March 29th, 1859 Oil Creek, Pennsylvania. On this day, Edwin Drake struck oil at 69.5 feet. While drilling this well, he was mocked by the locals for what they called “Drakes Folly”. Little did they know that Edwin Drake was going to start a revolution in energy generation that would lead to an unprecedented increase in the world’s population.
By today’s standards, Drake’s first well was an unremarkable discovery; producing only 20 barrels per day. The first oil “boom town” quickly sprang up in this quiet farming community. Until 1901, Oil Creek Pennsylvania was responsible for one half of the world’s oil production; until much more productive oil fields were discovered in East Texas.
150 years later, just how dependent are we on oil for energy? The answer to this question is truly staggering. The world uses about 85 million barrels [3,570,000,00 million gallons] of oil per day. For comparison purposes, Niagara Falls flows at the rate of 150,000 gallons per second. If we wanted to replace some of the water that flows over Niagara Falls with the oil we use daily, the falls would run black for nearly 7 hours per day. That’s a lot of oil.
Some of you may remember the energy crisis in the mid 1970’s. We saw long lines form at gas pumps due to diminished supply and an ever increasing demand. Some doom-sayers predicted that we would be completely out of oil by the end of the 20th century. Of course they were wrong. In the 1970s we simply had no idea of the scope of the world’s oil reserves, nor did we know that increasing oil prices would enable ever more sophisticated extraction technologies such as offshore oil drilling platforms and fracking.
Unlike the 1970’s, today we have enough knowledge of the geology of our planet to effectively predict the oil reserves we have not yet discovered. It appears as if we can reasonably expect to access about 4-5 times as much oil as has ever been burned by the human race since the drilling of Drakes first well. That’s a lot of oil.
So why are some people still claiming we are going to run out of oil anytime soon? To answer that question, we have to understand a simple mathematical concept called the exponential function. Let’s assume our demand for oil only increases by a modest 3% per year from this point forward….what will that look like over time? There is actually a mathematical formula to easily determine the long term effects of modest growth. If you want to find out how long it will take for anything to double in quantity, simply divide the annual growth rate into the number 70. So 3% annual growth in demand for oil means our current level of use will double in 23.33 years. In other words, at a measly 3% annual increase Niagara Falls would run black 14 hours a day in 2038 instead of 7 hours a day today.
What if demand for oil increases 3% annually after 2038? Niagara Falls will then run black 28 hours per day within 23.33 more years In other words, we’ll be using 16% more oil than actually flows over the falls by 2071.
At that rate of flow, for any practical purpose, there will be no more oil left in the ground to pump out by 2080. There are people alive today that may actually live to see the exhaustion of fossil fuels by the human race on this planet.
By 2050, the United Nations predicts we’ll have 9.8 billion people on planet earth. Humanity's unprecedented growth spurt has only been made possible by fossil fuels. I don’t know about you, but moving as quickly as we can into alternative energy sources of any kind seems like a prudent thing to do for the human race. If you are one of those people that were born into a fossil fuel economy, and assume that oil, gas and coal will always be there to use, think again. Nothing lasts forever.
So what are you going to do about it?