Can we drill our way out of foreign oil dependence?

Science professor takes a look at our energy future

by Charmaine Daniels and Brent Wooten 

Dr. Johan Erikson

Dr. Johan Erikson has studied and conducted field research on the geologic history of South American regions where some of the Western Hemisphere’s largest oil fields have been found. Although oil’s portability for powering cars and other machines makes it attractive, researchers are studying hydrogen as a potentially renewable energy source because it is similarly portable, but potentially much cleaner, Erikson says.

The world is not going to run out of oil in the coming decades, but rather the ability to produce high-quality, inexpensive oil, according to Dr. Johan Erikson, geologist and chemistry professor at Saint Joseph’s. “The low hanging fruit has been picked,” he explains. “New discoveries of oil will be smaller and much harder to find than the earlier finds in Saudi Arabia, Russia or the United States.”

Geoscientist M. King Hubbert, a researcher at Shell Oil, theorized 52 years ago that oil production in the United States would peak between 1965 and 1970. His prediction, now called the Hubbert peak theory, not only turned out correctly – U.S. oil output peaked in the early ’70s – but also can be applied to global oil production as well.

Hubbert’s theory posits that production of non-renewable resources follows a bell-shaped curve because improving technology and knowledge over time lead to the accessible and large deposits of resources, followed by declining production as remaining deposits become smaller and more expensive to access.

Applying this theory, when can we expect global oil production to peak? Most scientists agree that this already occurred around 2005, although some say we are still 10-15 years off.

Erikson has little doubt that there is oil in the Arctic or off the Atlantic Coast. The area from Argentina to Newfoundland shares a similar geologic history because of the way the continents moved apart, he says, and Brazil just had an enormous oil find (for the modern world) in deep, deep water off its coast. But even if the U.S. had a find as big as Brazil’s, it would not change the general trend of diminishing supply and rising consumption, Erikson states. And it wouldn’t change our gas prices much, because any new oil goes into the world market at large.

Of course, oil dependence is based not just on supply, but also on demand.

“Supply is only one half of the equation. We also have to curb our demand,” states Erikson, who has worked as a geologist on oil company-supported research projects. He goes on to say that offshore drilling, opening up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or even finding a relatively major deposit of oil similar to what Brazil did recently, is not going to change the trend of a diminishing supply and a global increase in consumption, he claims. “Maybe it makes the price of gas go down a penny or two in the U.S., but that’s it. The real solution is simply learning to use less.”

Erikson believes conservation is not only easier and cheaper than developing new alternatives to oil, but also has a greater impact in terms of gas prices, foreign exchange trade imbalances, and in meeting our need to reduce emission of greenhouse gases.

But overall, Erikson says the planet will need a mix of sources from solar, wind and hydrogen. “If you diversify and use less, you’re much less dependent.”

He should know. He converted a summer cottage on Peaks Island in Casco Bay for year-round use several years ago. “I installed solar panels and saw a 25-30 percent reduction in my energy use and bill, and that’s just one house. It’s all about the choices we make as consumers.”