End of Oil

The burning of fossil fuels is one of the main causes of climate change, ocean acidification, sea level rise and ocean warming. The air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels kills millions of people world-wide each year. It has become obvious to everyone with an open mind that the world must urgently and substantially reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we are burning and the amount of greenhouse gasses that we are releasing into the atmosphere.

At the time I started writing this page there was a lot of talk of 'peak oil', that is, the idea that oil extraction had peaked and would decline in the future.

However, in the following years the oil supply situation changed substantially; it seemed that we were not going to see 'peak oil' any time soon, but rather we were facing 'peak conventional oil'.

The mining industry discovered that there are huge reserves of coal-seam gas and oil-shale that can be profitably exploited. Unfortunately these resources come with several big disadvantages:

These side effects are all harmful to our environment.

This page was created 2005/07/01, it was last edited 2021/02/10
Contact David K. Clarke – ©

Peak oil

Graph 1
Graph 2
Good sources of background information on the subject are Peak oil and the Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study.

The upper graph at the right, from the Uppsala site, shows the Uppsala group's record of past liquid and gaseous petroleum extraction together with estimated future extraction up to 2050. This shows that extraction is expected to peak in about 2013; other studies vary on exactly when the peak may occur, some placing it as soon as 2008.

(The formal reference for the Uppsala study is "The Study of World Oil Resources and the Impact on IPCC Emissions Scenarios, Anders Sivertsson, Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group, Uppsala University, Sweden, www.isv.uu.se/uhdsg".)

The lower graph at the right, from An Introduction to Peak Oil (Phil Hart, original data attributed to ExxonMobil), shows that the total size of the oil fields discovered world-wide has tended to decline since about 1965.

Other sources report that the amount of oil discovered fell below the amount being consumed in 1960 and has continued to decline since then.

If one looks at the size of the oil fields discovered one also finds that all the really big fields were discovered years ago and smaller and smaller fields are being discovered in recent years.

My impression is that there is no doubt that a peak and following decline in petroleum supply is coming soon, the question is only one of when. As the supply declines we can expect the price to steadily, and probably rather steeply, rise.

So, what else happens as the conventional sources of petroleum run out?

Considering the threat of Climate Change associated with the enhanced Greenhouse Effect, the ideal would be to shift to sustainable fuels, perhaps primarily hydrogen. Unfortunately the world is nowhere near being ready to do so.

Unconventional liquid and gas fuel sources

As conventional, pumpable, petroleum supplies decline people will tern to alternative sources. There are several of these, and most are at least potentially more damaging to our atmosphere and our climate than conventional petroleum.

Coal-seam gas

This is predominantly methane and is obtained by drilling into coal seams. It is usual for the drill holes to go vertically down to the coal seam and then turn and follow the seam for considerable distances. In some cases the coal seam is fractured (called 'fracking') to facilitate the movement of the gas toward the hole. Called coalbed methane in the USA.

Environmental concerns relate to several things:

  • Contamination of the groundwater in aquifers that may be drilled through to reach the gas-bearing coal seem;
  • Leakage of the water from the aquifers via poorly completed gas wells;
  • When coal seam gas is extracted it usually comes with saline water which then has to be disposed of some-how;
  • Leakage of methane (a strong greenhouse gas) from the coal-seam into the atmosphere.
These problems are made much more likely when fracking is involved.

If there was no leakage of methane and the other potential problems were fully controlled the exploitation of coal-seam gas would be less harmfull, environmentally, than using coal (because burning methane produces roughly twice the useable energy per tonne of CO2 released than burning coal), but burning any fossil fuels must be stopped if we are to limit the damage caused by climate change and ocean acidification.

Also see Coal-seam gas by the numbers, ABC.

Shale gas

Similar to coal-seam gas, discussed above, except that it comes from shale beds which may or may not be associated with petroleum or coal deposits. See Wikipedia.

Shale gas has similar environmental concerns to coal-seam gas.

Oil shale

Oil shales are very fine-grained rocks, composed largely of clay, that contain bituminous material. Unlike conventional oil-bearing geological formations, the oil in the shales will not drain out under gravity, nor can it be mechanically removed from the rocks. It is removed by a process called pyrolysis in which the oil shale is heated to 450-500º C in the absence of air to drive the volatile substances from the shale. Additional processing must follow before useable liquid fuels are obtained.

Reserves are huge. Estimates range up to over a trillion (1000 000 000 000) barrels of oil world-wide.

For more detail see Wikipedia, which is the source for most of the above.

Coal liquefaction

The process was developed in oil-hungry Germany in World War Two and later used in the economically embargoed apartheid South Africa. There are at several processes that can be used to produce liquid fuels from coal. The bituminous grades of coal are the best for liquefaction.

Estimates for the oil price at which coal liquefaction becomes viable vary from around US$30 to US$60 per barrel. As I write (July 2005) the oil price is US$61.

For more detail see Wikipedia, which is the source for some of the above.

Coal gasification

Coal gasification is the production of combustible gases, such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and methane from coal. The gases produced are used as fuels, gaseous fuels being generally more convenient to use than solid coal.

The coal is milled, dried and pulverized. It is then fed into a gasifier reactor, and at high pressure and temperature it is converted into synthesis gas (syngas: mainly carbon monoxide and hydrogen).

Fuel gas for domestic and commercial use was produced by this method in many places before 'natural gas' from petroleum fields became more economical.

Tar sands

Similar to oil shale, above, except that the host rock includes a large proportion of sand with the clay. The clayey sands contain bitumen which can be extracted using hot water and floatation. Usable liquid fuels can then be extracted from the bitumen.

For more detail see Wikipedia, which is the source of some of the above.

Two relevant reports are available from the Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group: A crash program for the Canadian Oil Sands Industry (240KB pdf format), and a Thesis entitled Canada's Oil Sands Resources and Its [sic] Future Impact on Global Oil Supply (1.3MB).

(They are Swedish after all. You can't expect them to be experts in their field and in English as well. I remember a report I did once, I wrote the title as "Observations on the Groundwater of the Clare Valley", on the finished report it came out as "Observations on the Groungwater of the Clare Valley"; embarrassing!)

I have also discussed tar sands under New World on these pages.


Three hundred years ago firewood was mankind's main source of heat. It still is in the less developed parts of the world.

Liquid and gaseous fuels can be produced from firewood and other organic matter, for example garden waste and shit.

Firewood has a roll to play in providing an alternative energy source to petroleum, but, while it is a renewable resource, it is quite impossible to grow enough firewood to replace petroleum at current rates of consumption.

Factors effecting the oil supply

You can get the impression from the media that Peak Oil is all about a single moment when oil production will start to decline and prices will shoot up catastrophically. It is certainly not that simple. There are many inter-related factors that will effect our use of oil.
  • Availability – what is in the ground?
  • Extraction rate – can the existing wells be pumped harder? Will more wells be drilled in existing oil fields?
  • Price – as the price goes up so people will try harder to get more fuels from all sources;
  • Rate of consumption – as the price goes up people will try to use less (in April 2006 sales of small cars is increasing and sales of large cars is declining);
  • Amount of exploration – as the price goes up oil companies will look harder for new supplies;
  • Exploration technology – new or improved methods of finding oil are always being developed;
  • Extraction technology – improved methods of extracting oil from old oil fields are always being developed;
  • War – the USA has shown that it is willing to go to war to try to get more access to oil. Will future wars stop some countries from exporting oil?
  • Alternative sources of liquid fuel and liquefiable gas fuel (elsewhere on this page – and biodiesel, gasohol, etc.) (In the Third World rainforest is being cleared to plant oil palms for biodiesel and food production, to the detriment of the global environment.)

Oil reserve estimates by the USA

The USA establishment over-estimates the world's oil reserves so that it can bargain with OPEC (The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) for lower oil prices. If OPEC nations knew how little oil remains they would raise their oil prices. It is greatly to the advantage of the USA (the biggest oil consuming nation in the world) to convince the OPEC nations that we are nowhere near Peak Oil!

What applies to the USA also applies to other oil importing nations (most Western nations).

Hence we have a world in denial about the impending peak of oil production. What happens when OPEC nations realise they are sitting on a resource that is hugely valuable and very limited? One could speculate.

Reduce your dependence on oil

The first, simplest, and cheapest thing that you should do is to reduce your consumption of energy-intensive products. As it is difficult to know what products are energy-intensive, your first move might be just to not buy what you don't really need.

As the price of oil goes up everyone would be wise to try to reduce their requirement for oil. This applies to direct and indirect consumption. You would also be well advised to reduce your dependence on gas, as the price is likely to be closely linked to that of oil.

By indirect consumption of petroleum I am thinking of such things as electricity from oil or gas fired power stations.

What can you do?

  • Change from oil, gas, or electric home heating to wood fires;
  • Change to solar water heating;
  • Use alternatives to travel by private vehicle: walk, ride a bike, use public transport;
  • Change your large gas-guzzler to a small fuel-efficient car;


Most of the changes that I am suggesting are going to cost something. On the other hand, making the changes early is likely to be less expensive than trying to make them later; as petroleum prices go up, so will costs of production, and many other costs and prices will follow.

Change to a fuel efficient car before the sale price of your big car falls drastically because no-one wants it.

Costs can be minimised by buying second hand and being inventive.

Oil refinery closures in Australia

Angela Macdonald-Smith and Patrick Durkin wrote an article in the Financial Review on 2021/02/09 about Exxon shutting the Altona oil refinery in the Australian state of Victoria.

Just a few weeks earlier it had been announced that the Kwinana oil refinery in Western Australia would be closing by the middle of 2021. That refinery was reported as being the biggest in Australia and providing about 70% of WA's fuel requirements.

South Australia's only refinery, at Port Stanvac, had been moth-balled in 2003 and permanently closed in 2009.

According to the Australian Institute of Petroleum page on Australian Oil Refineries, which I accessed on 2021/02/10, there are only four oil refineries in the nation, including the two listed for closing. The remaining two are Lytton in Brisbane and the Geelong refinery.

How much energy security does a nation of 25 million people have with only two functioning oil refineries, especially when its government is obsessed with fossil fuels and opposed to renewable energy?


Also see Self Sufficiency; which is aimed mostly at Australia and Australians.
If you want to be self-sufficient with energy the first and most important point I can make is, start now. Don't put it off until the energy shocks hit. If you do that your job will be much harder.

Of course complete self-sufficiency is not only impossible, it is undesirable. A functional society would not consist of a whole lot of people trying to be independent of all other people; self-sufficiency would ideally mean self-sufficient local communities rather than self-sufficient individuals.

However, getting a community organised is not easy and most of us can manage a limited amount of personal self-sufficiency. Most of us would have room for a few fruit trees (especially if we replace some lawn or ornamental garden plants).

By placing solar photovoltaic (electricity generating) panels on your roof you will reduce your dependence on the electricity grid.

Consider running a few chooks (some call them chickens). Chooks can be run in a small area – a suburban back yard for example – will consume kitchen scraps, and will supply you with both eggs and meat.

For those with a bit of spare cash, you could think about buying some land and getting more seriously into raising food and fuel plants; and perhaps running some livestock: a few pigs, sheep, goats, cows, rabbits, whatever. Sheep can provide wool – which can then be turned into clothing – in addition to meat, goats and cows can provide milk and meat. By fuel plants I mean trees for firewood. In South Australia, where I live, gum trees (Eucalypts) can produce useful amounts of firewood in under ten years; they have been successfully introduced to many other countries with temperate climates.

A backyard (or front yard for that matter) vegetable garden will certainly give you some self-sufficiency. If growing crops, try to consider how much energy input they will need. Some crops, I believe, consume more energy than they yield 211; if grown using the highly industrial modern methods.

You should also consider things like water supply. The electricity supply for running a pump may become less reliable in the future. Can you put in rainwater tanks or a well? If you have more space perhaps you can build a dam?

Building a cellar will provide a place where things can be stored at a constant temperature while, unlike a refrigerator, not needing any input of energy to operate. It will also provide you with a place where you can escape the heat on those exceptionally hot summer days when the electrical grid goes down. Failures of the electricity supply are likely to become more frequent as the oil supply fails.



Wikipedia has a page on Peak Oil.

The Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group in Sweden specialise on the Peak Oil problem.

There is a detailed page by Dr Colin J. Campbell entitled Peak Oil: an Outlook on Crude Oil Depletion.