No. 1, 2005

Alexander Matveichuk,
Ph.D. (History), Editor-in-Chief, Oil of Russia magazine


Now that the world economy is being further globalized, humanity is faced with the challenge of reliably meeting the constantly growing energy needs in order to maintain its sustainable development in the 21st century. The fact that the world economy is utterly vulnerable owing to the highly uneven geographical distribution of oil and gas reserves, as well as their production, processing and consumption, again and again poses before modern civilization the age-old apocalyptic question "To be or not to be?"

Scientists often say that modern civilization is living under the sign of the triune E: Economy, Energy and Ecology. Energy consumption is steadily rising due to the numerical growth of the world's population and the development of its economy. Whereas in the early 20th century the equivalent fuel index stood at 0.8 ton per capita per year, in the beginning of the 21st century it reached 2.3 tons. Today, energy availability and efficiency determine the development vector of the world community. According to different estimates, by 2010-2015, the world consumption of prime energy resources - oil and gas - may register a rise of 60-70%.

It is a popular viewpoint today that the reserves of the traditional types of natural fuel are limited and exhaustible. According to Prof. Colin Campbell, the original reserves of oil on earth total 1,800 gigabarrels, of which humanity has already recovered 50%. The annual production of oil today totals 22 gigabarrels, while newly explored oil reserves merely come to six gigabarrels. And so humanity is inexorably and irrevocably using up its hydrocarbon potential.

Having analyzed the prevalent trends in energy consumption, many noted experts have come to the conclusion that the world reserves of oil are likely to be exhausted by 2025-2030, and those of natural gas by 2030-2035.

And so the subject of an imminent depletion of the oil and natural gas reserves and an approaching energy hunger, which will mark the end of our civilization, is ever present in the world mass media.

Many politicians share this view, and therefore a vigorous search for new, alternative sources of energy is going on in the United States and several other industrial countries of the world. Hydrogen seems to be a most promising energy source. U.S. President George W. Bush was one of the first to speak publicly in favor of hydrogen fuel, advancing two future-oriented programs called Freedom CAR and Freedom Fuel. Their purpose may be summed up as follows: a hydrogen-fuelled automobile can make the United States independent of oil imports. The U.S. President is echoed by Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, who has said that hydrogen technology and fuel cells are Europe's strategic choice, and that within 20 to 30 years they will fundamentally change the character of economic development.

It appears that in their long-term plans the leaders of the world's most advanced countries have already discounted the use of oil and gas in view of their reserves' upcoming depletion. Is that an appropriate thing to do? And will any large-scale alternative energy programs, whose implementation will require great efforts and enormous outlays, produce the desired result?

On August 27, 1899, Prof. Dmitry Mendeleyev, the father of the periodic law, sent a letter from St. Petersburg to London. Addressed to Ludwig Mond, President of the Chemical Society, the letter was significantly headed: "Regarding renewed rumors about a would-be Baku oil depletion. "The aim of the letter was to inform the competent British industrial circles" of the real state of affairs regarding the future of Caucasian oil". In his letter the great Russian scientist explained convincingly that the rumors of an approaching depletion of the oil reserves in the Caucasus were "partly the result of a complete ignorance as to the signs of depletion, and partly an intrigue of spreading hearsay for self-seeking purposes". Dmitry Mendeleyev explained further that the majority of oil industrialists wanted to convince the public that oil would soon be used up - in order to keep the oil prices at the highest level possible.

Those conclusions made by the great Russian scientist more than a century ago are relevant to this day.

Few people ask themselves: on what estimates of hydrocarbon reserves do modern analysts base their alarming forecasts? A closer look at their findings reveals that, as a rule, they operate with statistics on the "explored reserves" of oil and natural gas, forgetting all about potential and hypothetical reserves.

According to experts at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oil and Gas Problems, at present there are about 600 basins, or provinces - to use the geologists' term - which may theoretically be rich in hydrocarbons. The oil and gas content has been established in only 160 of them. It should be noted that the extent of exploration in these basins, which is determined by the number of prospecting and exploratory holes sunk in a given area, is extremely low. The world average is one well per 22-25 km2, which is not high at all. The highest extent of exploration - one well per 10-11 km2 - has been achieved in the United States. In Russia, this index is one hole per 50-57 km2.

As for the remaining 440 unexplored basins, geological prospecting for oil and gas there is only beginning or is planned for the near future. The fact that exploratory and prospecting drilling is being done increasingly in the offshore shelf and the deep-water bed of the World Ocean offers the hope that sizable reserves of "black gold" and "blue fuel" would be discovered in the future.

Moreover, humanity has just begun tackling the task of developing the so-called nontraditional reserves of hydrocarbons. In this respect, very important for the world community is further studying the enormous resource potential of methane hydrates and their use for obtaining natural gas. They could become a reliable and lasting source of natural gas for those countries which have an acute shortage of energy resources. Also quite promising is bituminous sand which, according to various geological estimates, contains from 65 to 71% of the world's proved reserves of oil.

Likewise, it should be noted that an underestimation of the importance of innovations in the oil industry has led some experts - just as it did in the past - to draw erroneous conclusions regarding an imminent depletion of the hydrocarbon resources. Quite naturally, each stage in the development of the oil industry was marked by certain problems caused by the exhausted effectiveness of some technological processes and available equipment. However, each time, with the help of technical innovations, the oilmen managed to find fresh solutions to the problems. For instance, whereas in the 1960s and 1970s oil in Russia was produced from a depth of 1.5-2 km, today, this is done mainly from a depth of 3-4 km, and the figure will be 5-6 km in the near future. Thereby, the commercial efficacy of the deeper-lying beds will be proved beyond all doubt.

One more essential fact deserves mention. For over 150 years, scientists and oil and gas industry specialists have been arguing among themselves about the true origin of oil and other hydrocarbons. It seems, there are two theories concerning that - organic and nonorganic. The followers of the organic theory believe that oil formed in the distant past as a result of the decay of organic matter which accumulated in sedimentary rock to concentrate in porous geological structures which were bounded on top by dense layers impervious to oil. And so the genesis of oil required a very long time measured in thousand upon thousands of years, as well as special geological conditions enabling oil to seep through sedimentary rock (limestone, sandstone, etc.) and to collect under impermeable layers in so-called traps.

According to the nonorganic theory (also called the hypothesis of a deep subsurface genesis of hydrocarbons), oil forms as a result of synthesis taking place at tremendous temperatures and pressure present in the deep layers of the Earth's crust and mantle. Being constantly generated there, deep in the Earth's crust, oil seeps through upwards, constantly replenishing the existing fields. Incidentally, the fact that at many well-known oil fields, where all of the oil reserves previously estimated as maximum must have been used up, production is still continuing seems to support the theory of the nonorganic origin of oil. True, some geologists attribute this fact to certain errors in the original estimates of oil reserves. However, there are some other facts which indicate replenishment of the original reserves of oil through its upward migration from the deep layers of the Earth's crust. In this case, considering that the Earth's reserves of hydrogen and carbon required for the synthesis of oil are practically unlimited, all forecasts concerning an imminent depletion of the oil and gas resources become untenable.

On the whole, a historical approach to considering the problem of hydrocarbon reserves exhaustion reveals the fact that the relevant discussions which now and then arise in the mass media are not at all due to the natural reserves of oil and gas being limited. To a large extent they are due to certain changes in the structure of the fuel and energy balance as well as the growing market role played by hydrocarbons in the course of world economic development.

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Oil of Russia, No. 1, 2005
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