil usage, and the reserves that remain. So do we know exactly how much oil we have used and how much oil is left?

In 2008, two chemists from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences theorized that less than 100 billion tonnes of crude oil was produced since 1850 and the annual rate of production is around 700 million barrels. However, John Jones from the University of Aberdeen’s School of Engineering recently debunked this estimation. Jones pointed out that Istvan Lakatos and Julianna Lakatos-Szabo – the two chemists behind the dubious estimations – gave no references for their estimation and the actual figure is much higher. Since the start of 2015, over 10 billion barrels of oil have been extracted and since 1870 – when J.D. Rockefeller established The Standard Oil Company – we have used at least 135 billions barrels of oil.

It is unusual for economists to be concerned with figures outside of day-to-day or annual production, so there has been little research into the exact figure for the total amount of oil extracted. Others have tried, with The Oil Depletion Analysis Centre (ODAC) offering an estimate of almost 1 trillion barrels of crude oil between 2005 and the year commercial drilling began. Although higher than the Hungarian team’s estimate, Jones claims that even this number does not add up. According to Jones, as many as 135 billion tonnes of crude oil have been extracted since commercial drilling began in 1850.

Although this figure is staggering, global demand for crude oil is fuelling the frenzy and with more complex methods of extracting oil and gas becoming more widely used, production doesn’t look set to slow down any time soon. According to this interactive app, in a 30-year-old’s lifetime, over 850bn barrels of oil have been extracted.  

At the current rate of extraction, we’re looking set to blow the Global Carbon Budget – the amount of carbon emissions we can emit while still having a chance to limit the damage to the environment – in the next 18 years. As carbon emissions increase, so too do carbon sinks, which is the absorption of carbon by the atmosphere, land and water. These are damning figures for world leaders and policy makers, and show that there is no option but to find cleaner and renewable sources of energy. to find out more about alternative energy sources, read our article: Nitrogen Determination in the Times of Scarcity of Natural Resources.

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