Are We Running Out of Oil?

Policy Backgrounders | Energy and Natural Resources

No. 159
Wednesday, January 29, 2003
by David Deming

Is an Oil Economy Sustainable?

In the long run, an economy that utilizes petroleum as a primary energy source is not sustainable, because the amount of oil in the Earth's crust is finite. However, sustainability is a misleading concept, a chimera. No technology since the birth of civilization has been sustainable. All have been replaced as people devised better and more efficient technologies. The history of energy use is largely one of substitution. In the 19th century, the world's primary energy source was wood. Around 1890, wood was replaced by coal. Coal remained the world's largest source of energy until the 1960s when it was replaced by oil. We have only just entered the petroleum age.31

"Without innovation, no technology is sustainable."

How long will it last? No one can predict the future, but the world contains enough petroleum resources to last at least until the year 2100. This is so far in the future that it would be ludicrous for us to try to anticipate what energy sources our descendants will utilize. Over the next several decades the world likely will continue to see short-term spikes in the price of oil, but these will be caused by political instability and market interference - not by an irreversible decline in supply.

David Deming of the University of Oklahoma's School of Geology and Geophysics is an Adjunct Scholar with the NCPA.

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