Oil Is King, For Now Renewable energy is not yet economically viable. But its day will come

WASHINGTON – In an interview with FORTUNE magazine, Chevron CEO John Watson argued that, whatever the oil prices wild fluctuations, carbon based fuels are here to stay. Contrary to dire predictions about producers having reached “peak oil” and consequent crude shortages, accompanied by price increases, “those who follow the energy business in think tanks will tell you that right now about 80% of our energy is coming from fossil fuels”, argued Watson. “And if you go out 20 years, about 80% of our energy is going to be coming from fossil fuels”, he concluded.  

The age of oil is far from over

Indeed, there is plenty of oil and gas around the world. Even assuming growing energy demand in emerging markets, it is going to take a long time before we experience significant price increases due to tightening supplies. Translation: the renewable energy golden era may still come, but it is not here yet.

Right now the case for renewable energy is mostly based on the desire to abandon fossil fuels on account of their likely impact on global warming and climate change. Most governments buy the renewable energy argument backed my many scientists. Therefore, they mandate the use of renewable energy, not because it makes any economic sense, but because it is the best way to stop global warming.

However, there is a steep price to be paid for being virtuous. Subsidies for renewable energy have to be budgeted. They cost money. In the meantime, all observers agree that even heroic efforts aimed at adopting renewable energy on  a much larger scale would produce minimal  effects on global world temperatures. Therefore, the case for renewables, (we are talking about currently available technologies), based on their ability to lower world temperatures across the globe, is inherently weak.

The US shale oil boom

In the US we are experiencing an oil renaissance. However, as Watson point out in the above referenced FORTUNE interview, shale oil wells have a relatively short life span. You have to keep drilling in order to maintain the same level of production.

All this is expensive. Therefore some wonder, with cause, how long this US shale oil boom can last. Is there a lot more shale oil out there? Will energy companies come up with improved drilling techniques that will increase well productivity? There are promising signs indicating that all technologies related to “fracking” are getting better, very rapidly.

Still, whatever the long-term prospects of US oil production, (total US oil reserves are estimated to be at 44 billions of barrels, not a very high number), just in the Western Hemisphere there are other oil producers with enormous reserves.

Plenty of oil in the Western Hemisphere

We know that Venezuela is in a sorry state because of its silly populist regime that has mismanaged everything, starting with oil production. But at some point this may change. And Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world: 298 billions of barrels. This is more than number two Saudi Arabia, (266 billions of barrels). It is not inconceivable that at some future date Venezuela will get better political leaders who will be able to reorganize its energy industry, something that will have to include foreign investors who will bring in new technologies and know how.

And, if we go north, there is Canada, number three in the world, (after Saudi Arabia at number 2), with proven reserves at 174 billions of barrels. Add Mexico (10 billions of barrels), and Brazil (13 billions) to the mix and you have a lot of oil, and this is just in the Western Hemisphere.

Oil price changes

Oil prices are volatile. Right now we are experiencing very low prices because OPEC members, (led by Saudi Arabia), contrary to their established policies, decided not to curb production when faced with lower prices due to added global supply, (much of it coming from US shale oil). This OPEC policy, of course, may change. And so, assuming reduced supply, at some point prices will go up again, although we do not know by how much, and for how long.

However, in order to make a solid economic case for non oil-based energy for transportation, (electric vehicles, fuel cells, and more), oil prices would have to go up, and stay up, for a very long time.

The moment of renewable energy will come

Sure enough, in a few years someone will come up with a new form of clean, zero emission energy that will cost less than gasoline.

As a former Saudi Oil Minister said long ago: “The stone age did not end because we run out of stones”. Yes, stones were abandoned when humans figured out how to make better utensils and weapons using bronze and then iron.

Which is to say that oil is king –for now. That is until something better comes along. Renewable energy had a “politically mandated” false start.

But we can expect that its day will come.



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