General Question

Fathdris's avatar

What will happen when the world runs out of oil-based fuels?

Asked by Fathdris (219points) July 27th, 2016

I just finished reading an article that claims we’ll run out of crude oil by the mid-50s, and our reserves of oil-based fuels will be gone by the 60s.

From what I understand, most of Earth’s infrastructure revolves around petrol and diesel. The trucks that transport goods across America, Australia, etc run on diesel. Most ships run on diesel. Most cars run on petrol.

So my question is, What happens then? What will modern countries do when the supplies of these fuels run out?

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18 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

Resource wars, culminating in global thermonuclear war and the end of human civilisation.

zenvelo's avatar

Similar predictions were made in the 1970s, that we would be in serious decline in production by 2000, having peaked by 1985.

And yet, we seem to have plenty of oil today, to the point where the cost of oil is at a pretty low price.

And, we have parts of the world that have been able to migrate much of their energy needs to alternative renewable sources.

The supply won’t just “run out”, they will dwindle and become more expensive. And people will find other ways to generate the energy to move goods.

CWOTUS's avatar

I suggest that you educate yourself on the topic if you’re interested. A great place to start is Daniel Yergin’s excellent The Prize. That is an account of the history of oil exploration and production (and the strategy around it during the World Wars), including the numerous booms and busts of production and refining.

The price of oil has always moved dramatically upward and downward through our history with it. Predictions of its imminent exhaustion have moved right along with it. (And those have been serious predictions from honest, sober experts. That is, predictions that were not always intended to drive up prices – although there has certainly been that, too.)

However, it is a finite resource, of course, and expendable. All resources are finite on the planet, obviously, but most are recyclable in one way or another. When oil exploration moves so deep under the planet’s surface and so far from shore as to be economically unfeasible … then someone will probably invent new technologies to keep going deeper and farther. That has always been part of oil’s history, too.

Even so, even so, eventually it will “run out” in the sense that the costs to recover “the next barrel” will rise to a point that the replacement technologies – which already exist – will be more attractive.

The replacement technologies include (not exhaustively; I’m no expert in the field of liquid fuels):
– coal oil (this is technology that’s older than I am, and we have more coal than you can imagine around the world);
– natural gas (ditto);
– alcohol fuels (the big promise here is in cellulose-based methanol, not ethanol which uses food crops).

That’s without even getting into electric vehicles and/or nuclear generation of electricity, whether by fission – which already exists, even if it’s currently unpopular – or fusion – which always seems to be “right around the corner”.

kritiper's avatar

Like the shortage of whale oil, it won’t happen overnight. I think cars will be rapidly adapted to burn alcohol in place of gasoline and other plant or mineral based replacements for Diesel fuel.

hsrch's avatar

And we should keep in mind that fossil fuel (hydrocarbons) are used as petrochemical feedstocks. Running out of fuel is one thing; running out of plastics is really scary. How would we manufacture toothbrushes?

ibstubro's avatar

And keep in mind, it’s highly possible that the Earth could run out of people before humankind runs out of any resource supplied by the Earth.
If humans remain parasitic, the question will always be “How can we find new ways to suck the life from our host?” and the host will fight to be rid of us. Humans will loose.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Before it runs out the price of oil will rise to a level that will make alternatives economically viable.
Butanol is a wonderful replacement for gasoline. It has a similar energy density and can be made from virtually any green feedstock: grass, tree waste, . But, it costs over $5.50 per gallon to manufacture and deliver to the gas pump. No one will buy it – until the price of gasoline rises above that point.

I have a 2 acre wood lot and a wood burning stove as well as an oil fired boiler to heat my home. If I just let the boiler work do the job I would use about 750 gallons of heating oil per season. When oil was near $4.00 per gallon I used my wood burner almost exclusively. and only used 50 gallons of oil. This past season heating oil was below $2.00 per gallon so I was not as diligent with my wood burner. I used about 450 gallons of oil.

As the price rises (either through supply and demand or taxes), people and businesses will modify their behavior.

Zaku's avatar

Before we use all the fossil fuels, the resulting climate change will probably have gotten us to stop via death.

We’re already starting to develop technologies that can replace fossil fuels, and could before we run out. But even if we stopped using all fossil fuels immediately, we may still get killed by climate change and related effects, because of system inertia and cascading effects.

flutherother's avatar

Global warming will start to stabilise, but too late and people won’t drive cars as they do now. The suburbs will become a wasteland, inflation will rocket, wars will break out over resources (maybe they already have) It is a slow burning and inevitable apocalypse for the way we live now but no one cares. We have a childish faith that the future can look after itself and we aren’t responsible for it an attitude for which our children’s children may one day curse us.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

What makes you believe man will still be viable on this planet when that happens? I believe man will be done on this planet long before any of the resources are.

gorillapaws's avatar

Rednecks will modify their pickups to run on bacon grease and moonshine.

Seriously though, I think we’re going to start seeing an explosion in Electric cars in the next 5–10 years, as well as rooftop solar power, with a much more distributed power grid. I’ve already reserved my Tesla Model 3.

SmartAZ's avatar

@hsrch The toothbrush that we are familiar with dates from 1938. Before that there was some experimenting with brushes of various kinds, but the most common method was to scrub the teeth with a cotton cloth. A lot of jobs that we associate with plastics do not have to be done with plastics.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@gorillapaws We’re doing it already. Moonshine is Ethanol. ;-)

ibstubro's avatar

Ivory toothbrush handles
“The first bristle toothbrush, resembling the modern toothbrush, was found in China during the Tang Dynasty (619–907) and used hog bristle.”

You’re right, @SmartAZ. A lot of the things we associate with plastics do not have to be done with plastics.
See: Celluloid

Humans are dependent upon oil because, for now, we can be.
Or think we can be. See climate change above.

gorillapaws's avatar

@LuckyGuy Yeah but what’s moonshine mixed with bacon grease?

A: A trip to Waffle House at 3am after drinking with the boys.

hsrch's avatar

@SmartAZ and @ibstubro have pointed out several substitutes for petroleum-based plastics that have a limited use. As we look around our day-to-day environment, we should keep in mind the very large part that plastics plays in our lives. Indeed, cellulose based plastics were around prior to petrochemicals but were flammable and relatively difficult to manufacture. They also required harvesting plants and extracting the cellulose which is also an environmental downside.

It doesn’t seem possible to economically replace plastics with another material, I imagine that the replacements would be wood (incl. paper), metal or glass. I would guess that, e.g., inexpensive ballpoint pens would disappear from the market. This may be a bad example, but consider all of the petrochem items we now use and how they would change.

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