Geologist Refutes Media Myth: World Has Lots and Lots of Oil

A common theme in the media the past couple of years has been that the world is running out of oil, and that energy prices will do nothing but head higher for the rest of time. Well, a University of Washington economic geologist issued a statement on Thursday not only refuting such contentions, but also claiming that we will never fully deplete the earth’s supply of black gold:

If you think the world is on the verge of running out of oil or other mineral resources, you've been taken in by the foremost of seven myths about resource geology, according to a University of Washington economic geologist.

"The most common question I get is, 'When are we going to run out of oil.' The correct response is, 'Never,'" said Eric Cheney. "It might be a heck of a lot more expensive than it is now, but there will always be some oil available at a price, perhaps $10 to $100 a gallon."

The press release continued:

Changing economics, technological advances and efforts such as recycling and substitution make the world's mineral resources virtually infinite, said Cheney, a UW professor emeritus of Earth and space sciences. For instance, oil deposits unreachable 40 years ago can be tapped today using improved technology, and oil once too costly to extract from tar sands, organic matter or coal is now worth manufacturing. Though some resources might be costlier now, they still are needed.

Cheney used simple economics to dispel the notion that energy prices are at all-time highs:

It might seem that oil supplies are running low in a time when gasoline has reached $3 a gallon. But Cheney – who has been on the UW faculty since 1964 and has consulted extensively for government and industry – notes that gas prices today, adjusted for inflation, are about what they were in the early 20th century. Today's prices seem inordinately high, he said, because crude oil was at an extremely low price, $10 a barrel, just eight years ago and now fetches around $58 a barrel and has been as high as $78.

Cheney blamed common misconceptions for negatively impacting the number of students entering the field of geology:

As major economies, such as those in China and India, develop and are on the verge of greater demand for mineral resources, he said, it is an opportune time for universities to train a new crop of resource geologists who can understand the challenges and help find solutions. He believes that popular but misguided notions about mineral resources might be hampering students from entering the field.

The professor then listed some of these myths that he would like to dispel:

  • Only basic extraction and processing costs affect economic geology. That fails to account for such costs as exploration, transportation, taxes and societal and environmental programs.
  • Production always damages the environment. Accidents do happen, Cheney said, but much of the perception is based on problems of the past and don't reflect current reality. "It's inevitable that there are going to be oil spills, just like tere are traffic accidents on the freeway," he said. "We hope we can manage them, but nothing is risk free."
  • Mineral deposits are excessively profitable. Despite widely reported huge oil company profits in the last year, Cheney notes that as a percentage of company revenues oil profits lag far behind those of some major software and banking companies.
  • Transportation costs are trivial. In fact, the retail cost of building materials such as sand and gravel are largely driven by the cost of moving them from one place to another, particularly in crowded urban areas. Moving quarries and pits farther away from where people live only increases those costs.
  • Ore deposits are uniform. While a valued ore can be found in a large continuous deposit, often it is mixed with other kinds of minerals and extraction becomes more expensive.
  • Resources are randomly distributed and so, if human population encroaches, a mine or quarry should simply be able to relocate.

Cheney concluded by expressing the need for a better educated public when it comes to such issues:

"The point is that we have to have members of the public who are not geologists and who know something about mineral resources. There are going to be some important policy decisions in the next decades, so we need to have some smart voters," he said. "We can start in colleges by dispelling myths in courses for students who are not going to become professional geoscientists."

It appears that Cheney’s pleas are falling on deaf ears. According to Google and LexisNexis searches, with the exception of United Press International, there is little evidence that the media are interested in disseminating the professor’s views. Color me unsurprised.

Of course, it seems better than even money that this would have been front-page news on Friday if Cheney’s statement said that we would run out of oil in less than twenty years. As such, this appears to be another instance when science that doesn't fit into the media's agenda will never be seen by the public. How disgraceful.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.