Sustainability is big in corporate America today. The word, that is. Once an arcane
term used chiefly by foresters and agricultural researchers, "sustainable"
has become the label of choice that executives use to describe their businesses.
Perhaps the most laughable of the newly "sustainable" corporations
are the oil companies. Pumping a finite resource like oil out of the ground
must be one of the least sustainable endeavors on the planet. But this doesn't
bother the oil industry, which knows a powerful public relations word when it
The most recent ConocoPhillips annual report has a section titled "Technology
Achieving Long-term Sustainability," and the CEO writes of the company's
"sustainable growth plan." Annual reports from ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil
speak of "sustainable development." And BP and Shell issue reports
on the sustainability of their operations. There are even auditors willing,
for a fee, to vouch for the statements in these "sustainability" reports.
All this when Arthur R. Green, lecturer for the American Association of Petroleum
Geologists and former chief geoscientist of ExxonMobil, says world oil production
is nearing its peak.
The history of U.S. oil production is instructive.
Domestic oil output steadily rose until it peaked in 1970. Since then production
has declined despite the technological know-how of domestic oil companies and
the considerable incentive of high prices. Domestic oil production in 2003 was
less than 60 percent of its 1970 level.
To meet our demand we import foreign oil. More than 56 percent of what we used
in 2003 came from other countries, and the proportion increases every year.
Increase, taper off, then decrease -- world oil production will follow the
same pattern. Some experts think world output is very near its peak already,
while others say the peak will arrive sometime between now and 2050.
Five complications make this grim picture even bleaker.
First, the world's largest oil reserves tend to be in countries with unstable
governments. Unrest can disrupt supply.
Second, insiders have been suspicious for some time about oil reserve figures
claimed by certain Middle Eastern countries. In 1987 the United Arab Emirates
claimed reserves of 33 billion barrels; in 1988 they claimed 98 billion barrels,
according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Iraq and some other Middle Eastern
countries also reported similarly implausible sudden increases. These figures
probably owe more to politics than sound science.
Third, China, until 1993 a net oil exporter, now imports more than 40 percent
of its oil and is the world's third largest importer, after the United States
and Japan. With 1.3 billion people, one-fifth of the world's population, and
an economy that has quadrupled since 1978, China is developing a world-class
thirst for oil. China and the rest of Asia now consume about as much oil as
the United States.
Fourth, as demand climbs past supply, already high oil prices will rise even
higher. The "energy crisis" of the 1970s showed how sensitive overall
inflation, interest rates and the stock market are to increased oil prices.
The oil squeeze will not just raise the cost of energy. It will affect the entire
Fifth, even as oil becomes more scarce, development of replacement fuels remains
on the back burner. Do not expect the oil companies to do more than token research
on other fuels. True, they do have experience taking on large projects and have
sophisticated ways of analyzing risk. But their investment and expertise are
If an oil company makes a genuine sustainability breakthrough -- figuring out,
for example, how to make hydrogen efficiently with solar power -- you can be
sure the company will publicize this rather than promote the pleasant fiction
that its current operations are sustainable. The reality is that no scheme for
providing energy sustainably can rely on petroleum.
But do not expect to hear that from oil executives.
Charles Burch was a senior staff scientist at Conoco before retiring in
2002. He wrote this essay for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina,