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The Decline of Oil

So-called environmentalists never tire of predicting the end of oil. They’ve been talking about “peak oil” for decades, after which annual production would inevitably decline as we drain the world’s finite supply.

In fact, proven reserves (oil that we know is there and is recoverable with current technology and under current law) have been steadily rising, despite the fact that the world pumps 83.9 million barrels a day out of the ground, a 32 percent increase over 20 years ago. New techniques, such as fracking and horizontal drilling, have brought new life to both old fields and new ones whose oil had previously been unrecoverable. And vast new fields, such as the giant finds off the coast of Brazil, have added new reserves.

Much of that 32 percent increase in world production has gone to power the fast-rising economies of the developing world, such as China, India, and Brazil. Oil consumption has been rising very slowly in the United States, however, up a mere 8.1 percent in 20 years.

But the U.S. population has risen over 20 percent since 1993, so U.S. oil consumption is down significantly on a per capita basis. We used 24.15 barrels a year per person in 1993; today the figure is 21.6 barrels, a 10.6 percent drop per person. The decline in oil consumption on a GDP basis is even more dramatic. In 1993, the U.S. had $1,096 of GDP per barrel of oil consumed. Today the figure is $2,393 per barrel of oil. Taking inflation into account, GDP per barrel of oil is up a whopping 34.8 percent in the last 20 years.

What accounts for that? There are several things. One is a slow but steady switch to other power sources, such as natural gas. In 1993, natural gas produced 13 percent of total U.S. electricity; today it produces 24.7 percent. Oil, meanwhile, went from producing 3.5 percent of total electricity 20 years ago to a mere 0.7 percent today. Another reason is a steadily increasing efficiency. Space heating took 53.1 percent of home energy consumption in 1993; today it is only 41.5 percent. The nation’s fleet of cars and trucks have much higher average miles per gallon than 20 years ago. A third reason is that GDP growth in recent decades has been centered in non-energy-intensive industries. Manufacturing automobiles is energy intensive. Manufacturing software is not.

Once oil drilling began in 1859, petroleum became ever more central to the world’s economy, first as an illuminant (kerosene) and lubricant. Then, just as electricity began to replace kerosene for home lighting, the internal combustion engine produced a vast new market for petroleum. By the mid-20th century, oil was the world’s most important product and therefore it was a main driver of world politics. The Middle East would have been a backwater, seldom mentioned in the nightly news, had it not sat upon a very high percentage of the world’s then known oil.

We are a long way from seeing the end of oil as a major force in the world economy, but it is steadily losing its centrality. You would think that would be good news for environmentalists. But, of course, nothing is good news for them. Chicken Little runs the environmentalist public-relations operations, which goes a long way to explaining why fewer and fewer non-liberals listen to them anymore.


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