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Gauging the Global Fuel Tank's Size

Some believe oil and gas yield will peak by the end of the decade, forcing a radical change in the world economy.

By KENNETH REICH, Times Staff Writer

Will the world's oil and gas reserves last through the 21st century? The question is once again relevant--as the prices of gasoline and natural gas soar and as urgent calls for energy conservation go out for the first time in 20 years. Estimates of global reserves vary widely, but most of the forecasts are optimistic.

After five years of studying geological structures, a scientific task force of the U.S. Geological Survey has concluded that the world has enough oil to last through the century--more than 2.3 trillion barrels worldwide. Much of that, however, is in reserves that have not yet been discovered but which the agency's scientists believe are out there.

At the M. King Hubbert Center at the Colorado School of Mines, however, a group of geologists believes world oil production will peak by the end of this decade and go into a severe decline soon afterward. The center is named after a geologist, now deceased, who correctly predicted a peak of U.S. domestic oil production in the 1960s. Believers in Hubbert's theories now contend that world production could fall to 35 million barrels a day by 2020 and less than 10 million by 2100. That view is strongly rejected by the government's geologists and many outside experts. "Again and again," pessimistic predictions about oil and natural gas production have proved wrong, said Daniel Yergin, author of the 1991 book about the oil industry, "The Prize." Yergin recalled that as early as 1880 and again after both World War I and World War II, skeptics said oil was about to run out. "Today, proven reserves are double what they were in 1970," he said. "We know the oil supply is finite. We just don't know how finite."

Both sides in the debate agree that comparatively minor amounts of the world's future supply of oil and gas remain to be produced in the United States.

The Geological Survey task force sees the most future production coming from Russia and the Middle East. It also identified major oil and gas prospects in areas that are undeveloped, including the northeastern coastal shelf of Greenland and the northwestern coast of Australia. Rising gasoline prices this spring have been caused by shortages in refinery capacity and stockpiling rather than any shortage of crude oil. But the pessimists contend that an impending worldwide shortage of crude will soon send prices ever higher and force a radical change in the global economy.

At a recent meeting in Los Angeles of the Geological Society of America, Walter Lewellyn Youngquist of Eugene, Ore., a retired geologist and author of the 1997 book "GeoDestinies," declared that, based on Hubbert's ideas, world oil production, now 72.6 million barrels a day, will peak at 83 million a day by 2007 and then decline.

Since 1990, only about one new barrel of oil has been found for every four produced, Youngquist said. By contrast, Thomas S. Ahlbrandt, chief of a five-year world energy assessment by the Geological Survey, said recently that his staff estimated that less than one-fourth of the world's total oil has been consumed. He said production is not likely to peak worldwide until about 2036. The assessment showed that 710 billion barrels of oil have so far been consumed. According to the survey, proven reserves total 891 billion barrels with the potential to grow by another 688 billion barrels. Based on its assessment of worldwide geologic systems, the survey estimated that an additional 731 billion barrels remain undiscovered.

Writers for the Hubbert Center's quarterly newsletter maintain, however, that a number of countries, particularly in the Middle East, have grossly overstated their reserves. They also believe that much of the undeveloped resources are in places that may prove too costly to exploit, such as deep ocean basins. One of the most pessimistic is Colin J. Campbell, a petroleum consultant living in Ireland, who sees recoverable new discoveries as limited to a maximum of 85 billion to 100 billion barrels, "enough to meet demand for [only] three to four years."

The fact that the industry is searching for oil in deep basins, the Arctic and the Antarctic is seen by the pessimists as proof of their case. If new oil were readily available on land in the temperate zones, that's where the search would be focused, they assert. All sides agree that both supply and price prospects are brighter for natural gas in the long run. Even in the United States, production is expected to rise in the decades ahead and reserves are expected to last several hundred years. The Geological Survey believes that only about 11% of the world's natural gas has been consumed. The survey's task force concluded that the world has consumed 1,752 trillion cubic feet of gas. It said proven reserves are 4,793 TCF, estimated reserve growth at 3,660 TCF and projected that an additional 5,196 TCF of gas will be found in reserves that have not yet been discovered.

Oil industry experts make similar projections. Daniel Steward, a manager of Chevron facilities in Bakersfield, said there are too many unknowns about oil and gas to settle on any peak production year. "What about oil shales and tar sands?" he asked. "When will they be [economical] to produce? What about the Antarctic basin, or ocean deep-water basins? How about recovery improving in mature fields? What about 'stranded' super-giant fields which are currently uneconomic for production but won't always be?"

Robert Esser, a geologist working for Yergin's Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said that if natural gas liquids recovered with oil are included, the productive capacity of the petroleum industry is already at 79 million barrels a day and will reach 83 million by next year. Esser sees it going to 92 million barrels a day in 2005 and 100 million in 2010. "We will have significant new capacity by 2020, and the peak does not appear in our outlook through 2020," he said.

* * *

Two Views of Oil Reserves The so-called Hubbert Curve predicts daily oil production worldwide will rise to a peak of 83 million barrels a day between the years 2007 and 2010 and then quickly decline to about 35 million barrels a day in 2020.

* * * By contrast, government experts project that proven reserves plus undiscovered reserves they believe will be found will allow for another century of consumption at current levels.

-- Martin Thompson (, June 11, 2001


It makes no difference. By the end of this century the need for oil will be minimal. Fuel cells, and many other forms of technology, will be powering our economy.

-- Wellesley (, June 11, 2001.


Daniel Steward, a manager of Chevron facilities in Bakersfield, said there are too many unknowns about oil and gas to settle on any peak production year. "What about oil shales and tar sands?" he asked. "When will they be [economical] to produce? What about the Antarctic basin, or ocean deep-water basins? How about recovery improving in mature fields? What about 'stranded' super-giant fields which are currently uneconomic for production but won't always be?"


I sort of agree with the pessimists. Perhaps we can recover oil in these ways, but at what cost? When the cost of oil exceeds the cost of "alternate" energy sources? It seems we have found all the cheap oil, and are now forced to look for the expensive stuff. I fear we will someday look back on the current $2 per gallon price for gasoline and say, Remember when it was so cheap?

-- Margaret J (, June 11, 2001.

Before you bet the farm on fuel cells, we have to figure out where the energy will come from to power the cells. Hydrogen is what everybody's talking about, but hydrogen is like electricity, it is produced. We don't have hydrogen mines like we do oil wells and coal mines.

-- robert waldrop (, June 11, 2001.

Oil shales, hydrogen mines ( thanks, Robert!) -- energy is a unique commodity in that it must be used in its own production. When it takes more energy to, say, extract a barrel of oil than that barrel can itself produce, then the world's oil supply could be infinite -- and totally useless (for energy purposes, anyway).

My personal favorite renewable is: local community gyms. Give local folk vouchers for working out on the town treadmills/Stairmasters/rowers/stationary bikes etc, all of which have been hooked up to a little power station. And cut health care costs at the same time! :-D

-- L. Hunter Cassells (, June 12, 2001.

Robert, thanks for reminding us that fuel cells are not an energy source *directly*, rather they are an efficient way of using a fuel (the hydrogen) that still has to come from somewhere -- it still has to be produced, and that requires energy input. I fear alot of people think fuel cells somehow represent a truly new energy source; they don't. This is not to say the technology isn't important and will have alot to offer; but fuel cells don't represent something for nothing.

-- Andre Weltman (, June 12, 2001.

L. Hunter, what a grand idea!! I don't work out in the facilities you mention because they're too expensive. Just imagine being able to exercise in such a way for free and to be able to create power at the same time. Right on.

-- Rachel Gibson (, June 13, 2001.

Headline: General Motors buys minority interest in hydrogen storage tank producer Source: Associated Press via Nandotimes, 13 June 2001


General Motors Corp., in an attempt to overcome a huge obstacle toward mass-producing fuel cell vehicles, has bought a minority interest in a company that specializes in the production of hydrogen storage tanks.

GM announced Tuesday it has bought a 20 percent interest in Quantum Technologies Inc., based in Irvine, Calif.

"An alliance between GM and Quantum is the next logical step on this long road to a hydrogen future," said Larry Burns, GM vice president for research and development and planning.

Fuel cells create electricity from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with water vapor the only tailpipe emission.

However, because hydrogen is extremely flammable and not readily available at filling stations, the automakers have been forced to look for alternative fuels. One hurdle to extending the range of a fuel cell vehicle is the ability to efficiently store compressed hydrogen at high pressure.

Burns said current hydrogen tanks store the volatile gas at 2,500 to 3,000 pounds per square inch (psi) providing a driving range of only 100 to 150 miles.

Current internal combustion vehicles using gasoline can travel up to 400 miles between fill-ups, Burns said.

But Quantum Technologies CEO Syed Hussain says his company is developing a hydrogen tank that can withstand 10,000 psi, enabling a driving range of 300 to more than 500 miles.

This has been accomplished, he said, by building the tanks in three layers: an inner plastic layer to prevent corrosion, a middle layer made of carbon fiber, and a third, outer layer Hussain said is made of a material much like that of a bulletproof vest to help prevent an explosion in the event of a crash.

Burns says the tank, called TriShield by Quantum, is still too expensive for the mass market and must undergo more testing before it is ready for practical use.

"Infrastructure is also an important hurdle," Burns said. "We have to have the ability to produce the hydrogen, distribute the hydrogen and store the hydrogen on board the vehicle," he said.

Hussain said a working hydrogen storage tank that can withstand 10,000 psi will be produced by the end of the year.

Burns predicted there would be hundreds of thousands of fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2010. However, he said many of those vehicles may be sold first as means of public transportation or as part of corporate or government fleets.

As an interim step, Burns said the industry would have to settle for fuel cells that include on-board reformers which extract hydrogen from gasoline.

Fuel cell vehicles using gasoline are not emission-free as are those using hydrogen - although tailpipe emissions are roughly half of those from internal combustion engines, Burns said. This type of vehicle might be on the road by 2005 or 2006.

Jason Mark, transportation analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he hopes the alliance is a signal "GM is taking a more serious look at fuel cells."

"Our feeling is hydrogen cars work well today," Mark said. "Let's get about the business of building hydrogen filling stations."

Quantum Industries is a unit of IMPCO Technologies. Neither company would reveal the financial terms of the deal.

Hussain said Quantum has 42 years of experience in producing storage tanks for compressed natural gas, hydrogen and propane.

Virtually every major automaker in the world is working on a fuel cell vehicle, but most industry predictions are that it will be at least 10 years before such vehicles are ready for mass production.

-- Andre Weltman (, June 13, 2001.

Maybe I'm missing something here. Producing hydrogen is an energy-loss process, as I've been told repeatedly in other forums and have since confirmed with my own research. It takes more energy to create the hydrogen than it produces when used in a fuel cell or burned. So why are these companies even considering fuel cells for automobiles, unless they are desperate for a way to continue the car culture beyond the end of cheap oil. ('Scuse me: End of Cheap Oil) It seems to me that if you're going to use X amount of electricity to produce Y amount of hydrogen, isn't it better just to use the darn kilowatts directly to recharge batteries in electric cars? What am I missing here?

-- Cash (, June 13, 2001.


I think the utility of fuel cells is that they are a way to transform electricity produced in big stationary generating plants (fueled in an energy short future by coal, of course) and make it mobile for use as transportation. There is a net loss of energy, but you don't run a car on coal. A train maybe, but not a car.

-- robert waldrop (, June 13, 2001.

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