In 1859, Colonel Edwin Drake drilled the first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. By the end of 1861 his wells were producing about 5,000 barrels per year. At that same time lighting in residential homes was by means of whale oil which was rapidly escalating in price to where it could only be afforded by the affluent. A process for refining Kerosene was developed by a Canadian chemist and which promised a cleaner and cheaper source of lighting fuel but there was yet to be an infrastructure for producing and refining the petroleum needed for its widespread consumption. The primary source of residential heating fuel had been wood and timber but with the development of coal extraction the shift to that cheaper and more energy enriched fuel was well under way.

Ocean Wind Farm
Credit: C. G. P. Grey via Flickr

Hotter burning coal also stimulated the rise of the steel industry and the great rail systems that transported these materials to markets. The “oil age” had begun and by the time of the discovery of huge oil fields in Texas, Oklahoma and California in 1914 the American industrial economy was in full operation and completely dependent on cheap and light crude. Our industrial might owes its existence to a continuing flow of “black gold.”

By 2010, our planetary appetite for oil reached about 87.4 million barrels per day or 31.9 billion barrels per year! Of the total amount the United States consumes about 26% and has been the world's largest petroleum consumer. China, in its drive towards industrialization has recently become the #2 consumer and if their economic growth rate of 10% per year continues they will soon overtake the US. India follows this same course. The logical consequences of these growth patterns is that the global demand for oil, which has been increasing every year since 1859, will rise exponentially in the years to come. And this begs the question; “At what point are we in danger of running out of oil?”

M.K. Hubbert, former Geo-scientist for Shell Oil and the US Geological Survey predicted that the United States would reach its peak domestic oil production in 1970. His paper detailing his predictions was released to a conference of the American Petroleum Institute in San Antonio, Texas in 1956. Reactions of fellow scientists and engineers in the industry were immediate and immensely critical. By 1973 his assertions proved correct and Hubbert further predicted that global oil production would peak in 1995. This latter prediction has been met with more criticism than the former, but the question itself remains frighteningly valid and of paramount importance to every industrialized and oil dependent country.

It is a simple question: how much oil do we have left and how long will it last? Answering this question is far from simple. Typically, if not tragically, the data necessary to arrive at a reasonable estimate is so charged politically as to prevent a cogent conclusion. However, at some point we will run out of oil and there will have to be a shift to renewable energy sources on a global level. Those who have confronted these questions refer to this as “transition.” The rise in oil consumption, when plotted on a graph is not unlike the gradual climb up a steep mountain where peak oil consumption is represented by the summit. But the decline in oil production after the peak will not be so gradual. In fact, in light of the huge and continuously growing global appetite for oil it is far more likely that the decline will be steep which means that the length of time available to effect the transition to other and renewable energy sources will be very limited.

The beginning of the oil age was clearly market driven and its evolution was fueled by market demand and profit. It was not driven by pure economic survival and in that way was wholly different than the transition that faces us today. In the next twenty years we will not just have to discover and invent the means of renewable energy sources but we will have to plan for and build the infrastructure necessary to service hundreds of millions of people in every industrialized nation. This challenge will have to be planned for and implemented which will require the social and political will of the world's populations. A daunting notion in light of our political and social inability to agree on far more simpler and less emergent problems.

The global consumption of fossil fuels, almost exclusively hydrocarbons, over the last one hundred fifty years, has had a continuous, mounting and devastating impact on the global biosphere. Carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases have led to an increase in ocean water temperatures, the melting of the Polar Arctic ice cap and a rise in ocean levels. Acid rain, a direct result of coal burning, has destroyed millions of acres of forest land just in the United States. Since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been over 123 off shore oil spills and the number of land based oil disasters is nearly three times that amount. Pollution of the oceans and land based ground water supplies will reach critical levels within thirty years making “drinking water” more expensive than a gallon of gasoline is today. In short, the end of the oil age is just around the corner and when it comes Mother Nature may breathe a sigh of relief.

What is the inevitable solution, the outcome of the next transition? The outlook appears to be much more simple than forecasting the end of oil production but there is no single answer. The transition will demand a widespread increase in the technologies that we have before us today. Solar, geo-thermal and wind turbine electrical power generation will make up a small percentage of our power needs as will ethanol and bio-methane production.

However, that single technology, yet to be fully realized and developed that will have the greatest impact will be electrolytically produced hydrogen generation both as a transportation fuel and as an industrial power source. It is completely clean, renewable and can be produced by solar and wind turbine generators. The infra-structure necessary to achieve this reality is the most difficult challenge because it will require a consensus social and political will.