1000 & 1, 1000 & 2, 1000 & 3, 1000 & 4, 1000 & 5, 1000 & 6, 1000 & 7. In those seven seconds the world burned its way through one million litres of crude oil. That's 1000 barrels, or 160,000 litres, per second. 1000 barrels per second, every second of every minute, every minute of the day, every day of the year. It never stops. Humanity's thirst for oil is a river - a torrent!
It's hard to believe so much oil exists. Each year we burn 30 billion barrels of oil. In the past 100 years we have burned one trillion barrels. That's one thousand billion. The best estimates are that one trillion remain to extract and burn. Now, If you divide that one trillion by 30 billion barrels per year you might think we have 33 years of oil left - but you'd be wrong. We aren't going to keep burning 30 billion barrels per year and then suddenly stop. That's not the way economies work. That's not the way oil extraction works.
Economies want to grow and that growth is inextricably tried to increased energy use. China wants to grow. India wants to grow. They want to live like us. Why shouldn't they? We need to burn oil faster. So oil extraction must increase!
But the oil is getting harder to extract. Most oil comes from ageing, waning giant fields discovered long ago. There are no more giant fields to find, only lots of small ones, difficult ones or fields deep under the ocean. The remaining crude oil is heavier, thicker, dirtier, quite simply cruder! It's difficult to get out, expensive to get out, slower to get out. So, the rate of oil extraction will decrease.
The oil bosses say "Don't worry! We'll make oil from other things. We'll use coal, oil shale, tar sands. We'll feed your cars with oil from grain! We'll make trillions of barrels more!" But it's hard work, expensive work. The flow will be a trickle, not the torrent we need. 1000 barrels a second!
If you are listening to me now then you were born in The Age of Oil. A wondrous time when abundant energy has enabled humanity to work technological miracles. With enough energy we can solve any problem. Need to get to the other side of the world by tomorrow? Just fly! Need to sow and harvest millions of hectares of grain, or move a mountain, or build an island? Our mighty machines will do it for us. Need to drive 5 kilometres to the shop, or 50 k's to work? Now where did I put those car keys?
Oil is our lifestyle. What will we do if we have less oil? We'll do what we have to do because there will be no other choice. We will walk more, cycle more, grow more of our own food. If we have a job it won't be 50 k's away! Wait, did I hear you mumble something about new high speed railways, nuclear power, a hydrogen economy or rebuilding our cities? Oh, sorry but building all that infrastructure takes massive amounts of energy. Maybe if we had started 20 years ago, but soon - it will all just be too expensive.
We are entering a new age, the Post-Peak Oil Age. Now the 100 year folly of modern economics comes to an end. No more fantasies that resources are infinite. No more delusions that growth goes on forever. Just us, all six billion of us, on our precious, fragile little planet. Now comes the hard part. Do we fight over the shrinking scraps of our lifestyle or do we share? Can we embrace the inevitable change? Can we see less as more? Can we have less oil but more time, more family, more community?
So look around you and remember this moment - an age when abundant energy transformed dreams into reality. Remember also all the "stuff" -the rampant consumption we called "civilization". Look at what is possible, at what we can do. Behold The Age of Oil! It is at its peak and it will never come again. It burns 1000 barrels of oil per second, every second. One million litres in seven seconds. 1000 & 7, 1000 & 6, 1000 & 5, 1000 & 4, 1000 & 3, 1000 & 2, 1000 & 1.
Senior Lecturer in Genetics
University of Adelaide