It has been obvious to all of us for some time that pretty soon the Earth is going to run out of fossil fuel. This has been the conventional wisdom not just among Prius drivers, Whole Foods shoppers, and solar-panel manufacturers, but within the fossil-fuel industry as well. In 2008, Ron Oxburgh, a former chairman of Shell, said, “It is pretty clear that there is not much chance of finding any significant quantity of new cheap oil.”
But thanks to new discoveries and new technologies, the end of fossil fuels is not looking quite so imminent. From the oil sands of northern Alberta, to America’s massive pockets of shale gas (American gas reserves would last at least 75 years at current consumption rates), to the vast offshore oil reserves that Brazil hopes will make it the world’s fourth-largest producer by 2020, fossil-fuel sources we didn’t know about or couldn’t use are suddenly available. Crucially, many of these supplies are found in thriving democracies—a dramatic shift from the past, when oil and autocracy seemed to go together.
The resurgence of fossil fuels will create new winners in the global economy—oil is one reason Brazil is on the rise, and shale gas could be a source of America’s economic rebound after the 2008 slump. Oil could complicate domestic politics in countries with too much of it—there is a reason economists talk about “the curse of oil,” and dictatorships have thrived in countries with abundant natural resources.