Energy | 01. February 2010 | posted by Jan Oliver Löfken

Energy question of the week: How long will our crude oil reserves last?

The global economic crisis has also had a positive side – the consumption of crude oil fell slightly in 2008 and 2009. Yet before long, it is likely to rise again to about 85 million barrels per day. The International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2009 report states that demand will rise by a further percent each year to 105 million barrels per day by 2030. For how long can we meet this growing demand

No serious analyst would specify the exact period before which crude oil would run out, be it 40, 60 or 100 years. Factors such as the price of oil, new technology, or discoveries of new oil reserves introduce too much uncertainty. With the current known world oil reserves of almost 160 billion tons (gigatons) and annual consumption amounting to four gigatons, figures published by the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), give us a maximum of 40 years. This figure however only takes into account known conventional deposits where crude oil is directly pumped out of the ground.

Potential of conventional deposits. Credit: BGR.

(Potential of conventional depostits 2008. Bild: BGR.)

Unexploited resources: Tar sands and oil shale

Unexploited resources from conventional deposits add up to a further 80 gigatons. Adding in unconventional sources such as tar sands in Canada, oil shale in the USA and Lower Saxony or very heavy oil in Venezuela, these deposits add up to 300 gigatons – that is, about double the amount currently available in conventional reserves. Nevertheless, the recovery of crude oil from sand or shale is considerably more difficult and expensive than oil extraction at present. This is why exploitation of these deposits is still in its infancy. Interest is sure to increase as the price of oil rises.

'Peak oil' in non-OPEC states expected as early as 2010

Sufficient crude oil will be available for high-quality products of the chemical industry for a long time to come. However, this versatile resource is set to become too precious and expensive merely to be burned in engines. Globally, maximum crude oil extraction, referred to as 'peak oil', is expected within the next 20 years. The World Energy Outlook 2009 report states that “In the non-OPEC states – for example the USA, Norway, Argentina, Russia – peak oil for conventional crude oil will have been reached by about 2010”. Globally, the impact of carbon dioxide on the climate will not fall in the coming decades as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. At least in Europe, Japan and the USA, the share of carbon dioxide coming from cars could fall due to the use of vehicles with reduced fuel consumption and electric cars. High time, then, to start thinking about mobility solutions where well over 90 percent are not powered – as they are today – by fossil fuels.

The DLR energy question of the week in 'The future of energy' Year of Science

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has given the Year of Science 2010 the motto 'The future of energy'. For this reason the science journalist Jan Oliver Löfken will this year answer a question on the subject of energy in his blog each week. Do you have a question about how our energy supply might look in the future? Or do you want to know, for example, how a wave power plant works and how it can efficiently generate electricity? Then send us your question by email. Science journalist Jan Oliver Löfken will investigate the answers and publish them each week in this blog.


About the author

Energy journalist Jan Oliver Löfken writes among other things, for the Technologie Review, Wissenschaft aktuell, Tagesspiegel, Berliner Zeitung and P.M. Magazin on issues involving energy research and industry. For DLR, he answered the Energy question of the week during the Year of Energy 2010. to authorpage