running a green office

where the oil is

where the oil is

This article takes a concise look at which countries produce the most oil, where consumption is the highest and how long the oil is expected to last. There is also a section on alternatives and renewable energy which will need to take the take the place of oil in the future.

where is the oil produced?
The Middle East has the largest oil reserves (over 65% of the world’s supply). Saudi Arabia alone possesses 25% of the world's reserves that we know about. Not only does the Middle East have the largest reserves, it is also the biggest oil producer - at present providing nearly one third of the world's total.

Europe, Russia, the UK and North America are also big producers. Substantial reserves still in the North Sea and Canada are difficult and expensive to extract. Europe and the US do not produce enough to meet demand and must rely on Middle East oil. Western Europe and Japan are also heavily dependent on oil imports as production cannot meet massive domestic demand.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has published a report stating the world will lurch from one energy crisis to another unless governments switch from increased burning of fossil fuels to more nuclear, renewable and energy saving sources. It forecast skyrocketing fuel prices, blackouts and supply disruptions as it pointed to a 50% surge in energy demand by 2030.

Russia has since flexed its energy muscle and has been warned by the European Union that it must guarantee the reliability of all future oil and gas supplies to Europe or risk the loss of energy contracts and a scaling-down of political contacts. The EU's stern warning, also delivered to Belarus, followed three days of disruption to oil supplies. This is probably a foretaste of future disputes over fuel supplies as the world battles over oil. Although no-one really knows exactly how long the oil will last or whether new oilfields will be found, most specialists believe the world “oil peak" is now approaching.

The oil industry says it has 40 years of proven reserves at the moment (it said the same thing 30 years ago!) and in fact the estimate has increased in recent years as production has fallen. Obviously if the world can cut consumption radically the oil reserves will last longer, but we are speeding up consumption at an amazing rate.

who uses the most oil?
America is the world's largest per-capita oil consumer, although it does produce much of the oil it uses. Americans protest the most when oil costs escalate, mainly because they are used to cheap fuel for their large gas guzzling vehicles. Habits will only change when oil is prohibitively expensive in real terms. The rising price of oil has had a predictable effect on the price of petrol. In the US the price of regular gasoline has risen by more than a third since the beginning of 2002. But US tax is still low (unlike the UK where most of the price is made up of tax).

The Middle East, where oil costs so little because there is so much, is also a heavy oil user. Chinese and Indian economic growth will increase global oil demand from 84 million barrels per day to 116 million bpd by 2030 (Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran will supply most of this). China’s car sales rose by 82% in the first half of 2003 compared with the same period ten years earlier. Poor countries will increase consumption as their economies develop and citizens demand a better standard of living. At present a third of today's world population (6.1bn people) have no electricity or other modern energy supplies, and another third have only limited access.

the cost of oil – how we got where we are now
For a century the price of oil remained stable. But things changed drastically in the seventies with the Arab-Israeli war. Prices soared as OPEC, the oil cartel, blocked exports to the west. Prices tripled, the west plunged into recession, and it took years to recover. The Iranian Revolution had a similar impact. Then there were the Gulf Wars, and the resulting mess in Iraq. Oil prices have since rocketed to unprecedented levels, and even though prices may fluctuate downwards occasionally the general consensus is that they can only soar in the future. Terrorist attacks, insurgent hitting vital pipelines and other unpredictable events could easily ratchet up prices much, much higher than we have yet seen.

Furthermore, non-OPEC oil supplies will peak in the beginning of the next decade, according to the International Energy Agency raising the risk of supply disruptions which could push the crude price as high as $130 per barrel. Who really knows, but it could result in coal making a big comeback - and the United States, China and India have huge reserves. Hence, carbon emissions will soar even faster.

alternatives to oil
When the world focuses on the twin facts that oil has contributed significantly to global warning and will one day run out, the importance of renewable or at least less damaging sources becomes critical. Hydrogen, wind, water and solar are obvious replacements.

Some cars already use it and it is currently being tested on some London buses and Britain’s first hydrogen filling station opened last year in Hornchurch, Essex. Hydrogen generates electricity that powers a motor and is abundant and clean – water vapour is the only waste product - but needs to be processed for use as fuel. It will need to switch to sustainable sources and be harnessed, stored and distributed economically before it can become the alternative fuel of choice.

Wind power is the world’s fastest growing renewable energy choice. Modern windmills are environmentally friendly and use an endless source of energy. The UK already has many wind farms but their noise and obtrusiveness cause complaints and set up costs for wind farms is off putting. The UK will have the world’s largest offshore wind farm which will be built 12 miles off the coast between Margate in East Kent and Clacton in Essex. It will consist of 341 turbines spread over 90 square miles. However the shipping industry has warned that it will significantly increase the risk of massive pollution in the event of a collision.

Not everyone is happy about wind power, especially in Scotland where most wind farms will be – 6,300 turbines are planned, many up to 400ft high. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the adventurer and outdoor campaigner, launched a scathing attack on the Scottish executive’s renewable energy policy, claiming the country’s landscape is being ruined by wind turbines. He says they will put the tourism industry at risk and wants targets scrapped until other methods of green energy generation are found. Scotland has a target of producing 40% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Hydroelectric power is the most common form of renewable energy, accounting for around one fifth of the world’s electricity. Hydro-power can be safe and pollution-free, but is limited by location but is still controversial. Hydroelectric power, where vast amounts of water are stored and then released at force, needs big sites; wave and tidal power need coastlines and can be costly. The UK’s first wave-energy station, connected to the National Grid, is in Islay.

China’s Three Gorges Dam is the largest ever, with 26 turbines which will generate the equivalent energy of 18 coal-fired power stations, yet this only equates to 3% of the country's current energy needs. Critics argue that the 600km project in some on China’s most scenic countryside forced the displacement of at least 1.3 million people and can contribute to greenhouse gases.

In 2003 Norway became the first country to harness tidal currents in the open sea for a commercial power station. Designed like an underwater windmill, this was the first of many new forms of structures such turbines, generators and floating pontoons that are now made from the power of the waves and the moons gravitational tug. It is said that on an average day, 60 million square kilometres (23 million square miles) of tropical seas absorb an amount of solar radiation equal in heat content to about 250 billion barrels of oil.

Tidal energy is no easy answer; there are wide seasonal and geographic variations and , in most parts of the world, insurmountable difficulties. A Scottish company, Ocean Power Delivery Ltd (OPD) has developed a device that resembles a mechanical snake. Named after the sea snake, Pelamis, the red 450 foot long device floats though the waves and motion of the waves is converted into electricity through hinges hooked into electricity generators. The electricity is transmitted to the shore by cables.

The United States is seriously looking at tidal power, including utilising the tides in San Francisco Bay. Australia, the UK, Canada and many other countries are producing companies that want to harness the power of the moon and the sea.

solar power
Although it has been around a long time, solar power is only now taking off. Solar panels, which harness the sun’s energy, feature in many homes (although nothing compared to the continent). Solar panels can readily bought in DIY stores and generate electricity via photovoltaic cells. Solar power is also being tested on sound barriers on the M27 in Hampshire to provide electricity as well as noise protection.

nuclear energy
At present there are about 440 reactors in 32 countries which generate 16% of the world’s electricity. Accidents, terrorism, security and expense are obviously major concerns, although countries such as the US, Japan and India are shifting towards more nuclear energy use.

There are 30 more reactors under construction in 13 countries. China alone plans to build another two a year for 15 years. Even Russia says it intends for 25% of its energy needs should be met from nuclear power by 2025. While there is much opposition to nuclear energy (particularly the issues of securing nuclear plants against terrorist attacks, toxicity which needs careful management, not to mention the issues of global proliferation) it has its supporters and may rise again to the top of the political agenda.

nuclear fusion
A new form of nuclear power which combines atoms rather than splitting them apart - could be ready by around 2040, but it is by no means certain and is a long way off. An international energy consortium has signed a formal agreement to build an experimental nuclear fusion reactor which aims to produce clean and limitless energy from nuclear reactions like those that fuel the sun. It is the biggest and most expensive scientific experiment since the space station.

The multi-billion euro project, which will be based in France, hopes to produce electricity on the grid within 30 years. Known as Iter- or “on the way” the project involves the EU, South Korea, Russia, China, the US, India and Japan.

The green lobby is opposed to the project, believing the benefits have been oversold and the difficulties of waste production underplayed, and would prefer the money to be spent on proven projects. Others argue it is too expensive and will take two long.

No-one underestimates the problems involved in imitating the fusion power of the sun. To initiate the fusion reaction hydrogen must be heated 10 times hotter than the core of the sun (to over 100 million Celsius), so the fuel particles can fuse. If these technical requirements can be overcome there are definite attractions – in particular the tiny amount of fuel needed. The release of energy from a fusion reaction is said to be 10 million times greater than from a typical chemical reaction such as burning a fossil fuel.

useful websites British Hydropower Associations (BHA) British Photovoltaic Association (PV-UK) for information about solar energy in the UK and abroad.  British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) Combined Heat and Power Association (CHPA) Renewable Power Association Scottish Renewables  lots of facts, figures and latest information from the International Energy Agency.   New Scientist, an excellent site for in-depth information, news and articles.   Look at the excellent Planet Under Pressure series.  Energy Saving Trust. A group dedicated to promoting energy efficiency and the integration of renewable energy sources.   Carbon Trust. Organisation funded by the UK government to help business tackle their carbon emissions.  Centres for Alternative Technology (CAT)


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