What If We Never Run Out of Oil?

New technology and a little-known energy source suggest that fossil fuels may not be finite. This would be a miracle—and a nightmare.

Stored mostly in broad, shallow layers beneath the seafloor, methane hydrate is, by some estimates, twice as abundant as all other fossil  fuels combined. The yellow squares show where methane hydrate has already been recovered; the blue dots, where it is thought to exist. (Map by Alice Cho)

Stored mostly in broad, shallow layers beneath the seafloor, methane hydrate is, by some estimates, twice as abundant as all other fossil fuels combined. The yellow squares show where methane hydrate has already been recovered; the blue dots, where it is thought to exist. (Map by Alice Cho)

With the odd exception, unconventionals can be broken into two rough categories: forms of petroleum that are heavier and less refined than the crudest of crude oil, and forms that are lighter and more refined than crude oil. Both are worth huge sums and entangled in dispute, much like conventional petroleum. But the second category, which includes the natural gas from methane hydrate, seems likely to play a much larger role in humankind’s future—economically, politically, and, most of all, environmentally.

The first, heavy category consists of petroleum that must be processed on-site to be transformed into oil. Tar sands, for instance, consist of ordinary sand mixed with bitumen, a sludgy black goo that hasn’t withstood enough geological heat and pressure to be converted fully into ordinary oil. The most important tar-sand deposits are underneath an expanse of subarctic forest in central Canada that is roughly the size of England; they make up the third-biggest proven oil reserve in the world. In most cases, mining tar sands involves drilling two horizontal wells, one above the other, into the bitumen layer; injecting massive gouts of high-pressure steam and solvents into the top well, liquefying the bitumen; sucking up the melted bitumen as it drips into the sand around the lower well; and then refining the bitumen into “synthetic crude oil.” Refining in this case includes removing sulfur, which is then stored in million-ton, utterly useless Ozymandian slabs around mines and refineries.

Economists sometimes describe a fuel in terms of its energy return on energy invested (EROEI), a measure of how much energy must be used up to acquire, process, and deliver the fuel in a useful form. OPEC oil, for example, is typically estimated to have an EROEI of 12 to 18, which means that 12 to 18 barrels of oil are produced at the wellhead for every barrel of oil consumed during their production. In this calculation, tar sands look awful: they have an EROEI of 4 to 7. (Steaming out the bitumen also requires a lot of water. Environmentalists ask, with some justification, where it all is going to come from.)

Conveying tar-sands oil to its biggest potential markets, in the United States, will involve building a huge pipeline from Alberta to Texas, which has attracted vituperative opposition from environmental groups and some local governments. The U.S. State Department has long delayed issuing permits to allow this pipeline to cross the border, a stall that has outraged energy boosters, who charge that the Obama administration is spitting in the soup of Canada, America’s most important ally. The boosters say little about the two 100 percent Canadian pipelines—one to shoot tar-sands oil to a port in British Columbia, a second to Montreal—that 100 percent Canadian opposition has stalled. All the while, indigenous groups in central Canada, people armed with special powers granted by the Canadian constitution, have carpet-bombed tar-sands country with lawsuits. Regardless of the merits of the protesters’ arguments, it is hard to believe that they will be completely ineffective, or that tar-sands oil will flow freely anytime soon.

Much more prominent is the second unconventional category, the most important subcategory of which is the natural gas harvested by fracking shale. Every few years, the U.S. government produces a map of American shale beds. Flipping through a time series of these maps is like watching the progress of an epidemic—methane deposits pop up everywhere, and keep spreading. To obtain shale gas, companies first dig wells that reach down thousands of feet. Then, with the absurd agility of anime characters, the drills wriggle sideways to bore thousands of feet more through methane-bearing shale. Once in place, the well injects high-pressure water into the stone, creating hairline cracks. The water is mixed with chemicals and “proppant,” particles of sand or ceramic that help keep the cracks open once they have formed. Gas trapped between layers of shale seeps past the proppant and rises through the well to be collected.

Water-assisted fracturing has been in use since the late 1940s, but it became “fracking” only recently, when it was married with horizontal drilling and the advanced sensing techniques that let it be used deep underground. Energy costs are surprisingly small; a Swiss-American research team calculated in 2011 that the average EROEI for fracked gas in a representative Pennsylvania county was about 87—about six times better than for Persian Gulf oil and 16 times better than for tar sands. (Fracking uses a lot of water, though, and activists charge that the chemicals contaminate underground water supplies.) Because of fracking, U.S. natural-gas reserves have jumped by almost three-quarters since 2000.

Shale gas has its detractors. Far from being a game changer, Jean Laherrère told me, shale gas is a “Ponzi scheme” in which oil companies acquire largely fictional methane deposits to polish their balance sheets for Wall Street. A February study from the Post Carbon Institute, an anti-fossil-fuel think tank, dismissed shale gas as, at best, “a temporary reprieve from having to deal with the real problems”; the group’s general tenor is indicated by the special URL it set up for the report: shalebubble.org. But these views are not widely shared. Two days after I last spoke with Laherrère, the head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration told a congressional hearing that the additions to America’s energy reserves ballyhooed in the agency’s most recent report “were—by a large margin—the highest ever recorded since EIA began publishing proved reserve estimates in 1977.”

As Economics 101 would predict, the arrival of vast quantities of methane from fracking has already made U.S. natural-gas prices plummet. In response, hundreds of wells have shut down, preserving methane deposits that can be tapped someday in the future. But U.S. natural-gas production has hardly been affected. Neither has demand: more and more industries, attracted by low prices, are switching to gas from oil and coal—especially coal.

Today, a fifth of U.S. energy consumption is fueled by coal, mainly from Appalachia and the West, a long-term energy source that has provided jobs for millions, a century-old way of life—and pollution that kills more than 10,000 Americans a year (that estimate is from a 2010 National Research Council study). Roughly speaking, burning coal produces twice as much carbon dioxide as burning the equivalent amount of natural gas. Almost all domestic coal is used to generate electricity—it produces 38 percent of the U.S. power supply. Fracking is swiftly changing this: in 2011, utilities reported plans to shut down 57 of the nation’s 1,287 coal-fired generators the following year. Largely in consequence, U.S. energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions have dropped to figures last seen in 1995. Since 2006, they have fallen more than those from any other nation in the world.

The U.S. coal industry has taken to complaining of a “war on coal.” But the economic hit has been less than one would expect; U.S. coal exports, mainly to Europe, almost doubled from 2009 to 2011. In the sort of development that irresistibly attracts descriptors like ironic, Germany, often touted as an environmental model for its commitment to solar and wind power, has expanded its use of coal, and as a result is steadily increasing its carbon-dioxide output. Unlike Americans, Europeans can’t readily switch to natural gas; Continental nations, which import most of their natural gas, agreed to long-term contracts that tie its price to the price of oil, now quite high. “It’s like someone said, ‘We’ll sell you all the tea you want, based on the price of coffee,’ ” Michael Lynch, the energy consultant, told me. “And you said, ‘What a great idea! I’ll lock myself into it for decades.’ ” He laughed. “Truly, you can’t make this stuff up.”

Here I should confess to personal bias. Twelve years ago, a magazine asked me to write an article about energy supplies. While researching, I met petroleum geologists and engineers who told me about a still-experimental technique called hydraulic fracturing. Intrigued, I asked several prominent energy pundits about it. All scoffed at the notion that it would pay off. To be fair, some early fracking research was outlandish; three early trials involved setting off atomic weapons underground (they did produce natural gas, but it was radioactive). I don’t want to embarrass anyone I spoke with. I failed to exercise independent judgment, and did not mention hydraulic fracturing in my article, so I was just as mistaken. But I also don’t want to miss the boat again. Even though plenty of experts discount methane hydrate, I now am more inclined to pay attention to the geologists and engineers who foresee a second, fracking-type revolution with it, a revolution that—unlike the shale-gas rush, mostly a North American phenomenon—will ripple across the globe.

Japan, which has spent about $700 million on methane-hydrate R&D over the past decade, has the world’s biggest hydrate-research program—or perhaps that should be programs, because provincial governments on Japan’s west coast formed a second hydrate-research consortium last year. (Several researchers told me that the current towel-snapping between Beijing and Tokyo over islands in the East China Sea is due less to nationalistic posturing than to nearby petroleum deposits.) In mid-March, Japan’s Chikyu test ended a week early, after sand got in the well mechanism. But by then the researchers had already retrieved about 4 million cubic feet of natural gas from methane hydrate, at double the expected rate. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry is eager to create a domestic oil industry; at present, the nation produces just one one-thousandth of its own needs. Perhaps overoptimistically, the ministry set 2018 as a target date for commercializing methane hydrate. India and South Korea are following along, each spending as much as $30 million a year on hydrate experiments; the Korean program is growing especially aggressively.

U.S.-style energy independence, or something like it, may become a reality in much of Asia and West Africa, parts of Europe, most of the Americas. The results in other nations would be turbulent.

By contrast, the U.S. Department of Energy program is small—its annual budget is about $15 million, most of which is devoted to basic research on gas hydrates’ formation and location. About $2.4 million goes to U.S. Geological Survey methane-hydrate researchers, who have been test-mining onshore deposits in frigid Alaska and northwestern Canada. Based in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and Denver, Colorado, the USGS program has about eight full-time researchers, as well as collaborators from Japan, Canada, Germany, India, and several oil companies.

Although most U.S. research has been in the far north, the most promising U.S. deposits are in the Gulf of Mexico. Hydrates are thought to blanket about 174,000 square miles of the gulf, an area about the size of California. At least part of the deposit, seepage from conventional hydrocarbon reservoirs, is top-quality stuff, though nobody has any idea how much is actually recoverable. What is known, says Timothy Collett, the energy-research director for the USGS program, is that some of the gulf’s more than 3,500 oil and gas wells are in gas-hydrate areas. Extracting these hydrates, in his view, is the logical next step. “To keep feeding the infrastructure, you have to maintain a certain return. Otherwise, you’ll abandon it,” he told me. “For the individual manager of a large installation with a multimillion-dollar budget, it might be well within your interest, as you go into decline on deepwater production, to start looking at gas hydrate.”

If one nation succeeds in producing commercial quantities of undersea methane, others will follow. U.S.-style energy independence, or something like it, may become a reality in much of Asia and West Africa, parts of Europe, most of the Americas. To achieve this dream, history suggests, subsidies to domestic producers will be generous and governments will slap fees on petroleum imports—especially in Asia, where dependence on foreign energy is even more irksome than it is here. In addition to North America, the main sources of conventionally extracted natural gas are Russia, Iran, and Qatar (Saudi Arabia is also an important producer). All will feel the pinch in a methane-hydrate world. If natural gas from methane hydrate becomes plentiful and cheap enough to encourage nations to switch from oil, as the Japanese hope, the risk pool will expand to include Brunei, Iraq, Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, and other petro-states.

The results in those nations would be turbulent. Petroleum revenues, if they are large, exercise curious and malign effects on their recipients. In 1959, the Netherlands found petroleum on the shores of the North Sea. Money gurgled into the country. To general surprise, the flood of cash led to an economic freeze. Afterward, economists realized that salaries in the new petroleum industry were so high that nobody wanted to work anywhere else. To keep employees, companies in other parts of the economy had to jack up wages, in turn driving up costs. Meanwhile, the surge of foreign money into the Netherlands raised the exchange rate. Soaring costs and currency made it harder for Dutch firms to compete; manufacturing and agriculture faltered; unemployment climbed, except in the oil industry. The windfall led to stagnation—a phenomenon that petroleum cognoscenti now call “Dutch disease.”

Some scholars today doubt how much the Netherlands was actually affected by Dutch disease. Still, the general point is widely accepted. A good modern economy is like a roof with many robust supporting pillars, each a different economic sector. In Dutch-disease scenarios, oil weakens all the pillars but one—the petroleum industry, which bloats steroidally.

Worse, that remaining pillar becomes so big and important that in almost every nation, the government takes it over. (“Almost,” because there is an exception: the United States, the only one of the 62 petroleum-producing nations that allows private entities to control large amounts of oil and gas reserves.) Because the national petroleum company, with its gush of oil revenues, is the center of national economic power, “the ruler typically puts a loyalist in charge,” says Michael Ross, a UCLA political scientist and the author of The Oil Curse (2012). “The possibilities for corruption are endless.” Governments dip into the oil kitty to reward friends and buy off enemies. Sometimes the money goes to simple bribes; in the early 1990s, hundreds of millions of euros from France’s state oil company, Elf Aquitaine, lined the pockets of businessmen and politicians at home and abroad. Often, oil money is funneled into pharaonic development projects: highways and hotels, designer malls and desalination plants. Frequently, it is simply unaccounted for. How much of Venezuela’s oil wealth Hugo Chávez hijacked for his own political purposes is unknown, because his government stopped publishing the relevant income and expenditure figures. Similarly, Ross points out, Saddam Hussein allocated more than half the government’s funds to the Iraq National Oil Company; nobody has any idea what happened to the stash, though, because INOC never released a budget. (Saddam personally directed the nationalization of Iraqi oil in 1972, then leveraged his control of petroleum revenues to seize power from his rivals.)

Shortfalls in oil revenues thus kick away the sole, unsteady support of the state—a cataclysmic event, especially if it happens suddenly. “Think of Saudi Arabia,” says Daron Acemoglu, the MIT economist and a co-author of Why Nations Fail. “How will the royal family contain both the mullahs and the unemployed youth without a slush fund?” And there is nowhere else to turn, because oil has withered all other industry, Dutch-disease-style. Similar questions could be asked of other petro-states in Africa, the Arab world, and central Asia. A methane-hydrate boom could lead to a southwest-to-northeast arc of instability stretching from Venezuela to Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan to Siberia. It seems fair to say that if autocrats in these places were toppled, most Americans would not mourn. But it seems equally fair to say that they would not necessarily be enthusiastic about their replacements.

Augmenting the instability would be methane hydrate itself, much of which is inconveniently located in areas of disputed sovereignty. “Whenever you find something under the water, you get into struggles over who it belongs to,” says Terry Karl, a Stanford political scientist and the author of the classic The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States. Think of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, she says, over which Britain and Argentina went to war 30 years ago and over which they are threatening to fight again. “One of the real reasons that they are such an issue is the belief that either oil or natural gas is offshore.” Methane-hydrate deposits run like crystalline bands through maritime flash points: the Arctic, and waters off West Africa and Southeast Asia.

In a working paper, Michael Ross and a colleague, Erik Voeten of Georgetown University, argue that the regular global flow of petroleum, the biggest commodity in world trade, is also a powerful stabilizing force. Nations dislike depending on international oil, but they play nice and obey the rules because they don’t want to be cut off. By contrast, countries with plenty of energy reserves feel free to throw their weight around. They are “less likely than other states to sign major treaties or join intergovernmental organizations; and they often defy global norms—on human rights, the expropriation of foreign companies, and the financing of foreign terrorism or rebellions.” The implication is sobering: an energy-independent planet would be a world of fractious, autonomous actors, none beholden to the others, with even less cooperation than exists today.

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Charles C. Mann, an Atlantic contributing editor, has been writing for the magazine since 1984. His recent books include 1491, based on his March 2002 cover story, and 1493.

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