EVEN TODAY ENDS TOMORROW – How much oil still remains in the bowels of planet Earth? There question is at least 170 years old, i.e. since 1850 which is considered the birth year of the modern oil industry. In the 70s of the last century the first oil shock occurred, with the Italian Sundays on foot and violent demonstrations in the United States, against fuel rationing, united by the slogan “More gas now!” Fifty years have passed since then and rivers of oil extracted, refined and burned but the question: ‘how much oil is there?’ does not yet have a precise answer. Half a century ago, experts estimated that the Earth would run out of oil before the end of the 1900s, but it seems that the world’s oil reserves have never been greater. The ADAC, the German Automobile Club, has tried to take stock of the situation, concluding that the answer remains uncertain.
SWINGING PRICES, UNRELIABLE ESTIMATES – Il price of black gold it is extremely unstable: in 2020, for example, it fell a lot because demand collapsed due to the lockdowns decided following the Covid-19 pandemic, while in 2022 it skyrocketed due to the war in Ukraine. The sensitivity of the price to these external causes and the discovery of new deposits it also caused the German economic research institute DIW to get its estimates spectacularly wrong: in 2008 it had in fact predicted that a barrel would cost over 200 dollars in 2018, a price it has never achieved. Finally i prices are governed by how much oil producers put on the market, decided by cartels such as OPEC, rather than its actual availability. Proven oil reserves have nearly quintupled since 1960 thanks to technical progress in traditional drilling and the development of new techniques such as fracking. Drilling has evolved so much that it has made it possible to exploit deposits such as that of Libra, off the coast of Brazil: its oil is found 7 km from the surface of the sea.
MOVING THE PEAK EVER FURTHER – “Peak oil” is the time when global oil production is at its peak and therefore, once exceeded, production can only go down. This vertex comes moved further and further into the future and it has been found that since the 1970s there has been a sort of “oil constant” which tells us how, despite the constant increase in consumption, the estimated oil reserves they have always been sufficient to cover at least the next 40 years. It therefore seems that a drop in demand could be induced by the transition to renewables rather than by a depletion of reserves. The new techniques that have increased availability are obviously not ‘free’: fracking – which consists of injecting water, sand and chemicals into the rock until it breaks to release the oil trapped there – can contaminate groundwater and the soil with toxic substances , trigger earthquakes and cause uncontrolled escapes of methane, which has a greenhouse effect dozens of times greater than that of CO2.
BURNING IT IS A WASTE – Oil is one hydrocarbon mixture, compounds made of carbon and hydrogen, which also carries more or less toxic substances such as sulfur and heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic, chromium and lead. The carbon it contains is then brought to the surface and released into the atmosphere, upon combustion, in the form of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other compounds. Many of them are considered gas-serra because they retain the heat of the Sun thereby increasing the temperature of the atmosphere. It is estimated that for limit global warming at +1.5°C, 260 Gigatonnes of CO₂ can still be emitted, an amount that will be reached in 6 years. But there is also another reason which advises against burning oil too quickly: it is a precious raw material which is the basis of the immense variety of plastics, compounds which have been part of our lives for decades. Burning it to make heat and move vehicles is therefore both a damage to planetary health and a colossal waste. Speaking of forecasts, in 2015 OPEC predicted that in 2040 the percentage of cars with internal combustion engines would still be 94% globally (Who the news): will it be apt?