Is oil really running out? Or will it only become more expensive?

Posted on September 24, 2016


The editorial for the local newspaper in Uppsala (Uppsala Nya tidning) discussed my new book [in Swedish], “A World Addicted to Oil”. I have chosen to copy it below and to make some comments between its lines. Let’s begin with the headline:


Editorial: Is oil really running out? Or will it only become more expensive?


In the book I clearly emphasise that oil will never run out but that a time-point exists when the production from individual oil fields reaches a maximum and then declines. It is this that all within the oil industry agree on. The IEA has published on how the sum of production from thousands of oil wells behaves. This is presented in Figure 17.7. We can see that, after 40 years of production, the rate of production is only 15% of what it was at the peak. Oil never runs out, but production declines. The next part of the editorial is OK:


Oil began to be formed 500 million years ago. Whenever oil has seeped up to the surface humans have used it in various ways. However, it was first during the 1800s that the large scale exploitation of oil by humanity began.

Let’s look at the next part:

From having previously been a blessing, due to the emissions they create, the use of fossil fuels has now become a scourge for our planet. Greenhouse gases have increased warming and many attempts have been made to reduce these. The UN’s climate panel, the IPCC, has published various scenarios of the consequences of global warming and they have in common that even the best case of temperature change is not particularly attractive. Neither are the measures required by these scenarios particularly consistent with democratic values.

To be precise, the four climate scenarios that we currently discuss have been produced by a group of international researchers under the leadership of Detelf van Vuuren. These scenarios have subsequently been accepted by the IPCC in its Fifth Assessment Report on climate change. Each scenario has different energy components and it is scenario RCP8.5 that produces a 4 degrees Celcius temperature increase. It is mainly economists who have produced these scenarios and RCP8.5 consumes volumes of fossil energy so great that they are, in reality, impossible to produce. The decisive factor that has guided construction of the scenarios is that economic growth requires increased use of energy. In the book I discuss in detail the various scenarios but in this blog I show below only the primary energy use of RCP8.5. There is not enough coal in our reserves to produce that required by RCP8.5 up until the year 2100. On top of that, the reserves in 2100 must also be sufficiently large to allow for the production/consumption of fossil fuel at the rate envisaged.


In its Fifth Assessment Report on climate change, the IPCC does not show primary energy use. If the energy use for the four RCP scenarios had been shown there would have been widespread protest. This also explains the following text in the newspaper editorial:


But the IPCC is wrong, asserts Uppsala professor Kjell Aleklett who, in a new book “A World Addicted To Oil”, asserts that access to fossil fuels will decline so much that doomsday fears regarding climate change will be seen as a scandal. The volumes of oil and natural gas and other fossil fuels will not be sufficient for the population growth that is expected. Aleklett regards this as a scientific research scandal.


However, Professor Aleklett is not without opposition. This comes from various directions, not least from economists who point out that access to oil not only has a geological dimension but also an economic dimension. If access to oil decreases then its price will increase making it profitable for oil companies to extract more of the oil that remains underground.


I do not deny that the price of oil is influential. That is why I have made a so-called “Crash Management Study” (CMS) in which the technically maximal production is described. At the moment we can see that the low oil price is causing reduced oil production via fracking in the USA. The fact that industry has halved its rate of investment means that there will be less production than shown in the CMS scenario. In the figure below is a comparison between the CMS and an analysis that Colin Campbell and I have worked with.


This can seem like an academic argument but, of course, it is not. The world needs other forms of energy that do not have the consequences for the climate that fossil fuels do. The great advantages of oil are that it is easy to handle and that it has uses other than as an energy source. Therefore it is highly likely that oil will continue to be drawn from the Earth. However, it is time to direct the use of oil to those ends that do not have environmentally catastrophic consequences. The transport industry has a lot to answer for here since it is still primarily directed towards using hydrocarbon-powered motors. The automotive industry faces the large task of beginning to synchronise development of freight and personal vehicles with research into new fuels.

In the book I suggest that the Earth’s remaining oil should be used mainly for activities that do not release carbon dioxide. We face an “energy conversion interval” where use of outdated fossil fuel energy must assist in development of new renewable energy infrastructure. Wind power needs cement and steel that require fossil fuels for their production.

The book “A World Addicted to Oil” contains many facts on the history of oil and where oil is found around the world. Saudi Arabia is one of the largest oil producing nations and the book also contains a piquant section dealing with Sweden and former prime minister Olof Palme’s business dealings with Saudi Arabia where several Swedish companies were involved in construction of gigantic underground oil storages. [Note from ML: Since this was of limited interest to audiences outside of Sweden much of the detail of the deal has been excluded from the coming English translation of A World Addicted to Oil.] The project was worth approximately 100 billion Swedish crowns and details have not yet officially been made public. This may be one explanation for why the Swedish government today still has difficulty handling our relationship with Saudi Arabia.

This is an interesting assertion to read in the editorial of a leading liberal newspaper. Palme’s government signed the first contract with Saudi Arabia and Ingvar Carlsson inherited the deal and signed further contracts. In his memoires, Sverker Åström writes:

“After the election victory in 1982, Prime Minister Palme was lobbied by business leaders who wanted help. Bofors wanted to sell its howitzer canon to India. ABV and Skanska wanted to build oil storages in Saudi Arabia using technology developed by the Swedish defense forces. This appealed to Palme’s instinct for competition: to compete with the French on howitzers to India or with the large American oil companies on building projects in Saudi Arabia. Especially during the dramatic days before Palme’s murder was the lobby activity intense.  .”

Ingvar Carlsson should be questioned about this and why all the government decisions involved are still kept confidential.

Once again, if you want to read about all this then buy the book in your bookstore, on the net, or order signed copies for SEK 200 + freight by sending an email to

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