Deep down, we all fear the world will become a scene from the film Mad Max. Global oil supplies dry up and cause a complete breakdown in law and order as we desperately search for the trace amounts of oil left. While we find the chances of this actually happening to us as extremely slim, there is a reason that these dystopian films work. Somewhere, that chance exists, and it terrifies us.
But what energy source will keep us from tumbling into this pit of chaos? For years oil has been the primary fuel choice, but does it have the legs to keep us going? Let's take at the pros and cons of oil and its place in America's energy landscape.
Pro: There's still lots of it
Remember all that talk about peak oil a few years ago? It's not a new argument. Our first fear of peak oil production actually came back in the 1880's when many thought that oil would never be found outside of Pennsylvania. Today, proven reserves in the US are at 25 year highs thanks to our ability to access deeper, more complex reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico and the formidable one-two punch of using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for extracting oil from shale.
Also, there is still lots of oil out there we have yet to consider as proven reserves. Both Exxonmobil (NYSE:XOM) and Russian oil company Rosneft are in the process of exploring a region of the Arctic that could hold as much as 90 billion barrels of oil off the shores of Alaska and Russia. Even more significant is the work being done by Chevron (NYSE:CVX) and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A) to extract oil from kerogen deposits. This experimental form of oil could more than double the worlds current proved reserves, and could make the United States the largest oil source in the world.
Pro: We're getting better at extracting it
One of the biggest reasons that peak oil theories have fallen flat so far have been because its assumption is based on the current technology in the industry. Problem is, we have continually developed ways to extract oil from more remote places and deeper, more complex reservoirs, which have pushed back the pending doomsday of peak oil.
Even now, the next generation of oil technology is being put into place: enhanced oil recovery, or EOR. Using the current methods of extraction, we can only get about 30% of all oil from a reservoir. But through new EOR techniques such as flooding the reservoir with CO2 gas, we are able to boost our reservoir recovery rates to around 60%. Occidental Petroleum (NYSE:OXY), one of the leading EOR companies today, estimates that it will be able to extract another 340 million tons of oil from just the Permian Basin in Texas using EOR.
Con: It's getting more expensive to extract it
All this new technology may give oil a much longer runway than many of us originally anticipated, but it comes at a price. The cost to develop these new oil fields is skyrocketing. Chevron estimates that the costs for drilling and exploration in the Gulf of Mexico are 20-25% higher following the Deepwater Horizon spill. Also, the break-even price for oil for most of the shale oil plays in the US are in the $55-$80 range. Granted, oil companies have been been bringing operational costs down as they become more familiar with new technology, but the simple fact that these processes are becoming more complex will inevitably mean operational costs will remain high.
Con: Increasing Environmental Concerns
This is pretty much true for every hydrocarbon source, but its becoming harder and harder for oil companies to ignore the sentiment toward reducing carbon emissions through either reduced consumption of hydrocarbons or to implement greater carbon capture methods to prevent emissions. Some oil companies are getting wise to the idea. Total (NYSE:TOT) currently owns over 60% of SunPower, the 2nd largest solar panel maker in the US. While the profits from SunPower may not move the needle much for Total right now, it goes to show that some companies are taking carbon emission concerns more seriously than others.
What a Fool Believes
Oil will be around for a very long time. To remain the premier energy source for the world, though, it will need to keep prices in line with the other emerging energy sources. As prices for oil climb, more and more consumers are going to look at alternatives like natural gas and electric vehicles despite the infrastructure shortfalls these two options have today. Luckily for us, these alternatives should keep us from living in that Mad Max type of world, but then again a massive shortage of oil didn't stop them from driving all over the place.
The Motley Fool recommends Chevron and Total SA. (ADR). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.