Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies dams and hydropower

Preface. I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it. I’ve made eight posts in Experts/Walter Youngquist of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Dams flood fertile lowlands and impede the migration of anadromous fish-like salmon. (As a result of more than 20 dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries, its legendary salmon runs were decimated and today exist at no more than three percent of historic levels.) In northerly and mountainous areas, river valleys are important winter rangelands for wildlife, particularly big-game animals. When these valleys fill with water, they are no longer winter range for animals. Also, all reservoirs ultimately will fill with sediment. Whether or not hydropower can be regarded as a renewable resource is debatable. Unless an answer can be found to the problem of reservoir destruction by sedimentation, it is not. Some smaller reservoirs have already met this fate. During the early life of big dams we currently enjoy, they do provide many benefits.

In the case of dams, environmental impacts have been very mixed. Originally, dams were thought to be environmentally benign, producing no noxious fumes like fossil fuel power plants do. Used for irrigation, dams would enable arid lands to produce crops. In the United States, more than 85,000 dams block normal stream flow. About 5,500 of them are more than 50 feet high. But dams have proved to produce diverse, and in some instances, quite unexpected effects on the environment.

Of course, dams and reservoirs impact streams and rivers at the site of the dam itself and within the “footprint” of the reservoir. This is where the shallower, moving waters of a watercourse with a current are converted into deeper, cooler, stiller waters with no current and lower dissolved oxygen levels. But the impact of dams and reservoirs is not restricted to the portion of a formerly free-flowing river they have converted into a lake. Rather, the hydrology and geomorphology of the river downstream of the impoundment is altered permanently as well. The water released from the dam is virtually free of suspended sediments, which have been deposited in the still waters of the reservoir. Thus, the released water downstream of a dam is “hungry” and tends to pick up sediments from the bed and banks of the river downstream; this erosion may or may not be problematic, depending on how the river is used and whether or not structures or resources of values line its banks.

Additionally, dams and reservoirs tend to reduce overall downstream flows (lower annual discharge of water) and to blunt or moderate the peaks of higher flows during the rainy season and floods (which is one of their benefits). For species of fish that depend on environmental cues such as higher water, stronger current velocities, or lower temperatures, these changes can disrupt critical phases of their life cycle, such as spawning. Power

In both mountainous areas and in plains regions, dams may flood what were once the most fertile parts of the region, the lowlands adjacent to the rivers. In parts of Kansas the upland areas have little topsoil. The bedrock is close to or at the surface, whereas the adjacent broad river floodplains have rich alluvial soil. These areas are flooded and lost to agriculture when dams are built. In some cases, the government had to expropriate private farmland to put in the dams, and feelings ran high in this regard. Along one highway bordering a flooded river valley in Kansas, local citizens erected a series of billboards which read: “Stop This Big Dam Foolishness.

Another negative effect of dams may be the loss of valuable bottomland wildlife habitat. In some places, the various extended arms of a reservoir may promote growth of emergent marsh plants, bottomland or riparian woodlands, and other vegetation, and in turn, encourage wildlife. Reservoirs can also provide habitat for waterfowl (swans, geese, ducks), shorebirds, and wading birds such as herons and egrets. This is true primarily in relatively flat and fairly arid regions such as the Great Plains. However, in more mountainous regions of high uplands and deep canyons, the flooding of the canyon areas destroys the vital wintering grounds of big game animals.

At the upper end of the Columbia River System in the United States, the rising waters behind the Libby and Hungry Horse dams have flooded more than 90 miles of tributary streams, destroying more than 50,000 acres of wildlife habitat. The related need to relocate railroad tracks also destroyed 2,100 acres of wetland and riverbank habitat.

The life-giving artery of the arid southwestern United States is the Colorado River. Once flowing strongly to the Gulf of Lower California, it reaches the gulf now only as an occasional trickle and sometimes not at all. Today there are more demands on the Colorado River than there is water to meet them. To control the Colorado and to allow for irrigation and city water supplies, a series of dams have been built. The two most famous are Hoover Dam and its reservoir, Lake Mead, the first one below the Grand Canyon, and Glen Canyon Dam and its reservoir, Lake Powell, just above the Grand Canyon. Both dams and their reservoirs are exceedingly important to the Southwest as sources of power, irrigation water, and municipal water supply. They also provide a variety of recreational activities. But these benefits are not without cost.

Raising and lowering reservoir levels at various times of the year has created unstable water conditions for animal and plant life. There have been significant changes in shoreline vegetation. In particular, the growth of an exotic bush, the tamarisk (also called salt cedar) has been encouraged. This plant forms dense thickets, accumulates litter, attracts obnoxious flies, and produces large amounts of hay fever-causing pollen (Potter and Drake, 1989). Also, sediment that the Colorado River once carried through to the sea is now accumulating behind the dams. In several miles of the lower Grand Canyon, large banks and terraces of mud are forming due to low flows of water. Major flood control releases of water from the dams scour out river bottom vegetation vital to fish life, and also remove the natural sandy beaches, but may bury other areas in mud.

To provide the benefits dams in the U.S. produce, they have flooded an area equal to the size of New Hampshire and Vermont. Today, the only major river (defined as 600 miles or longer) still entirely free flowing in the 48-adjacent states, is the Yellowstone River.

Dams and their reservoirs have a lifespan. When one looks at the recently built huge dams with their reservoirs, it is not apparent that they are not the permanent features they appear to be. We do not see this, because the life of huge dams with their reservoirs is longer than the lifespan of one or perhaps several human generations.

However, in the U.S. and abroad, many smaller impoundments are now simply concrete waterfalls, filled to the brim with mud. At least 2,000 irrigation dams in the United States are now useless having been filled with sediment (Jackson, 1971).

A dam built in India with high hopes of supplying long-term electricity and irrigation water saw its reservoir half filled with sediment in 30 years, and its power producing facilities rendered almost useless. In India, in eight large reservoirs, the actual rates of sedimentation were up to 16 times the projected rates. The lives of the reservoirs were reduced accordingly. A study of 132 dams built 30 to 50 years ago in Zimbabwe found that over half are more than 50 percent filled with sediment (Elwell, 1985).

The silting of reservoirs is a major short-term and long-term problem. It is estimated that Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam on the Colorado, will be filled with sediment in about 400 years. Hoover Dam will be a concrete waterfall. A raft trip through the Grand Canyon reveals benches of sediment already built up in the lower end of the canyon.

The impoundment of sediment behind dams not only eventually fills reservoirs, making them useless, but it also stops sediment from going downstream as it normally would to maintain and build out deltas and marshlands, home to myriad forms of wildlife. Instead, the absence of these stream-borne sediments results in deltas being cut back by wave and current action and diminished in size. Marshlands are invaded by the sea and destroyed.

The United States government, and the world as a whole, began building large dams (those over 50 feet high) in the 1930s. There were 5,000 such dams in 1950. Now there are 38,000, and many more are either in the planning stage or already under construction.

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Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Coal

Preface. Before the excerpt from Geodestinies, I thought an introduction to how coal is formed would be worthwhile, especially since I still thought it was the “once-popular explanation” below (Cottier 2021 How Ancient Forests Formed Coal and Fueled Life as We Know It. Discover).

“Coal doesn’t form at a steady rate. Huge quantities appear now and then in the geological timeline, but small, isolated patches are more typical. This spotty record raises the question of why coal creation isn’t constant throughout Earth’s history. 

A once-popular explanation argued that the Carboniferous was so productive because woody plants had just begun to grow and the fungi of the time hadn’t yet evolved to decompose lignin, the polymer that makes wood rigid. Rather than decay and disappear, these prehistoric trees remained preserved until they were buried by sediment and turned into coal.

It’s a simple, elegant solution, but many experts find it unconvincing. For one, the odds seem low that tens of million of years passed before any fungus hit upon an enzyme that could break down lignin. More importantly, there’s much more to coal than woody plants: In many places, the bulk of the dead plant matter came from lycopods, a giant tree whose living relatives include club mosses and which contained little lignin. 

The way coal is formed is very simple: You need a lot of rain (to form swamps and foster plant growth) and a hole (for the plants to fill).  Which was especially true in the Carboniferous and a few other coal-bearing periods.  During the Carboniferous, as the Earth’s landmasses merged into the supercontinent Pangaea, the collision of tectonic plates forged both mountain ranges and wide basins beside them. Voila — holes to fill. Some of those basins, including the ones in present-day Europe and the eastern U.S., happened to form in the ever-wet tropics. In the global scheme of thingsit comes down to how many large, sinking tectonic basins sit in the appropriate locations and allow deteriorating organic matter to accumulate.

When plants died in these waterlogged regions, many fell into stagnant pools with little oxygen. Since most decomposers (bacteria, fungi, worms and the like) can’t survive in such conditions, the plants never fully decayed. Instead they formed peat, an accumulation of partially decayed organic material. But even this is not enough to guarantee coal — if the wetlands dry out, the exposed peat will disintegrate. One way or another, it must be covered by sediment. 

Sometimes, in swamps located either near the ocean or in flatlands where rising seas can reach them, this happens repeatedly during glacial-interglacial cycles. Peat forms during glacial periods, when the polar ice sheets grow and the sea level falls. Then, when the ice melts and the sea floods into the swamps, the peat is preserved, locked away beneath new marine sediment. In some places, the rock record attests to dozens of these repeating marine and non-marine layers, known as cyclothems. “Then you just have to wait a hundred thousand years until the next cycle begins again,” Looy says. Peat can also be preserved farther inland, as the eroding sediments of the surrounding landscape bury it.

Over time, when new sediment and peat layers compress the buried peat, the increasing weight squeezes out water, gradually leaving behind coal. It hardens slowly into increasingly refined forms, starting with lignite, or brown coal, and proceeding through sub-bituminous and bituminous to anthracite — the black, lustrous lumps you might imagine.

glaciation, rainfall, sedimentation — is actually quite simple. With basins in the appropriate spots, the coal cycle runs almost like clockwork, an hour hand spinning round and round. “Once you see the system as linked together, it’s not that complex,” he says. “The glaciers come, the glaciers go. Peat forms, peat doesn’t form. It makes sense.”

And coal is almost always cropping up somewhere in the world. Even today, in select tropical regions like Borneo and the Congo Basin, peat piles up into what could be the next generation of deposits (though not all peat necessarily makes the transformation to coal). 

But nothing recent rivals the likes of the Carboniferous and the Permian. To create the immense troves of fossil fuel that have driven so much of human activity, you need precise circumstances, and our planet doesn’t often provide them. “You have an alignment of conditions … and those conditions give you all this coal,” DiMichele says. “Getting that set of conditions is not something that just happens again and again.”

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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In regard to the “depths of the Earth,” mining at best can get down to only reach a depth of about 10,000 feet because the geothermal gradient is about 2° F for every hundred feet. That means the temperature at 10,000 feet down is about 200° F higher than at the surface. Mines at that depth require expensive cooling systems. A lot of pumps are also needed to keep out the water that would otherwise flood the mine. A major hazard at greater depths is overlying rock pressure. It is so great that walls of the mine are subject to “rock bursts,” in which rocks burst out of the sides of the mine and crush anything in their path, including mine cars and people.

But when it comes to coal, the depth is far less. Coal is usually mined safely at depths less than 3,500 feet; any deeper and the weight of the overlying rock could collapse.

The world’s reserves of hard coal (bituminous and sub-bituminous) and low-grade coal (lignite) are about the same, but their consumption trends are different. Demand for hard coal is rising, while the use of lignite for fuel is essentially flat. Lignite has a high-water content making it more costly to ship per unit of energy than for hard coal. The result is that the world will run out of higher quality coal much sooner than it will run out of lower quality coal.

It has been estimated that 90% of the total energy in coal, oil, and natural gas deposits in the United States, is in the form of coal. These coal deposits are already known; there is no expensive exploration work involved as there is for deeply hidden oil reservoirs.

Coal, however, has some substantial problems, starting with the fact that underground coal mines are dangerous. Each year miners are killed, and many others have their health permanently impaired. In the United States, most western coal, and considerable eastern coal, now is mined by open-pit methods. Underground mines are becoming less common. In mountainous areas such as the Appalachians, surface or strip mining and mountaintop removal mining of coal can have severe impacts on scenery, hydrology, water quality, local air quality, flora, and fauna.

Scientific American (2007) examined the U.S. government’s recent push to promote coal-to-liquid as a partial answer to the problem of oil supply. Their conclusions were: …liquid coal comes with substantial environmental and economic negatives. On the environmental side, the polluting properties of coal — starting with mining and lasting long after burning — and the large amounts of energy required to liquefy it, mean that liquid coal produces more than twice the global warming emissions as regular gasoline and almost double those of ordinary diesel…. One ton of coal produced only two barrels of fuel [gross return, not counting the energy input to produce it]. In addition to the carbon dioxide emitted while using the fuel, the production process creates almost a ton of carbon dioxide for every barrel of liquid fuel….Which is to say, one ton of coal in, more than two tons of carbon dioxide out…. Liquid coal is also a bad economic choice. Lawmakers from coal states are proposing that U.S. taxpayers guarantee minimum prices for the new fuel, and guarantee big purchases by the government for the next 25 years…. The country would be spending billions in loans, tax incentives and price guarantees to lock in a technology that produces more greenhouse gases than gasoline does….

Coal to oil to coal — in less than 100 years.  For energy measured in terms of barrels of oil equivalent (boe), world oil energy domination over coal only happened in 1963. Given current trends of increased coal production (especially in China and India) the reverse crossover point of coal becoming once again the dominant world energy source appears likely to occur no later than 2050. Some estimates put it as early as 2013. This means that oil will have reigned as the top energy source for less than 100 years. Yet another example of how the “oil interval” will be only a passing moment in human history. But coal is also a finite fossil fuel whose use will end within a century. Europe is going back to coal, with new coal-fired plants now scheduled for Italy, Germany, and in the United Kingdom. “Europe’s power station owners emphasize that they are making the new coal plants as clean as possible. But critics say that ‘clean coal’ is a pipe dream….” (Rosenthal, 2008).

Coal is still vital to U.S. economy in 2030 In spite of its environmental drawbacks and the decline in quality of coal being mined, the Energy Information Agency projects coal will still be a major source of fuel for electric power generation in 2030. Other sources of electricity (wind, solar, etc.) are still regarded to be very minor sources, in total, supplying less than half the fuel energy that coal will provide. Gas, however, will replace coal to some extent for a limited time.

Fossil Fuels — A Brief Flash. The fuels just mentioned are fossil fuels, the accumulation of myriad animal and plant remains during a period of more than 500 million years. It is sobering to realize that the most useful fossil fuels, coal and petroleum, which took geologic ages for nature to produce, will be consumed in a brief flash of Earth history, probably lasting less than 500 years. Even in terms of human history this will be a very short and unique time.

Coal exists in 37 states, and is mined underground in 22 states. It is estimated that eventually underground coal mining in the United States will involve 40 million acres, eight million of which already have experienced underground mining. Ground subsidence over coal mines is already occurring on more than two million acres. The U.S. Bureau of Mines estimates that nearly 400,000 acres of land in urban areas in 18 states may be subject to subsidence, and the total costs to stabilize these lands would be about $12 billion (Johnson and Miller, 1979).

In the East, coal companies have more recently been removing the tops of mountains and mining coal by the open pit method. The overburden is dumped in adjacent valleys, and has severe adverse effects on both the landscape and the environment that will be visible far into the future. In some regions of West Virginia where mining accounts for almost all the jobs, miners and environmentalists have clashed. There seems to be no happy resolution to this problem. In whatever form and by whatever means energy is produced (“captured” would probably be more accurate) in some energy forms more than others, there is always an environmental impact.

David Hughes (2007) reports that 50% of all coal consumed has been used since 1970, and 90% has been used since 1909. Hughes says world coal production will peak by 2025, as do several other recent studies, much earlier than those who have been saying the significant production life for coal is hundreds of years. These consumption patterns also generally apply to the consumption of all metals and nonmetals.

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Book review of “Bright Green Lies”

This is a book review of “Bright Green Lies. How the Environmental Movement Lost its Way and What We can Do About It” by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert.

This is a timely book.  The Biden administration is alarmed by how China controls up to 90% of rare earth and other essential minerals we’ll need for bright green power and anything else electronic. Analysts are predicting that the Biden infrastructure plan will include mines for lithium (such as the open-pit lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nevada), a new copper mine in Arizona on land the San Carlos Apache Tribe considers sacred and more destruction of U.S. land, rivers, and aquifers.

This book covers the amazing amount of damage bright green power will do to the climate, biodiversity, and ecology, but above all by mining.  If you are trying to lose weight, read this book, you will lose your appetite, I guarantee you!

And why destroy our country to mine metals to compete with China? In my book “Life After Fossil Fuels”, I write “Let China monopolize the second most polluting industry on earth. Mining spews out acid rain, wastewater, and heavy metals onto land, water, and air. One fifth of China’s arable land is polluted from mining and industry.  Mining the materials needed for renewable energy potentially affects 50 million square kilometers, 37% of Earth’s land (minus Antarctica), with a third of this land overlapping key biodiversity areas, wilderness, or protected areas. If mined, that would drive biodiversity loss, harm (rain) forests, and poison ecosystems.  Renewable energy is anything but clean and green. And quite a Pyrrhic victory for China!”

Some religions promise life after death, bright green lies promise that we can continue our gluttonous earth-destroying lifestyle without any sacrifices.  Instead of Jesus, our savior will be Renewable Energy, recycling, and more. 

Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” applies to Bright Green Lies.  You’re being told that because of climate change, you need to hand over huge subsidies to the industrial economy to destroy huge amounts of the natural world with toxic wastes for the electricity generating contraptions that will allow you to continue with your non-negotiable lifestyle.

More than any other book, this one zeroes in on the massive amount of ecological destruction that mining the materials to make millions of wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear and other electricity generating devices will cause.  In many ways the harm is more substantial than greenhouse gases, which get all the attention.  I am just sickened by the harm mining for wind and solar contraptions causes.   Tremendous harm, agricultural areas seeded with toxic metals, great harm to creatures great and small with consequent biodiversity loss, polluted rivers, lakes, and oceans from all the toxic chemicals used to extract metals from ores, and much more. 

The authors expose the huge negative ecological impact wind turbines can have on landscapes, especially from the mines required to get copper, iron, and other ores to construct them with.  There’s a lot to be said about this, and not surprising when you consider the scale of Stuff required. Just the blades to generate 2.5 TW of power would need about 90 million metric tons of crude oil to make the resins. The 3.8 million 5 MW turbines Mark Jacobson calls for would need 2.4 billion tons of steel, 1.9 million tons of copper, 2.6 billion tons of concrete, and much more. We’re talking 60,000 Hoover dams of materials here!  

On top of that, wind, solar, and other renewables are not reducing emissions, nor are they making a dent in energy use except for a teeny tiny amount in electricity generation.  Germany, which has gone further than any other nation to wean themselves off fossil fuels, known as “Energiewende”, is a huge failure as shown in Chapter 3: The solar lie part 1.  Yet the most expensive attempt in the world to replace fossils with renewables is falsely praised as a success by the Sierra Club, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and other environmentalists.  The authors also point out that solar power may actually have a negative energy return on energy invested (EROEI), especially in northern climates.   

Solar panels, like wind turbines also require a horrifying amount of raw materials, none of which are renewable, such as lead, indium, nylon, polypropylene, silicon, zinc sulfide, gold, silver, chlorine, aluminum, copper and tin, and few of which will ever be recycled.  In addition, solar panels need transformers, substations, transmission lines, a network of roads to provide maintenance access, vehicles, fuel for the vehicles, factories to build the vehicles, and so on.  And that’s nothing compared to what a concentrated solar plant such as Ivanpah requires, which destroyed wildlife after covering 3500 acres (5.4 square miles) of ecologically fragile desert land.  Like wind turbines, solar panels depend on mines producing vast amounts of toxic wastes. 

Increasing the electric grid to carry more renewables, or building more dams and geothermal power also has a huge impact on the mining of billions of tons of minerals and ecological harm.  And a dozen other “solutions” such as tidal power or biofuels. None can be done without destructive mining.

And please don’t forget: Most of the components of wind and solar will not be recycled for reasons discussed in Chapter 8, and what little is done to recycle will just add even more toxic elements onto the earth to tease metals and minerals apart and large amounts of fossil fuels for the high heat needed to separate them. For most metals, it is back to the mines and yet more destruction.  Nor is collecting recycling materials with hundreds of thousands of diesel-powered garbage trucks good for the environment, and at least half of this material will end up in the landfill anyhow.

Keep in mind, that after all this destruction, rinse and repeat. Onshore wind has a lifespan of about 20 years on shore, 15 years offshore, solar panels from 18 to 25 years, and so on as I write about in post “55 Reasons why wind power can not replace fossil fuels“.

When it comes to batteries for energy storage and autos, keep in mind that it takes half a million gallons of water to produce just one ton of lithium.  Thousands of already dry areas of Bolivia and Chile – the flora and fauna – are under threat from lithium mining.  Cobalt is mined by 40,000 child slaves in intense heat with no safety equipment.  Lead and other battery minerals are equally destructive.

Pumped hydro storage seems like a less destructive way to store electrical energy, but this book will disabuse you of that notion.  Nor are compressed air energy storage and other proposals any better or feasible.

You’d think that bright green contraptions would solve our problems with efficiency, but that isn’t true either.  Why? Well, you’ll just have to read the book…it’s complicated.

There’s been so much hype that compact dense cities will reduce energy use and emissions, keep wild lands from development, and save biodiversity that you may be surprised by how absurdly untrue these myths are.  For one thing, cities aren’t staying compact. Every heard of urban sprawl?  From 1945 to 2000, 45 million acres, larger than Washington state, was developed.

Real Solutions

  • Subsidies can be diverted from the military to everything from battered women’s shelters to free education to free health care to wildlife and stream restoration to massive projects of dam removal, reforestation, and revivification of prairies and wetland
  • Industrial civilization is incompatible with life on the planet. That makes the solution to our systematic planetary murder obvious, but let’s say it anyway: Stop industrial civilization. Stop our way of life, which is based on extraction. No, that doesn’t mean killing all humans. That means changing our lifestyle dramatically.
  • First, we need to stop the ongoing destruction being caused by so-called green energy projects, by oil and gas extraction, by coal mining and ore mining, by urban sprawl, by industrial agriculture, and by all the other million assaults on this planet that are perpetrated by industrial civilization. And second, we need to help the land heal.
  • Stopping deforestation, restoring logged areas, grasslands, wetlands, salt marshes, peat bogs, and seagrasses would remove more carbon dioxide from the air each year than is gen[1]erated by all the cars on the planet
  • And finally on page 446, since overconsumption and overpopulation are the driving forces of this endless destructive growth, “all forms of reproductive control must become available to all”.
  • Close all military bases on foreign soil.

This book doesn’t address the fact that peak oil has happened. From “Life After Fossil Fuels”: “Conventional crude oil production leveled off in 2005, and it appears to have peaked in 2008 at 69.5 million barrels per day (mb/d) according to Europe’s International Energy Agency (IEA 2018 p45). The U.S. Energy Information Agency shows global peak crude oil production at a later date in 2018 at 82.9 mb/d (EIA 2020) because they included tight oil, oil sands, and deep-sea oil.”  

Within the next few years, oil will be declining at a rate of 6% or more a year.  Oil is the master resource that makes all other goods possible: coal, natural gas, mining, logging, transportation, agriculture, construction, cement, steel, and so on. Nothing could possibly reduce greenhouse gases more than oil decline. No geoengineering project could even come close and would almost certainly bring on unexpected side effects worse than the “cure”.  Oil decline will be exponential, which means in as little as 16 years we could be producing just 10% as much oil, and everything else for that matter, than we produce today. Or sooner if a shrinking economy triggers enough instability to case civil war, social unrest, and war over the remaining oil. 

Bright Green Lies is trying to stop the madness of destroying the planet and biodiversity for something that won’t solve any of our problems, except to enable the billionaires to grow even richer in the very last financial bubble before collapse.

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Youngquist: the extraordinary geodestiny of Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations

Preface. I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it. I’ve made eight posts in Experts/Walter Youngquist of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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The nations of the Gulf are Muslim countries, and all are Arab, except Iran. The national language of Iran is Persian or Farsi, with Kurdish, Turkic, and several other languages also spoken. Iran (named Persia until 1935) has long been a traditional enemy of the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula. For that reason, Saudi Arabia does not recognize the name Persian Gulf, but calls it the Arabian Gulf. I am told by geological colleagues who went to Saudi Arabia after its petroleum industry was launched, that one of their first tasks was to be sure that the term “Arabian Gulf ” appeared on all maps, not Persian Gulf.

The oil accumulation in the Gulf region has no world equal. It is truly extraordinary. The Gulf nations won the world oil sweepstakes!

The Gulf nations were endowed by geological events to have all these features on a huge scale. Saudi Arabia, the largest of these countries, got the largest amount of oil, and also was endowed with large structural upfolds in the Earth called anticlines. Oil in great quantities accumulated in these structures, which are easily discovered by surface mapping and by reflection seismograph methods. Because these oil traps are easy to find, exploration costs are low. Furthermore, the reservoir rocks are so porous and permeable that only a few wells can drain a large area. The result is that this area has the lowest production costs of any oil province, as low as two dollars a barrel

The future of our present petroleum-based industrial world will increasingly lie in the hands of the Gulf nations that geology endowed with 60 percent or more of the world’s remaining oil.

It was the GeoDestiny of these countries to become rich from petroleum. But since oil is finite, it is also GeoDestiny that these countries must eventually exist without the resource that made them rich. Beyond any other countries, the Persian Gulf nations demonstrate the vital role that Earth resources play in determining the course of nations and the lives of people…their GeoDestiny.


This is largely a desert country, with a land area equal to about a third that of the 48 adjacent United States. Ninety percent of it is too dry to be cultivated. In the past, it was a loose organization of tribes, many of which were desert nomads, together with some fishermen along the coast of the Gulf.

The first oil well was completed on March 3, 1938. By 1979, it produced more than 27 million barrels of oil and is still pumping today. At that time, the population of Saudi Arabia was approximately three million. It is now about 29 million.

Thanks to the immense wealth derived from oil, Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, grew in less than a century from a mud-wall city of no more than 20,000 people, to a metropolis of five million.

As late as 1954, Saudi Arabia had only 147 miles of paved roads. By 1986, Saudi Arabia had built more than 50,000 miles of pavement. The number of vehicles using these roads increased from 60,000 in 1970, to nearly four million in 2005.

Saudi Arabia came almost as far in 70 years in terms of its standard of living, and the use of modern technology and equipment, as the United States did in 300 years, or as the European nations did in thousands of years. In relative terms, the Saudis arrived in the modern world almost overnight,

It is true that money cannot buy happiness, but it can buy almost everything else.

Although Saudi Arabia has about 80 oil and gas fields, more than half its oil reserves are in eight fields including Ghawar, the world’s largest onshore field, which was discovered in 1948. Its remaining recoverable reserves are estimated at 70 billion barrels.

Some experts feel these reserve figures are too high.)

Whereas its population of today is expected to increase by nearly 70 percent by 2050, oil production by the Saudi’s own estimates cannot grow more than about 50 percent. Other estimates are for somewhat less (Duncan and Youngquist, 1999). Supporting 45 million people in 2050 will be a challenge because it is likely to be at or past the time when oil production begins to decline.

The rise in Saudi population has not been matched by employment opportunities. Unemployment is estimated to be as high as 35%, and this is having very negative effects. “Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative Islamic society is coming to terms with a crime wave ushered in by a population boom, rapid social change, increased unemployment, and a reduction in oil revenue” (Bradley, 2005). Drug smuggling, theft, prostitution and murder, once rare in this Islamic state, are now becoming everyday events. Crime among young jobless Saudis rose 320% from 1990 to 1996 and is expected to increase.

Saudi royal family presides over the world’s largest and richest family business, and as previously noted, the country has been largely run as a family enterprise. At one time, each Saudi prince received a minimum monthly allowance of $20,000, even as the number of princes swelled to 6,000. To keep its increasingly restive society from upheaval, Saudi Arabia must pump all the oil it can sell without unduly depressing the price. But the demands of the generous social programs now in place, together with the rapidly rising population that receive these benefits, cannot be met by current oil revenues.

Reed and Rossant (1995) reported that: A population explosion has also helped sharply erode per capita gross domestic product from more than $12,000 in 1982 to little more than $7,000 today. Some 3 million Saudis, 44% of the labor force, work in the public sector where salaries have been frozen for almost a decade. This year, in a huge departure from traditional largesse, King Fahd is more than doubling the fees charged residents for electricity, water, and other services…. Such erosion of the desert welfare state sorely strains the paternalistic social contract between the ruling Al-Saud clan and the population.

In 2009, more than half the Saudi Arabian population was younger than 20 years old, and 42.6 percent were younger than 15. This portends a huge surge in population in the next two decades. It is very unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s oil income can increase to maintain the present standard of living for the projected population. The time when money was available for almost any social demand is past. Even the present generation sees that the time of subsidies, free services, and other elements of the affluence oil brought is coming to an end. This is having an unsettling effect. The unemployment rate among Saudi young people continues to rise. Disaffected youth are a fertile breeding ground for terrorism that has already reached Saudi Arabia (Waldman, 1995b; Waldman, et al., 1996). Saudi Arabia has long been among the most stable nations in the Middle East. But stability appears to be less certain in the future.

IRAN.   Even though Iran has additional areas for oil exploration, it appears that it passed its oil production peak in 1973 (Duncan and Youngquist, 1999), so even the current modest increase in population presents a standard of living challenge for the future.


Iraq’s oil reserves are estimated to be about 143 billion barrels, five times those of the United States. Unfortunately, much of Iraq’s excellent oil inheritance has been squandered in military misadventures. If Iraq can eventually unite the disparate ethnic and religious groups into a peaceful country, with a broadly stable civilian economy, the average Iraqi may yet benefit from their good geological fortune. Also in its favor is that Iraq has about 12% arable land, which is relatively good in the Gulf region. A negative is that, next to Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the highest annual natural population increase (2.5 percent) among the Gulf countries. The present population of 33 million is expected to reach 49 million in 2025, and 83 million in 2050 (Population Reference Bureau, 2011).

Because of Iraq’s difficulties getting back into production, with civil war raging at the time of this writing, and U. S. troops leaving, its projected oil peak in 2010 may be delayed a number of years.  A further positive factor is the possibility that Iraq’s undeveloped oil may be more than 200 billion barrels (Takin, 2004). Of all the Gulf nations, Iraq also appears to have the best prospects for more major oil discoveries.

KUWAIT.  This country is almost all desert. Agriculture is exceedingly limited with less than 10 square miles under cultivation. Almost all fresh water is obtained from desalinization plants dependent on local natural gas supplies for energy. Kuwait owes its existence almost entirely to oil and natural gas. Kuwait holds about nine percent of total world oil reserves including the second largest field in the world, the Burgan field discovered in 1938. It initially held an estimated 87 billion barrels of recoverable oil, but is now in decline with reserves estimated at less than 50 billion barrels.

One encouraging sign is that Kuwait’s natural population increase has declined from 2.7% in 1990 to 1.9% in 2003. However, even with this decrease, the present population of 2.8 million is expected to reach 3.7 million in 2025, and 5.2 million in 2050. Duncan and Youngquist (1999) projected a Kuwait oil production peak of 4.66 million barrels a day in 2018 with a 38% decline in production by 2040. Clearly these projected population and oil production figures are on a collision course as population grows and oil production declines.

OMAN has an area of about 81,000 square miles, approximately the size of the State of Kansas. Desert makes up approximately 82%, mountains 15%, and coastal plain about three percent of the land area.

Until the discovery of oil, Oman was the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula. As recently as 1970, it had only six miles of paved road (Range, 1995). A complete census has never been taken, but the population is estimated (2009) at about 3.1 million. Oman’s growth rate of 2.2 percent annually means the population will double in 32 years. Oman’s oil production appears to be slightly past its peak, but its gas production will peak considerably later.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES.  The total UAE area is somewhat uncertain due to disputed claims concerning some islands, but its land area is about 30,000 square miles, and stretches for about 300 miles along the southeastern end of the Persian Gulf. The UAE has estimated reserves of about 98 billion barrels, with a probable 41 billion barrels yet to be discovered.  The present population is 5.1 million and is estimated to reach 12.2 million by 2050. The projected peak year of oil production is 2017, the latest of all the Persian Gulf countries, except for Kuwait, estimated to be 2018 (Duncan and Youngquist, 1999).

Before the discovery of oil, the principal products of these emirates were fish and pearls. Arable land (0.48 percent) and fresh water resources is very limited. Income obtained for foreign trade was based on slaves who dove for pearls. The slave trade continued until 1945. Other occupations were mostly family or small enterprises, which hammered metals into pots, livestock herding, and limited date palm cultivation. A substantial part of the population was nomadic.  Oil dramatically changed their way of life. People began to work in the oil industry in various occupations. But the population was so small and unskilled that in order to take care of the rapidly developing petroleum economy, foreign workers had to be brought in. In 1993, the total population was estimated to be about two million. Of these, only about 12 percent were actually UAE citizens, and they constituted only about seven percent of the labor force.

QATAR is the second smallest country of the Persian Gulf nations, covering approximately 4,400 square miles.  It is controlled by a ruling family, the Al Thani. Qatar is a barren peninsula scorched by extreme summer heat. In addition to oil, Qatar sits atop the world’s largest-known gas field, the North Field, part of a large geologic gas-bearing structure shared with Iran. Initially, this was “stranded gas” — there was no way to export it. But with the technology to convert it to liquid natural gas that is shipped out by tanker and then allowed to warm up to a gas again at the receiving terminal, this gas is now in the world market.  Another advantage of possessing this huge gas field is the ability to use natural gas as the basic ingredient in the production of ammonia fertilizer, the world’s most widely used fertilizer. Seventy-five percent of state-owned Qatar Fertilizer Company is owned by Qatar Petroleum Company, while Norsk Hydro AS owns 25%. This is the world’s largest single-site urea producer, and also produces ammonia. This gas field and fertilizer production complex will be an increasingly valuable asset for many years to come. Qatar’s gas is also used locally to manufacture more than a half million tons of petrochemicals annually.


Beyond the internal strife, there is the broader problem of population growth. Thanks to the arrival of oil and gas money that brought sanitation, education, modern medicine, and the ability to both grow and import more food, and desalinate water, the populations of the countries bordering the Gulf have greatly increased. Subsidies of various kinds — for food, utilities, and housing — have been handed out so that the general population can have some share in the petroleum wealth. But as petroleum income gradually diminishes, painful adjustments will have to be made.

The demographics of the Gulf region present great challenges ahead. More than half the population is under the age of 25. In Saudi Arabia, 38 percent are younger than 15 years of age. The Gulf region will experience a huge population expansion. How can this oncoming wave of people be successfully accommodated without severe social disruptions? Oil income even now is not keeping pace with population growth. In Saudi Arabia, the per capita income in 1981 with oil at $15 a barrel was $28,600. Today with oil at about $90 a barrel, it is below $6,000. The House of Saud is politically vulnerable. The ever-expanding Saudi royal family now numbers 30,000, all of whom are supported by oil income. It is facing increasing criticism.

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Youngquist on Oil, natural gas, heavy oil, tar sands, GTL, GTO, oil shale

Preface. I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it. I’ve made eight posts in Experts/Walter Youngquist of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).

Key points:

  • The worldwide oil depletion rate has been estimated at between 4 to 9% annually. A figure of 6.7% seems to be the current situation. The huge investments needed just to slow this decline are not forthcoming. Many countries spend their oil income mostly on domestic needs and cannot or do not invest in oil production enhancement projects on which little immediate return is available. Mexico, for example, has underfunded its oil infrastructure to pay for social programs.
  • What seems clear is that the era of cheap oil has passed. The easy oil has been discovered and developed and the oil industry has moved into far more expensive frontier areas such as the Arctic regions and deeper ocean waters.
  • The precise date of the peak of world oil production, however, is an irrelevant academic exercise, since the true peak will be known only in retrospect, after several years of well-documented declining production. The important fact is that oil production will inevitably peak and then decline.
  • Oil production (some call it “extraction”) has exceeded the volume of oil discoveries since 1981, now by a factor of four. Around the world, the 31 billion barrels of oil consumed each year are not replaced with discovery.  We have been consuming oil at an unsustainable exponential rate.

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Depending on how one defines the limits of a basin, there are about 600 sedimentary basins worldwide, most of which have been explored to a greater or lesser extent. Only about two hundred of them are oil productive, and of these, only a very few basins contain the huge oil fields in which most oil is located. The Earth has been fully explored and the larger and most productive oil basins have been drilled and are now in production.

This organic material accumulates with other sediments in structural basins in the Earth, both within continents invaded by the ocean, and along the continental margins. The central deep ocean regions do not have any significant accumulation of sediments and, therefore, have no oil.

The organic material from which oil is derived is mostly plants, with algae in many areas being the predominant source material. Campbell (2005a) notes that, “Isotopic examinations show that oil was derived from algae.” Algae in ancient oceans furnished the basis for industrialization and for dramatically different lifestyles from previous centuries. The course of human history has been greatly influenced by simple algae transformed into oil. Other sources of oil include the buried mangrove swamps found in offshore Angola and in Southeast Asia. Plankton, both floating animal and plant forms are also important. The unicellular animals, foraminifera, may be a major source of the oil found in the Sirte Basin of Libya. Most oil is formed in marine environments. A few commercial deposits have been discovered in deeply buried organic materials (mostly algae) in lake basins in Nevada and China. Freshwater algae produce quite a different type of oil than does marine algae. There are about 30,000 species of algae.

Many kinds of oil. The kind of source material, how long the organic material and then the oil are “cooked,” and at what temperatures, how deeply it is buried (pressure) and for how long, determine the many different kinds and qualities of oil. The Oil & Gas Journal lists prices for fourteen different oils produced just in the United States.

Oil can be classified in various ways, but a common way is to designate it either as “sweet” (less than 5 percent sulfur) or “sour” (5 percent or more sulfur). It is also classed by how light (thin) or heavy (thick) it is. This is expressed by a “gravity” figure, inverse in numbers to how thick or thin the oil is. A 40 gravity oil is light, and a 20 gravity oil is heavy. At around 52 gravity, the oil becomes gas. Oil in the Maricaibo basin of Venezuela is heavy crude (around 20 gravity). It is so heavy that the oil storage tanks are not painted silver to reflect the Sun’s heat, but black to absorb heat and keep the oil thin for pipeline movement.

Refineries prefer to refine light oils with a low sulfur content, since they can be more easily made into higher value end products. Worldwide, these oils have generally been produced first, so remaining oil is a heavier and lower quality crude. Refineries are gradually having to adjust to this new reality, with related higher refining costs.

Once deposited in an anaerobic (oxygen-lacking) environment through which the organic material is preserved, it must be buried deeply enough so that the geothermal (temperature) gradient of the Earth is such that a temperature of about 156oF is reached (minimum temperature for the start of “oil window”). Together, with the pressure of the overlying sediments, the organic material is slowly “cooked” to produce oil.

Using plant material as the theoretical originating material, Jeffrey Dukes, biologist and biochemist at the University of Massachusetts, has calculated that it takes approximately 190,000 pounds (95 tons) of prehistoric plant material to yield 13.2 pounds of crude oil, including 6.2 pounds (one gallon) of gasoline.

Just drill deeper? To prolong the oil interval we now enjoy, it is sometimes suggested that we should simply drill deeper for more oil. This might be true in a limited number of places, but if it was possible and feasible, oil exploration companies already would have done so. At 10,000 feet, and in some regions such as Kansas, even shallower, the drill bit would hit either igneous or metamorphic rock (so-called “basement rocks”) where oil is not generated and does not exist. Oil is limited vertically by the depth needed for the “oil window” temperature to be reached, but oil occurrence also is limited at greater depth. In most of the Earth, below 15,000 to 16,000 feet, the geothermal gradient (increase in temperature with depth) is such that at these depths and related temperatures, oil is not stable and breaks into the simplest hydrocarbon molecule, methane.

There is an ultimate depth below which no oil, only natural gas occurs. So “drilling deeper” is generally not the answer to finding more oil.

The terms “reserves” and “resources” are sometimes confused. The term reserves applied to any natural resource including oil, means the amount that can be produced with existing technology at current prices. Obviously, reserves may vary in size depending on the development of new and more efficient technology and current prices. This has certainly been seen in the case of both oil and natural gas, and in metals, with wide fluctuations in the prices of gold and silver and the size of “reserves” of these commodities changing.

Resources are the total amount of the commodity in the Earth, only a portion of which at any time can correctly be termed reserves. Also, the term “oil in place” is sometimes used in the oil industry to describe the resource. Press reporters and others may make the error of assuming oil in place (resource) is a reserve. An example is the oil in the Caspian region, where the oil in place initially was estimated at 200 billion barrels and the press reported an oil discovery “nearly equal to the reserves of Saudi Arabia.” However, when geologists and engineers later reevaluated the Caspian reserves, they arrived at a figure of about 40 billion barrels.

The Athabasca oil sand deposits are another example. Estimated to have as much as two trillion barrels of oil in place, the economically recoverable oil (reserves) are estimated to be in the vicinity of 175 billion barrels. With the steep drop in the price of oil during 2007-2008, from more than $147 a barrel to briefly less than $40, part of the Athabasca oil reserves were relegated back to the status of resources. Development of some oil sand projects were put on “hold” to a time when the price of oil again rises, and some of the resources revert to reserve status.

“Political reserves” may serve a couple of purposes. They may be inflated because the people in charge of oil field operations in a country are prone to report to the politicians in charge that they have found more oil that year than they produced, so reserves happily go up. Workers continue to keep their jobs and may even get a raise. Also, in OPEC countries, agreed upon production quotas are based on reserves. Some countries in OPEC can increase their production to increase their oil export by inflating the reserves. The end result is that unaudited reserve figures are suspect

In a belated response to the first oil embargo crisis of 1973, the U.S. established the U.S. Department of Energy in 1977, with the stated purpose “to lessen our dependence on foreign oil.”

Large oil fields, because they are large, are usually discovered early in exploring a basin. As drilling proceeds, less and less oil is found per foot drilled. French geologist, Jean Laherrère, putting this trend in graphic form, calls it the creaming curve.

A spurt in worldwide drilling from 1976 to 1983 did not find a commensurate amount of oil, illustrating that large, easier to find oil accumulations had already been discovered. What remained required more drilling. Thus each barrel of oil discovered is more expensive than it was in earlier years.

The depletion problem Like the proverbial alligator continuing to eat up a leg, depletion of oil fields continues everywhere. When primary (flowing and pumping) and secondary recovery (water flood and gas injection) have been used, sometimes a third method of oil production is used termed Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). These methods include injection of steam or chemicals to improve oil flow to wells from the reservoir. Costs range from $1.50 to $30 for each additional barrel recovered. But this technology has been only moderately successful, and does not add much to the total oil being produced.

The worldwide oil depletion rate has been estimated at between 4 to 9% annually. A figure of 6.7% seems to be the current situation. The huge investments needed just to slow this decline are not forthcoming. Many countries spend their oil income mostly on domestic needs and cannot or do not invest in oil production enhancement projects on which little immediate return is available. Mexico, for example, has underfunded its oil infrastructure to pay for social programs.

What seems clear is that the era of cheap oil has passed. The easy oil has been discovered and developed and the oil industry has moved into far more expensive frontier areas such as the Arctic regions and deeper ocean waters.

The precise date of the peak of world oil production, however, is an irrelevant academic exercise, since the true peak will be known only in retrospect, after several years of well-documented declining production. The important fact is that oil production will inevitably peak and then decline.

Currently NOCs control about 90% of world oil reserves. The combined reserves of ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Chevron and Total (a French company) are less than 25% of the reserves Saudi Arabia claims. In countries where IOCs can still operate because they have the technology and the capital (i.e., Angola, Algeria, and Nigeria), the host nations are demanding so much of the profits that some IOCs have decided they can no longer operate there. ExxonMobil abandoned the Orinoco heavy oil deposits when Venezuela abruptly raised taxes from 1 percent to sixteen percent. It takes as long as 10 years from the time of winning bids (all proceeds going to the country of ownership regardless of whether oil is found or not) to reach any oil production. Corporate plans have to be made on the basis of the initial financial agreements. Countries may, and increasingly do, simply tear up existing contracts and insist on new ones. One country did so after a company had spent years and millions of dollars in exploration and finally discovered oil. The host country then canceled the original contract. When asked about this action, the country told the company that “we gave you the lease at the original agreed cost because we didn’t expect you to find any oil.” In another country, before leases were issued, an IOC spent two years and millions of dollars determining which of the lease blocks being offered had the best prospects. When they told the host country they would take the leases, the NOC of the host company took the leases for itself instead. So the IOC did all the work and the NOC took all the benefit.

If IOCs are to continue finding oil after their home country has been thoroughly explored, as the onshore United States has been for example, they must explore new areas and depend on other countries for their survival as oil companies. This has also pushed drilling offshore, sometimes to depths down to 10,000 feet, making these ventures very costly. Major oil companies in the United States have moved both abroad and into the Gulf of Mexico, drilling as far as 200 miles offshore, risking hurricanes and other harsh conditions. Offshore drilling platforms are leased and the daily lease cost for one drill rig is as high as $700,000. A company has to find a lot of oil to justify such costs, and, at best, the oil is very expensive to recover.

In 2011, the largest investor-owned companies, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, commonly known as Shell, and BP reported higher profits but they produced less oil from fields around the world. Their decline in production was 7%. The results highlighted a growing problem. New petroleum supplies are increasingly hard to find, and they cost more to find and develop. A decade ago, bringing in an oil well cost about $20 for every barrel produced. The cost now is estimated to be $50 to $60 per barrel. Cost is calculated on the basis of exploration and subsequent field development expenses amortized over the life of the field and oil produced.

Petroleum industry’s use of technology No other industry employs the magnitude and diversity of technology that petroleum does through its exploration, production, and refining. The scope of technology used includes satellites for positioning offshore drilling platforms and for transmitting data from remote drilling locations to regional offices to get a vision of the internal structure of the Earth. Completing ocean floor oil wells with robots laying and repairing thousands of miles of ocean floor pipelines to facilitate gathering crude oil and natural gas from wells to central locations is now possible. And there is much more. In refining, the chemistry and physics complexities involved are enormous.

Lengths to which oil industry now goes to reach oil. There have been many advances in oil exploration and production. One has been the increased distance to which multiple drilling bits can now be steered to reach an oil reservoir from a single drilling platform. The most recent record is 7.6 miles. This extended reach drilling (ERD) means that the “footprint” of oil production is greatly reduced, as ERD can now reach an area of as much as 4.4 square miles.

Not replacing their reserves. Because they now have fewer quality exploration opportunities, most major IOCs are not replacing their production with new discoveries. In 2008, for example, ConocoPhillips only replaced one out of every four barrels of oil they produced.

Oil production (some call it “extraction”) has exceeded the volume of oil discoveries since 1981, now by a factor of four. Around the world, the 31 billion barrels of oil consumed each year are not replaced with discovery.  We have been consuming oil at an unsustainable exponential rate. As a widely used advertisement by Chevron says, “It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We’ll use the next trillion in 30.”

Newly utilized technology of drilling vertically to a target shale formation and then drilling horizontally and hydraulic fracturing (“hydrofracking” or just “fracking”) the shale with chemically treated water and sand greatly increases the amount of gas ultimately recovered. Experience has shown that using this technology may also recover oil from shales. These strata were previously regarded only as oil source beds, not producible oil reservoirs. Combined with the rise in the price of oil, likely to remain at $80/barrel or higher, oil is now being economically recovered using this technology directly from some shales.

The volume of shale strata around the world is enormous, but there are also great unknowns. Still to be discovered in many areas is whether the shales have been buried deeply enough and long enough over geologic time to have reached the temperature (the “oil window”) at which oil is formed. If the shales are not yet mature, the organic material is still kerogen, the precursor of oil, as is the case of misnamed “oil shale” strata, which have no oil.

The reason why gasoline is so expensive in some countries is that these nations put higher and higher taxes on it as a general source of government revenue. In the United States, there is a popular idea that taxes on transportation fuels, gasoline, and diesel, are to be dedicated to the building and maintenance of the road system. The public is under this impression. However, a study by the American Petroleum Institute revealed that user taxes and fees subsidize many other government activities. At the present time in the United States, the federal excise tax on gasoline collects about $20 billion annually. State and local government taxes add another $30 billion.

The United States, among all countries, is by far the largest per capita consumer of oil. Each day, California alone consumes more oil than either Germany or Japan. The rest of the world also has a rising consumption of oil. With regard to the concentration of oil in the Gulf area, the comment has been made that, “Not only is the world addicted to cheap oil, but the largest gas station is in a very dangerous neighborhood.

The mobility that oil provides to people on an individual basis through the private automobile has changed the social structure. When the younger generation got “wheels,” the family fabric began to be stressed. Family togetherness in the past, when weekends were times of local gatherings of clans, was replaced by diverse activities of the several family members, frequently going in different directions and considerable distances. It is no longer remarkable to travel hundreds of miles or more on a weekend to visit some point of interest or engage in a recreational activity. Just a century ago, this was not possible. A hundred years ago, Americans may have dashed through the snow across town in a one-horse open sleigh to get to grandma’s in time for Thanksgiving or Christmas; today travelers fill airports, and jet planes fill the skies to whisk people home for these holidays from across the continent.


Shales which have gone through the “oil window” differ in the amount of oil they may contain. Some have very little. Individual shales may also have “sweet spots” subject to economic exploitation. Other areas where the oil content is lower may not be economic to drill.

There are environmental impacts from the amount of water needed by each well (5-6 million gallons), and from the subsequent disposal of the recovered water containing chemicals used to thicken the water to enable it to carry sand farther into the formation to hold open the fractures. Obtaining enough suitable sand for fracking operations is a problem in some localities. Bowing to environmental concerns, France, Germany, South Africa, and in the U.S., New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and some other states have imposed temporary or permanent bans on fracking.

With the large number of shale deposits in the United States and abroad, the frontiers of exploration have been greatly enlarged. Shale deposits may have large production potential not earlier recognized. Broadly interpreted, there are 600 sedimentary basins in the world (Guoyo, 2011). Evaluating all these prospects will take many years, so the amount of oil and gas that can be produced from these basins is unknown today. Exploitation of these resources may well result in two peaks rather than one oil production peak. The first is the peak (possibly already passed) of oil recovered from conventional reservoirs (usually sandstones or fractured or vulgar limestones). The second peak may come from conventional oil production with the added increment of oil from shale. A peak made independently by shale oil alone is possible, but not likely.

Key to economically recovering both oil and gas using the hydrofracking technology is the energy/profit ratio, also termed energy recovered on energy invested (EROEI). Because the technology is new, it is premature to make a study, but eventually it will be done to give an overall view of the worth of the technology. The energy/profit ratio for shale oil is likely to be less than for conventional oil now, estimated to be about 15 to 1. This ratio is declining as more costly oil is being produced in more difficult environments like deep water and Arctic regions.

The production of oil from shale by fracking is likely to reduce but not eliminate the need for imported oil. Longer term, the U.S. and many other countries will still depend on the Gulf countries,

It is frequently said that we have sufficient oil left for 40 years at the current rate of production. But the current rate probably cannot be maintained. Furthermore, oil production does not proceed at a fixed rate for 40 years and then drop off to zero. Production curves rise from zero to a peak and then decline back to essentially zero. Some oil will be produced for many more years, but there will be less, and it will cost more. Oil will be used only for higher end-value uses.

The extravagant ways in which we have used oil, have within them the seeds of oil’s ultimate demise. The decline of world oil production will sort out excesses and pare down waste. A post-oil energy paradigm will emerge, but for many uses, there is no adequate satisfactory substitute for oil.

Conversion equivalents. That theoretical 42-gallon barrel of crude oil is equal in energy to 5,800,000 British thermal units (Btus), 5,614 cubic feet of natural gas, or 0.22 short ton (short ton = 2000 pounds) of bituminous coal. Various crude oils differ in density, but the average barrel of crude oil weighs about 310 pounds.


In common usage, “gas” means gasoline, but in the oil industry, gas means natural gas, which is mostly methane. With four hydrogen atoms attached to one carbon atom (CH4), methane is the lightest of the hydrocarbon gases.

Once considered a nuisance in the oil fields and simply flared (burned off), natural gas is now in increasing demand as a feedstock for petrochemicals, for home heating and industrial use, and more recently, as a replacement for coal to produce electricity. As gas occurs in a greater variety of geological circumstances than oil does, and is more widespread in its occurrence, it now appears likely that the overall energy content of all gas reserves may be larger than that of all oil reserves. Gas may displace oil as the dominant fossil fuel in this century.

Gas pipelines now reach all 48 adjacent states. About 60 percent of U.S. homes are heated with gas, and 70 percent of new subdivisions are being designed for natural gas heat. Much of northern Europe is heated with natural gas from the North Sea fields and Russia.

The United States is the world’s largest consumer of natural gas, and currently uses about 23 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) annually, equal to 26 percent of world production.

Although gas from the Earth is mainly methane, other associated gases exist including carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and usually small amounts of hydrogen sulfide. Some gas wells also produce helium, which is the only known source of that gas.

Methane comes from a greater variety of organic material than oil does. Deltaic sediments contain relatively large amounts of woody and other land-derived material, and are more likely to have gas than are deposits that are more marine in origin.

There are two principal processes that form natural gas. It may be expelled from microorganisms during the digestion of organic matter. Methanogens are methane-producing micro-organisms, which pervade the near-surfaces of the Earth’s crust and are devoid of oxygen, and where temperatures do not exceed 207 F (97 C). Methanogens also live in the intestines of most mammals (humans included), and in the cuds of ruminant animals such as cows and sheep. This is called biogenic gas.

Methane gas is also produced by the decomposition of organic matter by heat and pressure, and accordingly is called thermogenic gas. This methane is formed similar to oil. Organic material deposited in mud and other sediment is deeply buried, heated, and compressed, causing carbon bonds to break down and form oil with some gas. Because the temperature of the Earth increases with depth, below about 15,000 to 16,000 feet, the temperature is so high that oil cannot exist and decomposes into methane. Gas is now being drilled and produced from depths of 25,000 feet and more.

Unlike oil formed by organic material, which must go through a heat “window” of at least 156 F, natural gas can form at relatively low (normal atmospheric) temperatures and pressures. The bubbles you observe in lakes are not due to fish blowing bubbles as folklore would have it, but results from the production of natural gas from the decaying vegetation in the lake bottom. The relatively shallow Devonian black shales (black because of their organic material) of the eastern and central United States and the Cretaceous black shales of the Great Plains, some of which lie at shallow depth, contain methane gas. Farmers have drilled shallow wells (from a few dozen to a few hundred of feet deep) in their backyards and produced gas, which they piped into their farmhouses, and into other farm areas for various purposes.

Gas is often associated with oil, but a considerable amount of gas is not— thus the terms associated and non-associated gas. Gas associated with oil commonly is composed of a variety of gases including mainly methane but also ethane, propane, butane, pentane, and hexane, and is called wet gas. Gas not associated with oil usually does not have many other gases besides methane and is called dry gas. Some gas contains hydrogen sulfide, H2S, and is called sour gas. The amount of hydrogen sulfide can be very large, to the point where one well in southwestern Alberta was classified as a sulfur mine. Many of the wells in the Caspian Sea region produce sour gas and also oil with hydrogen sulfide, which has to be taken out. The result is huge piles of sulfur for which there is no immediate use. Sulfur in oil and gas combines with water to form highly corrosive sulfuric acid, attacking any metal equipment it touches. Likewise, acid rain, which damages aquatic ecosystems, soils, and forests, is formed when sulfur dioxide (SO2) combines with water to produce sulfuric acid (H2SO4).

Coalbed Methane and Gas Hydrates

Gas found by drilling a well into sediments in which various organic materials have produced gas is called conventional gas. This is where most gas comes from today. However, there are special occurrences of gas. One of these is coalbed methane gas.  The bane of underground coal mining is the toxic and explosive methane gas trapped in coal deposits. The miners’ canary was taken into the mine to provide early detection of methane gas. Recently, with surging demand for natural gas in North America, particularly the United States, the search for gas supplies has expanded to coalbed methane.

Coalbed methane accounts for about 10% of total U.S. gas supplies. The estimated resource base is large, most of it located in the Rocky Mountain States, which now produce 80% of the coalbed gas. The wells for the most part are shallow and coal can be reached at less than 300 feet in many places with a truck-mounted drill rig as they do in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. There, a well costs around $65,000 and the gas finding cost is about 16 cents per thousand cubic feet, with average well reserves of 400 million cubic feet. In other places, costs are substantially higher but it still may be economic to drill.

To release the gas in the coal, the coal has to be dewatered. As water is pumped out, gas is released from the coal as water pressure is reduced. However, pumping out the water can result in regional lowering of the water table, and the water may also be toxic, and if discharged on the surface, can contaminate both the landscape and local streams. In some areas, there is now substantial public resistance to coalbed methane development.

Nevertheless, coalbed methane development is continuing with many thousands of wells projected to be drilled in the next decade. Canada and Australia have begun to develop their considerable coalbed methane resources, which appear to be considerable. Mexico is investigating its prospects, which, however, appear to be modest.

Gas hydrates (also termed gas clathrates) remain a tantalizing elusive source for the gas industry. Gas hydrates occur worldwide as solid material composed of water molecules forming a rigid lattice of cages of various sizes with most of the cages containing a molecule of gas, chiefly methane. Laherrere (2000) reports that methane hydrates generally occur as dispersed grains and very thin laminae, with the thickest bed recorded so far, as being about one meter.

Stranded Gas: LNG, GTL and GTO

As noted earlier, gas is widely distributed; many deposits are located where there is no ready local market, nor can a pipeline be economically built to reach a market. This is called stranded gas. Of all known gas deposits, about 60% are classified as stranded

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)

The technology for liquefying natural gas has been known for many years, dating back to the 19th  century when British chemist and physicist Michael Faraday experimented with liquefying different types of gases including methane. The technology involves a liquefaction plant (called a “train”) located where the gas is produced. There, gas is cooled to a liquid at -260 F, at which temperature it occupies 1/600th of its volume as a gas. Then it is put into refrigerated containers on a ship and transported to a regasification terminal and stored until it is ready to be released into a pipeline system. There are four regasification terminals in the United States, which supply about two percent of U.S. gas demand.

LNG is expensive because the cost of the facilities at each end of transportation and the specially built ships which have to be built. One such system can cost several billion dollars. LNG tankers of the size now operating can carry from 150,000 to 200,000 cubic meters of LNG, about 4.2 billion cubic feet of gas per ship. One tanker can meet the energy needs of about 14 million U.S. households for one average day of space heating and other heat requirements.

But the energy involved in cooling gas to a liquid, and required to transport it makes the net energy recovery considerably less than that from gas produced locally, processed, and then put into a pipeline. Depending on the distance it has to be shipped, as much as 30% of the energy equivalent of the gas being transported can be consumed by the LNG system.

The safety record of natural gas transport is excellent. There have been more than 33,000 LNG shipments in 45 years without a significant accident or cargo spill (Glenn, 2004). However, safety concerns, particularly with respect to what terrorists might do to regasification installations, has created considerable local opposition to the siting of regasification plants.

LNG tankers are huge. A typical tanker is longer than three football fields and contains more than 33 million gallons of LNG. However, raising the risk of terrorist attacks, articles have appeared stating that a terrorist attack on an LNG tanker “ …would have the force of a small nuclear explosion.” Such concerns have generated strong opposition to siting LNG landing sites along any coast. Zellner and Hindo (2005) reported, “From Maine to California developers of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals are facing protests at every turn.” “Liquefied gas projects energize opposition” read the headline with respect to four proposals to put LNG terminals along the lower Columbia River to supply Oregon and Washington now that an expanded population consumes all the power that can be guaranteed from the dams on the river.

How dangerous LNG would be in a terrorist attack is disputed. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says that, “ …LNG won’t explode and won’t burn in its liquid state.” In a spill, the product can be ignited but only after it vaporizes and combines with a mixture of air ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent. Mixtures outside that range are either too lean or too rich to burn and most of the gas, being lighter than air, quickly dissipates, so any resulting fire would be of very short duration.

Before the present concerns for LNG were thought of, a number of LNG regasification sites were built onshore. There are now 17 LNG export terminals and 40 LNG import terminals worldwide, and about 150 specially designed LNG ships in operation. LNG landing facilities exist in many countries, including Taiwan, Turkey, France, Greece, Spain, Belgium, South Korea, India, and others. China is planning to build as many as 10 LNG terminals over the next few years and is tying up long-term supply contracts with Indonesia, Russia, and the Persian Gulf nations.

Gas to liquid — GTL. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the gas-to-liquid technology is wasteful, with about 45% of the natural gas lost in conversion. The process consumes 10,000 cubic feet of natural gas to make one barrel of fuel. This is partially offset, however, by the fact that the end product is a high-grade, clean, diesel fuel, which does not need further refining.

GTO — gas to olefins. This is a new process for producing the basic chemicals needed to make polymers and other olefin-based chemicals. The process turns natural gas into ethylene and propylene— the high-value basic building blocks for making products ranging from food packaging and diapers to auto parts, toys, and medical supplies. The gas is first turned into methanol which can be easily transported. The methanol can be either shipped to the ultimate customer location for conversion into olefins or converted directly to olefins at the remote location. What makes GTO particularly appealing is its potential to use natural gas from remote fields that doesn’t have easy access to world markets— “gas that otherwise would be difficult to sell” (The Lamp, 2004). The first on-site GTO plant, however, is several years away.

Gas as Aid to Oil Production. Gas associated with oil may occur as a gas cap over the oil in an oil-bearing structure, and also dissolved in the oil. Gas dissolved in the oil makes the oil more fluid and, therefore, easier to move to the well bore for recovery. Gas above the oil in a gas cap pressures the oil, moving it to the well bore and also aiding in greater oil recovery. So when oil is being produced, the ratio of gas to oil, the gas/oil ratio (usually expressed in cubic feet per barrel of oil) is kept as low as possible, by “choking” the well with small aperture valves. These apertures are sometimes as small as 1/8th or 1/4th inch in diameter, to produce oil more slowly and retain as much gas as possible in the reservoir. If the well were run wide open, the gas dissolved in the oil tends to come out first, reducing the pressure, leaving the oil behind. This is oil and gas reservoir engineering, a very important part of oil and gas production, managed by highly trained petroleum reservoir engineers. If there is no pipeline to remove gas from the well site, the gas is almost always pumped back into the producing formation to aid in further oil production. This is the situation in the north Alaskan Prudhoe Bay Field. Eventually, this gas could be piped down to the 48 contiguous states. In the meantime, it is retained in the oil reservoir, except for a small amount that is used locally to support the living and working facilities of the oil camp. It gets as cold as -60 F in north Alaska, so the gas is very useful.

World Natural Gas Reserves. Because serious natural gas exploration has occurred much more recently than oil, reserve figures as we have them now, will no doubt be subject to substantial revision over the next decade or two. In the United States and Canada, about 80% of all wells now being drilled are for natural gas — quite a reversal from time past when oil was the prime exploration target. 

Currently, the United States produces about 19.2 Tcf of gas per year, but uses about 23 Tcf. Gas demand is expected to grow to 30 Tcf within a decade. Can this demand be met? To make up for the growing deficiency in domestic gas production, more and more gas has to be imported from Canada, which now amounts to about 16 percent of U.S. supply. At present, average per capita gas production in the United States is 68,790 cubic feet. For Canada, a much colder country on average, per capita consumption is 192,190 cubic feet per year. This very large per capita gas consumption makes Canada vulnerable to the time when its gas production peaks and begins to decline.

This already may have occurred. In 2002, Canada drilled 18,000 gas wells, but production fell (Potential Gas Committee, 2003). There are two reasons for this. Gas wells have very high decline rates compared with oil wells. In Canada, first-year gas well depletion rates may be as high as 50 percent or more (some as high as 83 percent). The depletion rates settle down after about two years to 20 to 28 percent (Youngquist and Duncan, 2003). Also, the size of new discoveries has been falling. In 1991, average initial production per gas well drilled in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (lying between the granitic Canadian Shield to the east and the folded Rocky Mountains to the west) was 775 thousand cubic feet a day. In 2001, average initial production was 375 thousand cubic feet a day. Obviously, the new reservoirs being discovered are decreasing in size which is typical of a maturing exploration region.

Mexico uses 12,020 cubic feet per capita per year, almost all of it for industrial purposes. Although the U.S. imports gas from Canada, the U.S. is a net exporter of gas to Mexico— a somewhat anomalous situation required by NAFTA.

Oil and gas reservoirs are managed quite differently from one another. Gas travels through pore spaces in the reservoir far easier and faster than oil. An oil well usually has a water-drive. If an oil well is run wide open, the water will tend to “channel,” because the reservoir rock has different degrees of permeability. The result is that water, which can move through reservoir rock more easily than oil, will channel through the more permeable strata, bypassing the oil. The well then tends to go to water, leaving a lot of oil still in the reservoir. Oil wells are “choked” down so the oil is produced slowly, and while it moves slowly through the reservoir rock, water does not bypass it. This concept is termed the maximum efficient rate of production (MER).

In contrast, in a pure gas well, the gas rises through any water to the well bore. There is no channeling problem, and the well can be run essentially wide open. Thus, all the gas in the reservoir is produced rather quickly. As there is a time value for money invested in drilling the well, the quicker the gas is recovered, the higher the rate of return. The only major restraints may be the market for the gas and the availability of pipelines to carry the gas. In summary, all these factors result in a much higher decline rate for gas wells than for oil wells. The average onshore gas well in the United States experiences on average, a 22% annual decline, much higher in early well life, but lower later. Offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico have as high as a 50% annual decline rate. Gas wells, therefore, have a much shorter life than oil wells. This means many new gas wells must be drilled each year just to maintain production levels, which we are not doing. In 2003, the United States drilled 23,000 gas wells and the overall production level barely changed. It is a treadmill, and as gas drilling goes deeper, it is an increasingly expensive treadmill. In the first quarter of 2002, the top 30 U.S. gas producing companies suffered a gas production drop of 3% from the fourth quarter of 2001. These companies generate more than half of all U.S. gas production.

Size of discoveries. Larger fields tend to be found early because they are large. Simple random drilling can find them. As exploration proceeds, it takes more drilling to find gas and the amount of gas found per drilling rig declines. In the United States in 1994, the added production found by each drilling rig was 27.9 million cubic feet a day. By 2001, this figure had dropped to 13.9 million cubic feet a day.

Alaskan gas.  There is a large amount of gas in the Prudhoe Bay and adjacent oil fields. Currently, this gas, which is associated with oil production, is reinjected into the reservoir to maintain reservoir pressure. Eventually, as the oil is depleted, more of this gas could be commercially produced. But this will require a pipeline using some route to the lower 48 states. The volatile price of natural gas, which in the early years of the 21st century has ranged from $2 to $10 per thousand cubic feet, creates economic uncertainty for the viability of the project. The new Alaska pipeline will be built, but the cost is estimated to be $20 billion, and no gas is expected through the projected line until 2015 at the earliest.

More drilling. With the rapid depletion rates of gas wells, in order to get more domestic gas production, more drilling must be done, and done consistently. Emphasis should be placed on discovery of “giant” gas wells. These wells generally are deep (to 25,000 feet, and more) and very expensive.

Where are the prospects for more U.S. natural gas? The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated where future U.S. gas supplies will be found. The study suggests that the Rocky Mountains and offshore areas of the United States offer the best prospects. Because of environmental restrictions in the Rockies, more and more U.S. gas exploration is taking place offshore. But there are drilling bans in effect on both the East and West Coasts, and in parts of the Gulf of Mexico. So areas open for gas exploration and development are limited.

Natural gas in Canada. Natural gas production in Canada has a long history of continuous expansion. From a peak in 2001, production has declined 4.5%. At this writing, the decline continues. Exploration is gradually moving northward, as well as seaward into more hostile, remote, and expensive to develop terrains. The last frontiers for major gas finds in Canada appear to be offshore Newfoundland and Labrador, and northwest Canada in the Beaufort Sea-Mackenzie Delta Basin (BMB).

Gas discoveries have already been made here in the BMB, but without a pipeline, have not been producing. The gas from the BMB may never reach the United States or even southern Canada because the energy-intensive Athabasca oil sands are projected for substantially increased development. Processing the oil sands may use all the gas from the BMB. The gas will be transported by a 1,200-kilometer pipeline at a cost of $7.7 billion (Canadian dollars). This will stimulate more drilling in the BMB, where there is apparently considerably more gas to be discovered. But wells drilled in this difficult environment are costly. Onshore wells cost about $20 to 25 million (Canadian dollars). Some gas may be found off the coast of British Columbia, but environmental objections have already been raised there. Eventually, drilling is likely to proceed.

it is estimated that by 2020, some 25 percent of western Canada’s gas production may be used for Athabasca oil sand operations. Canada now exports 60 percent of its natural gas production to the United States. But there is already dissent in the Canadian Parliament against this volume of gas exports. As Canada’s population grows, and gas supplies are inevitably depleted, Canada no doubt will choose to keep warm first rather than send gas to the United States. Anticipating the time when its gas supplies are limited, Canada is considering sites for LNG landing facilities.

Gas — Expanding Use, Production, and Export.  Natural gas is now being discovered in many areas that were ignored in oil exploration. Gas wells are simple to complete because gas does not need pumps, it flows. Processing gas to a usable quality is also simpler than the refining processes for oil.

World Gas Reserves. Similar to oil, estimating proven natural gas reserves is not an exact science. Only rough estimates of the resource positions of various countries can be made at this time. The world’s largest single gas deposit probably already has been discovered. It is located partly in Qatar and partly in Iran, in a large anticlinal structure that stretches across the lower end of the Persian Gulf between the two countries and holds an estimated 10 to 12% of the world’s known gas reserves.

The Worldwide Future of Gas. The energy contained in world gas reserves is probably equal to, if not larger, than the energy in remaining oil reserves. The public has great faith in the ability of science and industry to solve the problem of the looming depletion of fossil fuels. The common view is that we can move to other energy sources with no great difficulty or adjustment to today’s lifestyle. Policy makers and government officials promote this optimistic view. Few people in public life are likely to admit we have a problem for which there is no easy solution.

In 2004, Alan Greenspan, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, discussed rising oil costs. He said, “If history is any guide, oil will eventually be overtaken by less-costly alternatives well before conventional oil reserves run out.” The subsequent news headline read: “Greenspan: Alternative fuel will eventually handle demand.” Although assured by a high government official that there is no future energy problem, the statement was an example of unsupported optimism by someone with no background or experience in energy resources.

Factually, there are no less-costly alternatives to oil in sight. Chairman Greenspan did not clarify any alternatives. The reporter writing the article noted that the Chairman’s comment was, “consistent with Greenspan’s deeply held belief that market forces will eventually solve almost any kind of shortage ….” This is the standard view of most economists, and has been accepted uncritically by much of the public.

Until 1880, wood was the principal fuel used in the United States. From about 1880 to about 1945, coal became the largest single energy source. Since 1945, petroleum (oil and natural gas) has been the most important energy source and now constitutes about 65 percent of U.S. energy supply. Nuclear energy has met stiff resistance in the U.S. No new plants have been started here since 1976.

There is a very large amount of heavy oil worldwide. It is more difficult to produce and to refine than lighter oil, but with higher oil prices, more of this oil is becoming more economical to recover. In conventional oil fields, usually less than half the oil in place is being recovered, and in general, heavier oil fractions are left behind. With higher prices, better technology, and by applying new technologies, more may be produced than is now included in “conventional proven reserves.” This will help stretch out oil supplies, but the low-cost flush production of higher quality oil that the United States and other mature oil producing countries have enjoyed is gone. There is still a lot of oil available in various kinds of deposits both here and abroad, but at a price, and with a considerable time lag in development to put the needed equipment in place. The higher cost of recovering this oil will be passed on to the consumer.

In California, which passed its peak of production many years ago, heavy oil resources are the last to be developed because they are the most expensive. And lighter oils are mostly depleted. Northwest of Taft, in the southwestern San Joaquin Valley, the site of one of the very early oil fields developed in that state, there is a huge complex of steam generating stations, which pipe steam into the ground to reduce the viscosity of the oil so it can be pumped to the surface. Pumping each barrel of crude oil here requires about 320 gallons of water, in an area where water is scarce and coveted by agriculture as well (Miller, 2010). This is far less efficient and more costly than drilling a well and having the oil flow to the surface. It represents the final effort to get oil left behind by earlier flowing or pumping methods of oil production. Another huge oil field in North America, the Alaskan Kuparak River Field, lies northwest of Prudhoe Bay. The oil reservoir is at a depth of about 7,000 feet below the surface. But above that is another potential oil field, the West Sak. It is a shallower unit (about 3,500 feet deep), and contains an estimated 20 billion barrels of oil, almost twice as large as the Prudhoe Bay Field. But the oil is thick, and the reservoir rocks are a loose, sandy formation, which tends to clog up wells. This is an example of an oil deposit that is technically “recoverable.” However, the cost would be high and the net energy that would be obtained would be small after the energy inputs of the production processes are subtracted.

There are very large deposits of heavy oil in the world that were never developed as oil fields. This is oil that has lost its lighter fractions, or was initially composed of organic compounds which did not mature in the Earth as conventional oil does, and never were very fluid. The two most notable of these deposits are in eastern Alberta and adjacent western Saskatchewan, and in eastern Venezuela.


Heavy oil in sands can be produced by the CSS method (cyclic steam stimulation). In this process used by Imperial Oil for the Cold Lake region of eastern Alberta and also used in similar deposits in western Saskatchewan, steam is injected into the formation for a time to warm the bitumen and make it flow. Then the well is pumped. This cycle can be repeated several times. Since oil flows much better horizontally than vertically, and because shale partings are present in oil sands, this is the most effective way of producing oil in situ (Deffeyes, 2005). Imperial Oil later announced that they had patented a process to improve oil recovery still more by adding a solvent to the steam being injected. These oil deposits are being developed and can marginally compete with conventional sources. There are at least 25 billion barrels, and perhaps several times that much in these deposits. How much can be recovered economically is not known, but the net energy recovery will be low.

There is a large heavy oil (really tar) deposit in eastern Siberia. Largely unknown because of its remote location and undeveloped status, the deposit is comparable in size to the Canadian Athabasca oil sands and appears to be the broad exposed edge of an ancient oil basin. Since Russia has far easier oil resources to develop, and the cost of exploiting the Siberian deposit would be prohibitive, it is unlikely to be developed in the immediate future.

One of the world’s largest deposits of heavy oil is in southeastern Venezuela, estimated to be about 1.2 trillion barrels. It spans about 54,000 square kms (20,800 square miles), but the main development covers about 13,600 square km (5,250 square miles). The deposit lies along the east-flowing Orinoco River whose course is controlled by the northern edge of the ancient rocks of the south flank of the East Venezuela oil basin, which has received a huge charge of oil from the richly organic Cretaceous La Luna Formation (Green, 2006). This exceedingly thick Orinoco Valley oil is found in an elongated deposit sometimes called the “cinturon de la brea” (belt of tar). To produce it, they drilled a pattern of five wells with the peripheral ones injecting steam to drive oil to the central producer. More recently they have been able to extract some oil by horizontal wells partly without steam (Campbell, 2005a). Production was expected to rise from 680,000 barrels a day to about one million barrels a day by 2010. However, in 2006, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez canceled all oil development contracts with foreign companies working in the region and imposed new taxes several times higher than those in their original agreements. In January 2007, President Chavez announced he would simply nationalize all Orinoco operations (Wertheim, 2007). Given the record of nationalization in Venezuela and elsewhere, the end result will probably be a reduction in oil output as the investor-owned companies and their technical expertise depart.

Oil Sands. These deposits are ancient oil fields that have been uncovered by erosion or ones from which oil has migrated to the surface or near-surface, and has lost its lighter, more volatile elements. The largest of these deposits is in northern Alberta, the Athabasca oil sands a few miles north of Fort McMurray. The sands contain an estimated 1.7 to 2.0 trillion or more barrels of semi-solid hydrocarbons (Suncor, 1995). These deposits at Peace River, Athabasca, and the Cold Lake deposits (which do not exist at the surface) cover approximately 149,000 square km (57,514 square miles), an area about the size of Michigan. If regarded as a single oil field, it would be the world’s largest. It underlies about 23% of the Canadian Province of Alberta. The hub of operations is the city of Fort McMurray, once a small fur trading post, which now has a population of 70,000.

Contrary to enthusiastic investment letters, oil sand deposits are not like an underground lake of oil. The deposit consists of grains of sand each of which has a thin film of water and outside this water film there is another coating of oil. There are two main methods of recovering the oil. One is by open pit strip mining in which the oil sand is loaded into the world’s largest trucks. These are 400-ton capacity behemoths have tires that cost $45,000 each. The sand is trucked to a processing plant or to a conveyor system going to the plant. It takes two tons of oil sand to produce one barrel of oil. Using a hot water floatation process, the oil is stripped away from the sand. Initially, on recovery, the hydrocarbon is a black, viscous, tar-like material. In several steps, chiefly involving the addition of a light hydrocarbon solvent, the bitumen is upgraded to a straw-colored synthetic crude oil. Then it can be pumped and piped to a refinery where it is further upgraded to the various end products produced from ordinary crude oil.

However, up to 80% of oil sand deposits are too deeply buried to be recovered by surface strip mining, so an in situ process has been developed. Two wells are drilled vertically to the productive strata, and then deviated horizontally to exactly five meters vertically apart, and cased with perforated pipe. Steam is injected in one well which reduces the viscosity of the bitumen that is then pumped out using the other well. This is the SAGD (pronounced “SAG-D”) process — steam assisted gravity drainage recovery method. It can recover from 60 to 80 percent of the bitumen in the formation.

How much can be produced? The Alberta Energy and Utilities Board says that of the approximately 1.7 trillion barrels of crude bitumen estimated to be in place, only about 19% of it (315 billion barrels) can eventually be produced. Using today’s technology, only about 174 billion barrels can be recovered given current and economic forecast conditions. So, of the vast amounts of oil in the oil sands that are enthusiastically cited by writers of investment letters and other reports, much less than half will ever be produced.

What is the ultimate daily rate of production? The processes by which oil is recovered from oil sand do not lend themselves easily to large production rates. The weather is also a limiting factor. At times, it is 50 F below zero in winter. And because much of the land is boggy tundra, some operations, such as putting in new installations, must be done when the ground is frozen. To stop the newly mined moist sand from freezing to the bottoms of the trucks, truck beds are electrically heated. In summary, the conditions of production are vastly different and far more difficult than drilling a well in Texas or in the Persian Gulf.

There are two main limiting factors in oil sands production. First, it is an energy-intensive operation. Natural gas is now the chief energy source, although there is some effort to use some of the heavy elements of the oil sands themselves as fuel. It takes 1000 cubic feet of gas, using the SAGD process, to produce a barrel of bitumen. Each day, enough natural gas is consumed in the oil sands operation to heat 3.5 million Canadian homes. The seven trillion cubic feet of gas discovered in the Mackenzie Delta may be piped to the Athabasca oil sands operation, and all of it may be used just for that purpose, with none available for other needs in Canada. To produce two million barrels [of oil] per day would require approximately two billion cubic feet of natural gas, which is roughly equivalent to the amount of natural gas needed to heat every home in Canada for a day.

A second factor limiting production is that large quantities of water are needed for both processes, and water is limited in the resource area. The Athabasca River is the main source of water. But the river has insufficient flow to support the needs of all the planned oil sands operations.

A third possible limitation on oil sand production is the diluent needed to thin out the bitumen so it will flow at ambient temperature and move by pipeline. This light diluent oil is produced by conventional oil production in Canada, which is declining. So there is some doubt that domestic sources can supply all the diluent required for the projected expansion of the oil sands operations.

Net energy recovery. Generally, the comparisons made between the recoverable volumes of oil sand oil with the reserves of Saudi Arabia simply state that Alberta has 174 billion barrels and Saudi Arabia claims 264 billion barrels. But this is a misleading comparison because the net energy recovery of a barrel of oil from oil sand is considerably lower than from a barrel of oil from a Saudi oil well. Besides the energy cost of the natural gas it takes to recover a barrel of oil sand oil, there are other energy costs incurred in the surface mining, stripping off the overburden, loading and hauling the oil sand, and the ultimate disposal of the leftover sand. Saudi Arabian oil incurs none of these costs.

I have discussed the issue of calculating net energy recovery with various people in the oil sand country, and even suggested that the cost of supplying and heating the Fort McMurray population should be included in the energy cost. In northern Alberta, winter is severe, arrives early, and stays a long time. Conducting mining and plant operations in sub-zero temperatures, and keeping all the equipment working is difficult. The quartz sand in these deposits is harder than steel and it inevitably gets into the machinery and causes maintenance difficulties. Including the narrower and more immediate energy costs, the open pit mining and floatation process reportedly yields an eight to one ratio of energy recovered to energy invested. The SAGD process yields a four to one energy recovery ratio.

Environmental effects of oil sand developments. The impacts of oil sands development in Alberta are considerable. Aside from carbon dioxide emissions discussed in Chapter 20, there are several other significant environmental impacts (Clarke, 2009; Nikiforuk, 2008). Waste water and large volumes of sand resulting from the extraction of oil are dumped into tailings ponds, which now cover more than 50 square kilometers (19.3 square miles).

Taking water from the Athabasca River, especially in winter when the flow is substantially reduced, has an adverse effect on the fish population. It also has a negative impact on the Peace-Athabasca Delta in Lake Athabasca, which is the largest boreal delta in the world, and one of the most important waterfowl nesting areas in North America. The areas where strip mining is conducted leaves a moonscape land surface, of which only about 17 percent has been reclaimed to date.

Huge piles of discarded sand mar the landscape along with great quantities of contaminated waste water. The original pristine landscape of bog, marsh, and boreal forest cannot be restored. In situ SAGD recovery process (which will gradually replace surface mining) has considerably less impact than strip mining. But there is environmental damage from roads and drill sites.

Upgrading oil obtained by either process also causes a substantial increase in carbon dioxide emissions to the degree that the pledge Canada signed in the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon emissions has not been met. Instead, emissions have increased. In 2011, Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol.

A last refuge for the oil companies. Since most of North America is thoroughly explored and drilled, there are few new places left for major oil companies to operate. Canada has a stable government, a pleasant change from what companies experience in many other countries. There is also little or no exploration cost or risk to operating in the oil sands. We know where they are, and except for drilling a few holes to determine the depth and thickness of productive strata, there is little drilling to be done except for putting the pipes in place for the SAGD production process. The long lead times required to negotiate leases with unstable and corrupt governments, the lengthy and costly exploration operations, the billions it now costs to build and put drilling platforms offshore in as much as 10,000 feet of water where they are subject to hurricanes and the possibilities of terrorist attacks, are all avoided by operating in the Alberta oil sands. It is a last refuge for the oil companies, not only for North American companies, but also for those of other countries like Shell from the Netherlands, and Total of France.

The recovery of oil from oil sands is not a geological matter but a manufacturing process. Costs are quite predictable. There is also a greater stability and security than in many other oil operations in distant lands where pipelines are blown up and workers on oil rigs are kidnapped. Oil field workers have been killed by local insurgent groups in places where oil companies operate in regions of civil war, as in Nigeria and Colombia.

There are very few oil sand deposits in the United States. Some exist in Utah and elsewhere, but these are small, and the hydrocarbon is dense and, therefore, takes even more processing than Canadian oil sand. In the past, fuel production from unconventional sources usually depended on large government subsidies. The Canadian oil sand industry is an exception. It succeeded, where others have failed.

As a result, several major oil companies and a number of other companies are vigorously pursuing oil sand resources. Several oil sands plants are in operation and more are planned. The largest are the Syncrude plant (a consortium of companies, including the Alberta government), and the Suncor operation (an independent company based in Calgary). Canadian Natural Resources is another major player in oil sands development. The production activity in the Alberta oil sands is currently the largest single industrial development in the world.

What can oil sands do for future world oil supply? There are very optimistic projections as to what oil sands can do for the world’s oil supply. But given current world oil consumption of 84 million barrels a day, four million barrels of oil a day from oil sands by 2030 can only meet a small fraction of world oil demand. Furthermore, by 2030, when four million barrels a day of production could be reached, Canada’s conventional oil resources will be largely depleted and Canada itself will need increasing amounts of oil from the oil sands. In 2001, daily oil production from oil sands exceeded the production from conventional oil wells in Canada, and it has done so ever since.

Minimum Canadian demand on the oil sand oil by 2030 could be two million barrels a day. Canada rightly will take care of its own needs first, leaving perhaps two million barrels a day to be divided among all the other consumer nations waiting in line, including the United States. The United States, with its current consumption of 19 million barrels of oil a day, will not see its oil supply problem solved by Canadian oil sand oil.


For more than 90 years, numerous attempts have been made to develop a shale oil industry in the U.S. Shortly after World War II, the U.S. Bureau of Mines built an oil shale demonstration plant just north of Rifle, Colorado. It was closed. Other projects include Occidental Petroleum’s project near De Beque, Colorado, which involved tunneling into the shale, excavating a room, and then blasting down shale from the ceiling. The room was then sealed off, and the fragmented shale set afire. The oil released from the shale by the fire was to be drained out through a trough previously cut in the floor. The project proved unsuccessful and was abandoned. Equity Oil and the U.S. Department of Energy did a joint project in which 1,000º F steam was injected into the shale through numerous wells under pressure of 1,500 pounds per square inch. Water, oil and gas were to be recovered from the injected zone through production wells. This was unsuccessful. Unocal (now part of Chevron) has been working on oil shale technology since the 1920s. One small experimental plant was built many years ago in upper Parachute Creek Canyon, in western Colorado, then abandoned.

Oil shale comes in various degrees of richness. Some deposits can produce up to 100 gallons of oil per ton like the famous Mahogany Ledge of the Piceance Basin. A good average grade that could be economical is about 30 gallons per ton. The differences in grades can be substantial in vertical distances in the strata of only a few feet, which is one of the problems in economically recovering the oil. A consistently good grade thickness of shale is required for efficient mining. The main thing that the kerogen in oil shale needs to become oil is heat. To speed up Nature’s process, the conventional approach has been to first mine the rock and then load it on trucks to be hauled to a plant where it is ground into fine particles and heated to a temperature of about 900º F. This produces a tarry mass to which hydrogen must be added to make it flow readily. Currently, the chief source of hydrogen is natural gas, which unfortunately brings us back to petroleum, which we are trying to replace.

Oil shale, when heated, tends to pop like popcorn, so the resulting volume, even after the organic material is removed, is larger than the volume of rock initially mined. This creates a huge waste disposal problem. The waste material has to be hauled somewhere. The ideal situation would be to have a mountain of oil shale near a large canyon, where the oil shale could be brought down the mountain largely by gravity, run through the processing plant, and the waste material dumped into the adjacent canyon. Because there are various toxic elements associated with the oil shale waste, the pile of oil shale waste would have to be stabilized and sealed off from groundwater or surface water to avoid contamination.

How much net energy? Developing oil shale deposits by other than in situ methods, involves huge materials handling and disposal problems. Also, when the energy costs of mining, transporting, refining (including the addition of hydrogen), and waste disposal are all added up, the net amount of energy recovered from oil shale is relatively small. It does not begin to compare with the net energy reward now obtained through conventional oil well drilling and production operations. Some studies suggest that the final figure for the net energy in oil recovered from oil shale is negative. At best, it is not large, and surface mining for oil shale may disturb up to five times as much land as that caused by coal mining for the same net amount of energy. It also would be far more destructive to the landscape than oil wells producing the same net amount of energy.

Another problem with the Utah and Colorado oil shale deposits is that the processing and the auxiliary support facilities need large amounts of water. The richest oil shale deposits are located in the headwaters of the Colorado River. This river now barely reaches the Gulf of Lower California. Present demand for water already exceeds what the river can meet. Water supply would be a serious problem for any large development of oil shale because it would take at least two barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil. The states downstream from the oil shale deposits have already protested the withdrawal of Colorado River water for shale oil production. The development would immediately pit Colorado and Utah shale oil projects against California, Nevada, and especially Arizona. These

So far, very little oil, except on a pilot plant scale, has been produced. The major oil companies have tried to develop a viable, economic, commercial operation, but none has been successful thus far.

An attempt to economically recover an oil-like substance from oil shale reached a rather astounding climax and conclusion in the 1980s and early 90s. With the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 fresh in mind, both Exxon and Unocal launched huge projects in the area of Parachute Creek just north of the Colorado River. In 1980, Exxon began construction of the Colony II project designed to produce 47,000 barrels of oil a day, and announced that production of 15 million barrels a day of synthetic fuels by 2010 would not be “beyond achievement” (Business Week, 1980). To support this project, it was even suggested to divert part of the Missouri River, some 700 miles away.

To get the project started, Exxon announced it would spend $5 billion on various preliminary projects, and build a town for 25,000 workers. To house this small city of employees, Exxon built a model community across the Colorado River on a broad gently sloping upland called Battlement Mesa. It had everything including a recreation center. But about the time that the Battlement Mesa community was completed, Exxon concluded that the oil shale project was uneconomic. On May 2, 1982, dubbed “Black Sunday” in the town of Parachute, Exxon announced it was abandoning the project (Gulliford, 1989; Symonds, 1990).

Backed by a government production subsidy, Unocal persisted and built a large plant just north of the town of Parachute (previously called Grand Valley). Construction was completed in August of 1983, at a cost of $654 million. In its 1987 annual report, Unocal said: “The ultimate goal is to achieve steady production at design capacity – about 10,000 barrels a day.” Peak production of 7,000 barrels a day was achieved in October 1989.

During its experimental phase, the plant operated with the aid of a $400 million federal subsidy. By 1991, Unocal had used $114 million of this subsidy, and received $42.23 a barrel for the oil produced at Parachute Creek, with the U.S. government paying $23.46 of that amount. Unocal’s production costs were about $57 a barrel.

On June 1, 1991, this $654 million plant was permanently closed, and the project was abandoned. Parts of the plant have been sold or moved to other Unocal operations. Much of the plant, remains, however, as a monument to the failed efforts to develop a viable shale oil operation.

Oil shale development has been “just around the corner” for over fifty years, and may continue to be in that position for some time to come, perhaps indefinitely.

Shale oil can, at most, supply only a small portion of current world oil demand. And shale oil, by its composition, is better adapted for use as a raw material for petrochemical plants than for the production of gasoline. As a petrochemical feedstock, shale oil may play a modest role in the future economy.

Now Shell Oil Company is once again (2012) attempting to produce oil from oil shale in commercial amounts. It built an experimental operation in the Piceance Basin of Colorado in which a series of holes are drilled in a block of oil shale, and electrodes are inserted to heat the rock. To prevent groundwater from migrating through the rock and cooling it, a perimeter of frozen ground was created around this block of shale. Shell says it will take several years to heat the shale to the point that the kerogen is converted to oil. Then it is to be produced from wells drilled into the shale.

However, shale is not very permeable. This in situ operation eliminates several problems of conventional shale oil production. The handling of great volumes of rock material is eliminated. There are no mining, transportation or grinding costs. There is no waste disposal or stabilization problem, and the demand for water is modest. Shell is famous for having good engineers, and they claim they could generate a positive energy recovery ratio of 3.7/1. Since rocks are good insulators, it will take a very large amount of electricity to heat the rock and convert the kerogen to oil. How many electric power plants will it take to provide the power for a significant production of oil by this process? And what are the fuel requirements for the power plants? Even if the Shell project proves successful, it is difficult to see how it can make a significant contribution to world oil supplies, given the years it takes to heat a block of oil shale, and the power plant requirements and other infrastructure that are required.

Skeptics including Randy Udall and Steve Andrews (2005) doubt the success of this project. These long-time observers of oil shale resources make some interesting observations about the Shell project: The plan is audacious. Shell proposes to heat a 1000-foot-thick section of shale to 700 degrees, then keep it hot for three years… Imagine a 100 acre production plot. Inside that area, the company would drill as many as 1,000 wells. Next, long electric heaters would be inserted in preparation for a multi-year bake. It is a high stakes gamble, but if it works, a 6-mile by 6-mile area could, over the coming century, produce 20 billion barrels [of oil], roughly equal to remaining reserves in the lower 48 states.

Although Shell’s methods avoid the need to mine shale, it requires a mind-boggling amount of electricity. To produce 100,000 barrels per day, the company would need to construct the largest power plant in Colorado history. Costing about $3 billion, it would consume 5 million tons of coal each year, producing 10 million tons of greenhouse gases. (The Company’s annual electric bill would be about $500 million…. A million barrels a day [1/20th of U.S. current daily consumption] would require 10 new power plants and five new coal mines…. Using coal-fired electricity to wring oil out of rocks is like feeding steak to the dog and eating his Alpo. [Laherrere has estimated that at the current cost of electricity in the region, the cost in electricity of each barrel of oil produced could be as high as $800.]

In 2008, Raytheon (inventor of the microwave oven) launched a project to recover oil by underground heating of the shale with microwaves beamed from transmitters lowered into the shale. The process, like Shell’s, would use large amounts of electricity but also involves multiple steps of heat conversion with some energy lost during each stage, a method more complex than Shell’s approach. But unlike Shell’s project with electrodes, microwaves can generate heat faster than convection heat (Shell’s process) and reduce the heating time to a month or two, rather than years. As both the Shell project and the Raytheon project have yet to be completed, results are not now known. ExxonMobil has also resumed interest in oil shale.

A study by the Rand Corporation for the U.S. Department of Energy found that producing just 100,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) using the currently most advanced in situ process would require 1.2 billion watts of dedicated electricity for heating. This would require a power plant equal in size to the largest coal-fired plant now operating in Colorado. It would cost $3 billion to build and would burn five million tons of coal annually, producing 10 million tons of greenhouse gases. Putting all this in perspective, even the most enthusiastic forecast of 500,000 bpd oil from oil shale production, when viewed against the current U.S. oil use of approximately 20 million barrels a day, or the world use of 84 million barrels a day, shale oil would be only the proverbial “drop in the bucket.”

Oil shale/oil sands — again, the distinction These are sometimes confused by writers. For the sake of clarity, the differences are worth repeating and very obvious when oil sand and oil shale are seen together. Oil shale contains no oil as such, but has an intermediate form of hydrocarbon between plants and oil, called kerogen. Oil shale usually contains some carbonates so it is technically a marl. It is a hard, dense rock, which on fresh exposure is black but weathers to a tan or grey color. Oil sands are black, do not weather to another color, and contain true oil but it is very heavy (thick). It occurs in sand which is not solid rock, as is the case of oil shale, but is friable and can be mined with a power shovel.

Nationalization of oil and mineral companies

The nationalization of oil companies abroad, and the continued movement of U.S. oil companies overseas because domestic exploration prospects are diminishing, have made U.S. companies increasingly hostage to foreign governments. There, overseas investor-owned oil companies rarely own the oil, they simply have lease arrangements for developing those resources and may get a percentage of the production. Foreign governments own the oil and have control. In turn, the American oil-consuming public is hostage to foreign governments. The balance of economic power has shifted abroad in the past four decades, and oil has been a chief factor.

Chile nationalized the American copper companies, Kennecott and Anaconda. Zambia and Zaire took over all multinational copper operations there. “American” was rubbed out of the name Arabian American Oil Company in the desert sands of Saudi Arabia. All foreign interests in Iran and Iraq were taken over. Kuwait nationalized Gulf Oil’s interest there. Venezuela nationalized Creole Petroleum Corporation, formerly a division of ExxonMobil Corporation, the company that had developed the great oil deposits of the Lake Maracaibo Basin. Peru took over International Petroleum Company, also at the time an Exxon affiliate. This was done with no compensation whatsoever. And was done not long after Exxon had invested large sums in rebuilding the oil camp and related facilities, including a modern hospital free to all employees and their families, and had built the safest water supply system in the entire country, and even a fine large church.

After nationalizing their minerals, many countries discovered they did not have the technical expertise to run the nationalized operations. Also, in some cases, so much money was drained from operations into political and social pockets and causes, that there was not enough capital left to maintain and develop the resource facilities. Therefore, many countries invited foreign companies to come back, under various financial arrangements. In a 2-page ad in 1995, Zambia announced it was privatizing the government monopoly of copper mining, and asked for foreign capital to come in and help. On January 1, 1976, Venezuela took over all foreign oil interests. But in 1995, Venezuela needed help to run its oil operations, and made arrangements to auction off some exploration rights in various prospective areas to foreign oil companies. It should be noted that Venezuela was not risking any money. If the leases are unproductive, the companies lose all their lease and exploration costs. However, the terms included taxes that took from 71 percent to 88 percent of the profits from any successful ventures.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, a new political order caused by oil appeared in that region. Large oil deposits exist in several countries that split away from the USSR. The extensive Caspian Sea area oil is now owned by Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Some oil, an estimated 4.1 billion barrels, also is located in nearby Ukraine. Kazakhstan, five times larger than France in area, and larger than all of the other former Soviet Republics combined, excluding Russia itself, is reported to have as much as three to 10 times as much oil as Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay Field. [my comment: but after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia in 2013, Exxon had to leave Siberia and Russia was depending on their help to drill for deep sea arctic oil, because they have little expertise themselves.]

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Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Exponential growth

Preface. I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it. I’ve made eight posts in Experts/Walter Youngquist of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

* * *

World population continues to grow and all our economic systems are based on growth. What politician or business is against growth? “Growth is the Santa Claus,” which presumably is used to solve economic problems (Laherrere, 2004). But growth is the creed of the cancer cell, which eventually destroys its host, and ultimately itself. As Albert Bartlett has told us repeatedly, “sustainable growth is an oxymoron.” A brief note in Science, April 7, 2006, reports that about 95 million hectares of arable land in Africa have been degraded to the point where they are virtually nonproductive. Population destroyed the environment, and imported food supplies cannot solve the problem indefinitely. Populations there must not only stop growing, but must shrink if that environment is ever to be restored to productivity.

At the current rate of consumption is often used as a comforting phrase to assure the public that “at the current rate of consumption,” a given resource will last for at least X number of years – usually, this is quite a long time. The fallacy is that “the current rate of consumption” does not continue into the future. The rate of consumption almost always increases. The increase in resource consumption is due to three factors: (1) population growth, (2) demand for an increase in per capita consumption of a resource to raise living standards, and (3) discussing a larger number of uses for a given resource.

A resource may have a life of 100 years at the current rate of consumption. But, at a seemingly low rate of a five percent annual increase in demand, the resource will only last about 36 years.

One example of such a statement regarding world oil reserves was made on a popular TV investment program (Wall Street Week, 1996). It was that current supplies were enough to last us for 40 years “at the current consumption rates.” This statement is misleading for two reasons. First, current consumption rates are transitory. Demand for oil will continue to increase as population increases. Second, if the statement were taken literally, it would mean that for 40 years, we would have the same amount of oil available as we have today. But in the 41st year, there would be none. This also has no relation to reality.

Far more energy and mineral resources have been used in the world since 1900, than over all previous time. In the case of oil, the first 200 billion barrels of oil in the world were consumed between 1859 and 1968, but it only took the following 10 years to consume the second 200 billion barrels. Now 200 billion barrels of oil are just a six and one-half year supply. We have used the first trillion barrels of oil during the past 125 years. We will use the next trillion in 30 years. Then what?

To illustrate how fast the human population target moves, and the inability of material resources to keep up with the demand from such growth, the late geochemist Harrison Brown (1978) calculated that if world population continued to increase at the rate of two percent annually, in two thousand years, the Earth would be a solid mass of people expanding out into the universe at the speed of light. In just six hundred years (not really long in terms of human history), the Earth would pass the standing room only situation of five square feet per person, covering both the continents and the oceans. This is what “only a two percent growth rate” means.

In a finite world, moral behavior must recognize both physical and biological constraints. Because modern man is rapidly exploiting the natural wealth that took the Earth millions of years to create, the evidence is mounting that a rapid environmental decline is now occurring on a global scale…. Hence it becoming more and more urgent that ethical theory be grounded in the environmental principle…. It will require that the human population be reduced to numbers that the renewable resources of the Earth can support (Elliott, 2005).

The Earth’s riches accumulated from geological events over millions of years have, in a brief three hundred years, been significantly depleted through mines as deep as 10,000 feet, oil extracted from below 16,000 feet, and gas produced from depths below 20,000 feet. Aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be recharged. Soil is being lost many times faster than nature can replace it. This has brought us to the brink of a third turning point. Succeeding human populations will cope with a permanently reduced resource base. For the first time, the Earth will provide humanity with a future of less. The human response to this reality could be orderly or it could usher in an age of social and economic chaos.

Natural resources will continue to control the destinies of nations and individuals. This is hardly a profound statement, for what else do we have to live on? It is the irregular distribution of the Earth’s resources and how nations have or have not been able to exploit them that cause the great differences we now see in nations’ social and economic structures.

Earth materials and energy sustain industrialized nations. But we have been using these resources at an unsustainable exponential rate. Hughes (2007) studied energy supply issues, and points out that 50 percent of all oil consumed has been used since 1984, and 90 percent of all oil consumed has been used since 1958.

Through its very success in extracting nonrenewable resources from the Earth (minerals and fossil fuels), industrial society possesses the seeds of its own destruction. We have used more of these vital Earth resources in the past 60 years in all previous Earth history.

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Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Minerals

Preface. I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it. I’ve made eight posts in Experts/Walter Youngquist of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

* * *

Political risks of depending on other nations for oil, metals, and minerals

As countries such as Great Britain and the United States industrialized, initially most raw materials needed were available within the country. But gradually, these resources were depleted and the companies producing these resources had to go abroad to less developed countries for raw materials. Many of these governments were, and remain, to be unstable. The degree of risk depends on the relative stability of governments and the politics within these countries. A continuing civil war is not helpful to oil or mining operations: examples being Angola, Colombia, and Nigeria. The risks can be enormous, and range from the destruction of the resource producer’s equipment, kidnapping or murder of company workers, and the expropriation of company assets without compensation. Contracts made by one political regime may be invalidated by a succeeding political regime. Or the same governing group may simply change its mind and not honor a contract.

The easy oil and other minerals have been found. Most of the surface of the Earth has been mapped geologically. Mineral resources that are readily apparent have been developed for the most part. The early prospectors quickly found the rich mineral deposits exposed at the surface. In many cases, these were small operations, but the quality of ore was such that relatively little work could yield great wealth. And so the easily found, rich mineral deposits were soon exploited. In

In the case of petroleum, oil and gas seeps originally indicated the presence of easily discovered and inexpensively drilled shallow oil and gas fields. Now the oil industry must find anticlinal oil traps at great depth, or find much more subtle oil traps such as a lens of sand of a delta finger at a depth of 10,000 to 15,000 feet, or locate a buried ancient coral reef with no surface expression.

The same circumstances apply to metals and other hard minerals. Native copper (that is, pure) discovered in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was the beginning of the great copper industry of the United States. Anyone could see this copper in large quantities in the “Great Conglomerate.” In prehistoric times, native Americans dug more than 10,000 pits to produce this copper, which became a major trade item up and down the entire Mississippi River Valley. It took no skill to find the copper, and, because it was pure copper, it was easy to use.

United States copper is now produced from a tough, fine-grained igneous rock (quartz monzonite) containing only specks of a copper mineral, not pure copper. The quality (tenor) of the ore is as low as four-tenths of one percent. This means that a ton of rock has to be blasted out, crushed, milled (upgraded by various processes), smelted, and eventually put through an electrolytic process to obtain just eight pounds of copper. It takes a huge and expensive facility to do this.

If the mineral deposit occurs in veins and is and too deep to mine by the open pit method, shafts must be sunk. Underground operations must be pumped free of water that continually floods in, huge fans must be installed to ventilate the mine, and the mine must be electrified. A variety of mine safety devices must be installed. Trying to follow veins of ore through the various complex rock structures that control the ore is difficult and expensive.

Because of all these factors, estimates are that it takes the work of seven men underground to produce the same amount of ore as one man working a surface mine. Today there are mines two miles deep in operation. At such depths, the natural heat gradient of the Earth necessitates that the mine be air-conditioned. Also, because of the great pressure of the overlying rocks, violent rock bursts may occur. Rocks simply burst out of the sides of the mine. They are unpredictable, smashing ore cars and killing miners.

So mining is hazardous and insurance and other costs are high. In the case of underground mines, fluctuating metal prices are a special economic hazard. Unlike surface mining operations, which simply can be shut down if the price of a metal temporarily drops below its production cost, an underground mine must be constantly maintained. The main problem is groundwater, which must be continually pumped out. The mine also has to be kept reasonably dry to prevent the hoisting and other equipment from being damaged, and to provide proper working conditions for the miners.

With the obvious, easily reached deposits of minerals already discovered and developed, the search for minerals today involves looking beneath the ocean floor to find an oil or gas trap many thousands of feet below. Or it could be exploring for deposits beneath the muskeg swamps of Canada or under thick jungle cover in Brazil or New Guinea. If a mineral exploration company is formed, there is no assurance whatever that anything of value will be ever found. Too many consecutive dry holes have put many a fledgling oil company out of business.

A friend told of drilling in the Denver-Julesburg Basin of eastern Colorado. It is a deltaic complex where winding channel sands are the productive structures. The first well drilled was moderately successful. So he drilled an offset well — which was dry, then another offset, also dry, and then two more offset wells, all dry. The amount of oil produced from the first well did not pay the cost of drilling the offset wells. He said if he had drilled one of the dry holes first and given up, he would have been better off financially. Fortunately, he had other resources and survived, but many others in similar situations do not. Drilling is now going deeper and is more expensive. Metal deposits are also far more difficult to find and develop. The time of the small wildcat driller and the lone prospector is largely gone. It takes major company resources to survive repeated failed exploration experiences, some of which cost many millions of dollars. A Scottish firm, Cairn Energy, recently spent $600 million on exploratory drilling in the Arctic and found no oil.

Myth: One mineral/metal can freely and equally replace another

Reality: As we enter the age of depleting resources, both in quality and quantity, there is a view that one metal can freely and equally replace another. This is a carryover of ancient attempts at alchemy, the classic effort to change lead into gold. But the myth persists. The late economist, Julian Simon, carried it to the extreme when he said, “Copper can be made from other metals.” In long-distance electrical transmission lines, aluminum is now being used instead of copper because aluminum is cheaper and lighter weight. In making this substitution, some efficiency is lost because aluminum does not transmit electricity as efficiently as copper does. Each metal has its own distinct physical and chemical properties. Molybdenum makes steel tough so it can be rolled out in sheets and not crack. But within the alloy, molybdenum does not replace steel, it simply adds a quality to it. Similarly with nonmetals, every living cell has to have potassium and phosphorus for which there are no substitutes. (Indeed, when one substance does substitute for another in the body, it is typically a poison or a toxin!) There is no genuine substitute for oil in its many uses. As we face the depletion of the Earth’s resources, there may be limited substitutes for some minerals, but each resource has qualities not found in any other.

Length of time to begin to get return on investment

Another factor common to all mineral ventures is that it takes a good deal of time to realize any income even from a successful project. Time is almost always measured in years. In the case of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field, it was twenty years from the time when the first exploration money was spent just to the time of drilling the discovery well in 1967. On June 20, 1977, The Anchorage Times carried the headline, “First Oil Flows (After 8 years, 4 months, 10 days).” Actually, after the discovery, it was nearly 10 years before oil was sent down the pipeline and income could begin to be generated from the wells.

The huge Hibernia oil field project off the east coast of Canada took almost two decades to develop. One problem was to build a big enough and strong enough drilling platform to resist the icebergs that frequently float down iceberg alley where the offshore Hibernia field is located. By the time the platform was in place and production began, the various project participants had invested a total of more than six billion dollars (U.S.), which had not earned a penny in interest for a period of about 20 years.

Individuals do not have such large sums of money to invest, nor can they wait many years for a return on their investment. It requires large corporations to take on such longterm risk ventures, carry them to completion, and put gasoline in the world’s automobiles.

For mining operations, the average time from discovery of the prospect to production is about seven years. Previously there were costs of exploration. It may have taken many years just to find the prospect. Then add seven years cost of drilling; building the mills to crush the ore; building other facilities, including roads and housing for the workers; supply lines to support continuing operations; and arrange for transportation of the product. There are increasing financial and time costs for environmental studies, compliance, regulations, and mitigations. These are important and necessary, and their absence in earlier times is still reflected in major scars on the landscape and in streams still polluted from long-abandoned operations. But, complying with regulations is a cost that must be paid to obtain the mineral product.

Time is a factor in mineral economics, because until production starts, all the money invested earns nothing. Money has a time value. For example, if all costs from the beginning of exploration to bringing the mine to production means that $100 million has to be invested for a total of ten years, that $100 million must either be borrowed for ten years at the going rate of interest, provided by earnings from other projects, or supplied by stockholders who buy the stock in hopes of eventually getting a reasonable return for their risk investment. And they may lose it all if the project fails.

The time lag from discovery to full development and the beginning of getting a return on capital investment in a mineral deposit (including petroleum) differs widely depending on a variety of factors, such as accessibility to the resource and the infrastructure needed for profitable production (such as pipelines onshore or undersea and plants for milling and smelting metal ores).

Bringing an oil field into full development may take as long as 40 years. Metal deposits usually take less time, but in all cases, the return on invested capital is substantially slower than in other industrial enterprises. One of the problems is predicting the price of the product over the life of the project. Price changes beyond those anticipated may make the venture uneconomic or in some cases, very profitable.

Investors who buy the stock, or the company itself, could have invested their money in some income-producing instrument such as a bank deposit or a bond and earned an immediate income. Instead, their money was spent trying to develop a mineral prospect that not only has to earn a current return, but also make up for the years when the money earned nothing.

Cameron (1986) puts the situation in perspective: Part of the current American attitude toward mining is a carryover from the 19th century, when there were spectacular successes in some districts of the West. Mining became identified as a quick source of easy profits. Those days are long since gone, although there was a brief revival during the uranium boom in the late 1940s and 1950s. Mining today is a highly competitive industry, in which profit margins are low. It is capital-intensive, yet the profit margins and the long lead times between discovery and first production make it difficult to attract capital funds in competition with other industries in which returns on investment are higher and can be realized in much shorter periods of time.

Mineral resources are nonrenewable

The mineral industry differs from other basic wealth-producing activities such as farming, fishing, hunting, and forestry in that minerals are non-renewable. The average metal mine life is seven to ten years. Oil may first flow from a well from its own pressure. Then it has to be pumped. During production, the field usually has to be repressured by water-flooding or gas injection. Finally, all oil fields are abandoned. Each pound of copper produced and each barrel of oil produced puts the company involved a bit closer to being out of business, unless some of the money earned from current production is set aside to pay exploration costs to find more resources. A new crop of corn may be grown each year to replace the crop produced the year before, but fossil fuels and minerals are one-crop situations.


The seventh but very important factor in mineral development, and one completely under the control of people, is taxes. Since money has time value, it is to the advantage of any company to write off expenses in the year in which they occur. Oil and mining companies are no different. But some tax jurisdictions do not allow this, instead requiring that it be done over a period of several years. Another aspect of taxes is that companies are commonly taxed on plants and equipment, and also on proved reserves. This means that the tax bill increases if exploration to prove up reserves gets very far ahead of production needs. Taxing reserves discourages exploration.

At one time, Britain levied taxes as high as 90 percent on the income oil companies received from British North Sea oil production. This left very little for companies to reinvest in further exploration in this high-cost area, and firms began to reduce operations. Recognizing this, the British government since reduced its taxes on North Sea but still taxes them very heavily. There are some smaller fields in the North Sea that could be found and developed if taxes were lower. At present, only large fields with relatively few wells are economic to develop. As these fields are depleted, Britain will have to make a decision to reduce taxes or import even more oil. To date, North Sea oil fields have been milked very heavily by British taxes. Metal mining also tends to be a cash cow for both federal and local governments, with total taxes commonly taking 50 percent or more of gross income. Local governments frequently expand their political boundaries to include mining and oil properties into their tax base.

In less politically stable countries, taxes can and infrequently are changed on a moment’s notice by the action of the person in charge. In 2005, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela raised royalty payments (taxes) by 16 times on the crude oil from the heavy oil Orinoco region. The same year the Russians charged back taxes on a joint oil operation between British Petroleum (BP) and a Russian company, TNK. The assessment was $936 million.

Price estimations and hazards Increasingly, companies in industrialized countries have to search abroad for natural resources. Political volatility in many countries makes the work of the producers of our basic mineral and energy needs rather difficult. Some understanding of the long-range planning that goes into resource development, and the need for a stable economic environment in which to do this is frequently absent among both the public and the politicians in the countries in which the companies operate.

Mining and public lands in the United States

There has been considerable controversy over the 1872 Mining Law, which allows public lands to be claimed and become private property for the production of minerals. In earlier times, obtaining public lands this way was easy and no doubt abused. Recently, however, requirements for claiming lands have become much stricter, and it has become much more difficult to patent public lands. In 1989, for example, only 43 claims were granted and most of them went to Native American tribes through land settlements in Alaska. At present, it is necessary to prove without reasonable doubt that a mineral deposit of value exists before the land can be claimed. To do this an expenditure of between a half a million and a million dollars must ordinarily be spent on each claim. A claim is 600 feet by 1500 feet. A placer claim, one on sand and gravel deposits, is 660 by 1320 feet. Subsequent to obtaining a deed, many millions must be spent in developing the property. Also, no other industry in the U.S. is covered by more stringent federal, state, and local permitting, safety, reclamation, and environmental laws.

By way of example, a recently proposed underground uranium mine on the Cibola National Forest in western New Mexico needed the following studies, reviews, permits, and approvals: 1) several million dollars spent on baseline environmental studies, including surface water, groundwater, cultural resources, vegetation, wildlife, soils, geology, and air quality; 2) a million dollar Environmental Impact Statement; 3) approval of its Plan of Operations by the U.S. Forest Service; 4) consultation with five American Indian tribes and other “consulting parties” under provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act; 5) ethnographic studies prepared by the tribes but funded by the mining company; 6) application for a Discharge Permit by the New Mexico Environment Department; 7) application for a Mine Dewatering Permit from the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer; 9) application for a New Mine Permit from the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division; and 10) application for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In the past 20 years, the American mining industry has spent more than $15 billion to comply with environmental procedures and regulations. From these operations come the materials for making the things used by everyone: cars, trucks, roads, houses, factories, office buildings, home appliances, and myriad other products in everyday use. The bottom line is that mining is an important part of the U.S. economy, but even when public lands are claimed and owned by mining companies, the industry remains one of relatively low profitability. If public lands require payment of a royalty to the government on minerals produced, that cost ultimately will be borne by the consumer, the general public.

The oil industry and land Initially, in the United States, most oil drilling took place on private lands where the mineral rights were held by the land owner. This is in contrast to the rest of the world where these rights are usually owned by the respective governments. Now in the United States, oil development increasingly is going offshore where mineral rights are owned either by the federal or state governments.

A lot of the strident opposition to resource developments fails to consider that if these were shut down and did not exist, the human race would still be close to living in caves, and heating only with wood.

Human Health and Minerals

There is evidence from the geographic distribution of thyroid disease, hypertension, arteriosclerosis, cancer, tooth decay, and from several diseases of animals that a definite relationship exists between the geochemistry of the Earth in those places, and these medical conditions. Trace elements in human diets are very important. Trace elements are related to regulating the dynamic processes of enzymes, and minute amounts are needed to modify the kinetics of enzyme reactions.

However, excessive amounts of certain minerals can have a negative effect on health. The vegetables grown in New York and Maryland soils are relatively high in iron, manganese, titanium, arsenic, copper, lead, and zinc compared with most other soils. Helen Cannon of the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that the available information suggests a correlation of this fact with the occurrence of certain diseases. Another study in an area known for abnormal concentrations of selenium suggested that high mineralization was a possible factor in an unusual cancer-mortality pattern in that area and has prompted further investigation (Spallholtz, et al., 1981).

Iodine deficiency is one of the most widespread mineral medical problems in the world. Lack of a very minute amount of iodine in the diet can stunt both physical growth and mental ability. Iodine is essential to life. It enables the thyroid gland to produce the hormones necessary to develop and maintain the brain and nervous system. When the levels of thyroid hormones fall, the heart, liver, kidneys, muscles, and endocrine system are all affected adversely. Lack of iodine in the diet of pregnant women can adversely affect their baby. Seafood and food grown in iodine-sufficient soils provide adequate iodine in human diets. It is estimated that about 1.5 billion people in at least 110 countries are threatened by iodine deficiency. The chief regions where deficiency occurs are in mountainous regions and areas prone to frequent flooding, which washes out iodine in the soil.

Selenium is an element that seems to cause and cure a variety of human ailments. A study of 45,000 Chinese reviewed the occurrence of Keshan disease (Faelton, 1981). This is a form of heart disease, mostly affecting children up to the age of eight or nine years. Its symptoms are enlargement of the heart, low blood pressure, and a fast pulse. A high-death rate was clearly related geographically to the amount of selenium in the soil. The disease occurs in a wide band of land running from the northeast coast of China towards the southwestern border of the country. In this area, the soil and crops grown in it are deficient in selenium. Within this region, children given selenium showed a lower incidence of the disease, but it did not diminish in other affected areas where the children were not treated. It was found that, “ … the dramatic responses to Se [selenium] supplementation by individuals suffering from Keshan disease suggest that selenium may yet help mankind overcome two of its most damaging disease conditions” (Spallholz, et al., 1981). The other disease referred to is a form of cancer for which selenium appears to be a useful trace element in treatment.

In the United States, an area along the coastal plain of Georgia and the Carolinas has come to be termed the “stroke belt.” It also has a higher than normal incidence of heart disease. As in China, the area is low in selenium. Although studies are not yet complete, it appears that death rates from a variety of cancers are lower in areas of the United States where local crops take in larger amounts of selenium from the soil. A report from Finland concluded that men with low levels of selenium in the blood were more likely to develop cancers of the lung, stomach, and pancreas. Women also had a marginally higher risk of these ailments, and the report noted that the Finns do not get much selenium in their natural diets.

Too high a concentration of some elements, however, can become a negative health factor. We have just noted that selenium in minute quantities is important to health, but selenium poisoning can occur from an overdose of this element. In late 1988, a general selenium poisoning warning was published by the Sacramento Bee (California) reporting investigations that discovered selenium contamination in the marshes, lakes, and streams, in particular, on the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in California’s Central Valley. Large numbers of waterfowl died from selenium poisoning. Fish and game in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Nevada, as well as California, contained excessive amounts of selenium. Eighty-one percent of the trout, carp, perch, catfish, and goose eggs collected throughout the West exceeded the 200-microgram safety limit and 67 percent were over the 500 level of toxic effect. The samples averaged 974 micrograms, or nearly double the level at which poisoning symptoms begin to appear in healthy human adults.

Products for human consumption were studied and half the foods tested such as steak, liver, poultry, eggs, and vegetables from areas in Oregon, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado were found to exceed the safe level of 200 micrograms of selenium. The true magnitude of this situation in the western United States has yet to be established, but clues already indicate the problem could be large. However, in spite of all the studies that have been conducted, the precise role of selenium in human health, particularly with relation to heart disease, has still not been conclusively determined. Research continues.

The importance of mineral-rich glacial soils to human longevity was reported by a panel headed by Dr. Howard Hopps, Professor of Pathology at the University of Missouri. The study compared death rates of men ages 35 to 74 in two 100,000 square mile areas. One was in the glaciated Upper Midwest mineral-rich soil and groundwater area, and the other was in the southeastern coastal area of parts of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and central Alabama. This latter area has a meager supply of minerals in its drinking water and soil. The report found that for every 100 men in this age range who died in a given year in the Upper Midwest region, 200 died in the coastal area. The panel reported that cardiovascular diseases, primarily heart attacks and strokes, accounted for most of the differences in deaths between the two areas. Hopps noted that the Upper Midwest was left rich in minerals and trace elements by the glaciers that “ground up the rocks and made minerals in them available.” These minerals include iron, copper, manganese, fluoride, chromium, selenium, molybdenum, magnesium, zinc, iodine, cobalt, silicon, and vanadium. In the southeast, Hopps found that, “the minerals have been leached out of the soil for millennia.” He also observed that the differences were consistent, stating, “no county in the Minnesota part of the region, for example, was above average in deaths. It seemed to be an inescapable conclusion that a lot of people in the Upper Midwest must be living a lot longer.” The study focused on white men to rule out the possibility of regional racial makeups affecting the results. The study concluded that trace minerals in the soil and water contribute to relative longevity for persons living in this area of glacially transported materials, compared with other areas without these new rocks from which to weather out vital elements into the soil.


Clay, by Suzanne Staubach (2005), writes: The story of our relationship with clay is the story of material culture. It is the story of domesticity and the story of technological advances. The inventions of the wheel and the kiln, the understanding that fire could turn mud to stone, were the foundation for thousands of technologies that have followed.

One of the most important uses of clay has been in the manufacture of pipe, especially sewer pipe. Staubach describes how the Doulton Company that made toilets, also discovered that the nonporous pipe could be useful as sewer pipe that would greatly improve the sanitation of cities. The city fathers of London took to the idea of Doulton’s sewer pipe. It was correctly seen as of great importance and came into wide use.

As useful as it is, clay does have some negatives. Still widely used even as unfired sun-dried adobe brick, it is a weak building material. Earthquakes causing the collapse of adobe buildings have brought about many injuries and deaths over the years. On one occasion, more than 200,000 died in a single earthquake in China. On the fringes of the Sahara Desert and other normally dry regions, rare torrential rains do occur. Occasionally these have turned clay-built villages literally into piles of mud. After such an occurrence, some villages have simply been abandoned.

Clay will remain an abundant Earth material and will be used long after present civilizations are history. Clay is the stuff from which civilization has been physically built in many ways.


probably the first mineral to cause people to travel substantial distances was common salt.

Trails made by animals to salt licks in the eastern United States were some of the first trails the early settlers used.

History records the caravans and traders who moved salt in ancient times over great distances. Some of these salt routes are still used in Africa. In the sixth century, salt was the chief item of trade for Venice, which developed a salt monopoly that extended over parts of the Mediterranean. Venetian salt traders traveled widely in their commerce.

Salt has been used as a final act of warfare. After the long series of the Punic wars with Carthage from 264 B. C. to 146 B. C., Rome finally prevailed. It utterly destroyed Carthage, plowed the site of the city and its fields, and sowed salt on the fields to destroy their fertility.

Gravel. One example of a basic resource we use that comes from nearby localities is gravel. Gravel pits are commonplace and generally not highly regarded. Yet we are greatly dependent on them. In our homes, and all the buildings of towns and cities, and in all the highways and byways all across the country, there is a very important group of materials called aggregates — sand and gravel. They are used in very large quantities and they are heavy. Hauling them long distances is expensive because of the energy cost, so nearby sources are used. The development of gravel pits is a frequent subject of contention, but they are necessary. Gravel pits can sometimes become an asset to the community when they are no longer needed or the supply of aggregates is exhausted, as they then are often graded and landscaped into parks, or made into ponds for local recreation.

Mining and the environment

Again, to provide all these everyday materials, the Earth has to be disturbed somewhere. If wells are not drilled or mines are not dug in your backyard, they will have to be done in someone else’s backyard. This may occur where the local population urgently needs the money for jobs or for public revenues. On a global scale, smaller nations without diversified economies will export anything of value and ignore environmental problems to obtain badly needed foreign exchange to acquire essential food, medicine, and basic goods.

If the environmental movement is to be honest about these matters, it should recognize that by locking up domestic resources, the problem does not disappear. It does “go away” — to some other place where the hole has to be dug to produce the resource. One might suggest that if the environmental movement is to be absolutely “pure” in the sense of not disturbing the Earth at all, houses, hospitals, automobiles, and factories should not be allowed, and we should all go back to living in caves. Unfortunately, like other Earth resources, the supply of caves is also limited. As the world becomes more populated, and as the populations of what are regarded as undeveloped nations are becoming environmentally conscious, the issue of the environmental impact of mineral resource development is becoming a worldwide concern.

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Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Metals

Preface. I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it. I’ve made eight posts of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Even if crude oil is obtained from wells or at natural oil seeps as occur many places in the world (almost all major oil fields exhibit oil seeps), it still has relatively few applications in its unprocessed form. When technology is applied and the crude oil is put through a refinery, and these refined products are further processed, the end result is literally thousands of items that make for better living worldwide.

Similar situations exist with the metals. Iron is an example. Occurring very rarely in natural form, iron was first discovered in meteorites. Swords fashioned from this hard material were called “swords of heaven” and very highly prized in battle. Because of the high melting point of iron, the metallurgy was discovered and developed at a rather late date. But, finally, what had been huge deposits of unusable iron ore in many parts of the world became valuable resources to be exploited. After the discovery that iron could be extracted from previously worthless rocks, it was further discovered that the addition of vanadium, chromium, tungsten, molybdenum, and other minor metals gave iron a variety of valuable properties, producing alloys for many important specialized purposes.


U.S., the world’s largest producer of nuclear energy, contributing 20 percent of its electric power, consumes 60 million pounds of uranium per year but produces only two million. Worldwide, the shortfall for existing reactors is about 100 million pounds per year. With more than 50 additional nuclear plants planned worldwide, including some in the U.S., the supply of uranium reserves in the ground will last substantially less than the 40 years projected. Taking everything into consideration, the expanded long-term anticipated future for uranium in world energy supply appears to be unfounded, unless reprocessing of existing uranium supplies can be successfully accomplished on a significant scale. So far this seems unlikely.

In a comprehensive study of world uranium reserves, the German-based Energy Watch Group issued a 2006 paper in which they questioned the long-term availability of uranium to fuel nuclear reactors. The study also adds perspective on near-term maintenance of current nuclear power capacity based on the estimated useful life of the operating reactors and their age. Their conclusions: Any forecast of the development of nuclear power in the next 25 years has to concentrate on two aspects, the supply of uranium and the addition of new reactor capacity. At least within this time horizon, neither nuclear breeding reactors nor thorium reactors will play a significant role because of the long lead times for their development and market penetration.

Just to maintain the present reactor capacity will require the completion of 15-20 new reactors per year.

The U.S. is more dependent on uranium imports than oil.  Demands for “energy independence” are frequently heard from politicians and others who may endorse nuclear power as one of the means to such an end. In the 2008 U.S. Presidential Campaign, Senator McCain urged immediate construction of 40 nuclear plants (to add to the 104 now in the U.S.) and suggested 100 more nuclear plants for the longer term as a road to energy independence. In citing nuclear plants, which produce electricity, to aid in the solution of the oil problem, the senator ignored the fact that only about two percent of electricity is currently generated using oil as fuel.

Eighty-five percent of U.S. uranium supplies must be imported, compared with about 50 percent of our oil. Increasing uranium as a fuel source would only increase our foreign fuel supply dependence. And that dependence is not likely to decrease, as prospects for large new discoveries of uranium seem unlikely in the already thoroughly explored United States. I worked for a year on this very problem, retained by an oil company seeking to diversify its energy base away from oil. The company eventually abandoned the project, because prospecting for uranium in the United States did not appear to be a significantly worthwhile investment.


Copper was extensively mined by early people in the Sinai Desert, and later on Cyprus (Poss, 1975). The deposits on Cyprus were so highly valued that war followed war in bloody contests for the metal.

Copper was the first metal employed as a shaped weapon in Old World warfare. Copper ores are relatively easy to smelt, so copper metallurgy developed early and copper became the first metal to be used extensively by several cultures. Its use marked an important transition from the long Stone Age into the age of metals.

In modern times, without copper the development of our highly electrified civilization might not have been possible, or at least considerably delayed, for copper has been the first and primary workhorse of the electric industry. Copper has the highest electrical conductivity of any metal, except gold and silver. It is now being partially displaced by aluminum, and glass fibers. However, the production of aluminum depends on vast amounts of electricity produced by copper coil-wound generators, and initially transmitted by copper wire to the aluminum smelters. Without copper, we might still be reading by candlelight or oil lamps.

adding tin to copper it would make it a much harder metal. Along with copper its use continues to serve us in various ways. The first true bronze with enough tin to indicate that the tin was an intentional addition to the copper appears about 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia (Poss, 1975).

the Romans made extensive use of the copper/tin mixture to produce numerous bronze weapons

Although iron was known far before Roman times, it had only limited use, because the metallurgy of iron is difficult due to the high temperature required to smelt it.

The copper mining industry survives in modest form in southwestern United States, but other countries are now the dominant producers, notably Chile and Peru.

Copper and the electric age. About the time the steel business was booming, the electrical age was dawning. The electric motor had been invented about 1854. In 1879, Thomas Edison produced the first usable electric light, and visualized lighting cities. But how could electric current be transmitted to lamps for use in the home, offices, and factories, and to the motors that could replace so much of the hand labor in the factory?

Again, geology favored the U.S. with deposits of large native copper deposits, some of the richest known in the world, on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Upper Michigan. These deposits were mined to meet the demands of the electric age. Copper became the workhorse of the electrical industry. Upper Michigan, located not far from the industrial East and Midwest where much of the copper was used, produced huge amounts of this most useful metal. And it was inexpensive native copper. One mine struck a deposit of pure solid copper about 50 feet long with an average thickness of about 14 feet, weighing more than 500 tons. The copper, being so malleable, could not be blasted out, but instead had to be cut into small pieces. This procedure was economical because the mass was almost pure copper requiring little smelting and refining.

That it was not pure copper was also fortunate because the impurity it contained was silver. Silver is an even better electric conductor than copper, so the wires made from the Michigan copper with its silver content were superior in transmission performance.

Michigan copper was made into thousands of miles of wire that carried electric power to homes and factories. It made the workday more pleasant and efficient, and domestic life brighter. Copper wire carrying electricity allowed factories to operate three shifts a day instead of one. Copper greatly increased the productivity of the American economy.

In the 1830s, Samuel Morse established his telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. Copper telegraph wires soon spanned large areas of the nation, first running along railroad tracks, and then spreading out and connecting many otherwise isolated communities with the outside world. Telephones began to appear, and copper wires were available to put this most useful instrument into many places. Business and industry greatly benefited by this communication system. All this was facilitated by the abundant rich copper deposits in Michigan, which could be developed at just the right time to promote the electrical age in the United States in all its many and varied useful forms. It should be noted that the Michigan copper deposits fed far more money into the American economy than did all the gold from the California gold rush.


The first record of iron being employed was 1450 B.C., and about 1385 B.C. the Hittites manufactured a substantial number of weapons from iron.

It was not until the Industrial Revolution that there was large demand for metals. Earlier, economies were largely agricultural. Rich, fertile land and fresh water were the resource prizes.

In the nineteenth century, Britain was successively the world’s largest source of coal, iron, lead, tin, and copper. During that time it was the wealthiest nation in the world and supplied more than half the world’s demand for some of these metals. From 1700 to 1850 Britain mined more than 50 percent of the world’s lead, and from 1820 to 1840 produced 45 percent of the world’s copper. From 1850 to 1890 Britain increased iron production from one-third to one-half of the entire world supply (Lovering, 1943).

The richest iron ore deposits then known in the world were discovered in the Mesabi Range of northeastern Minnesota. The large, local lower-grade taconite deposits had been fractured, weathered, and leached of worthless rock material leaving behind the mineral hematite, which is 60 percent iron. These rich iron ores were easily and economically connected with the two other main ingredients for making steel, high-grade coal and limestone, by the fortunate geography of the Great Lakes region. Iron ore could be brought down first by rail (downhill, an economically important fact for the transport of heavy iron ore) to Lake Superior. From there, cheap water transport moved the ore to steel mills in Chicago where the first American steel rails were rolled in 1865, and also to the Pittsburgh area — which also became a steel producing center — adjacent to the rich Pennsylvania coal fields. Both areas had abundant coal and limestone to combine with iron ore to produce iron and steel.

In the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota, the rich hematite (iron) ore has been exhausted, but very large quantities of lower-grade ore called taconite remain. This low-grade ore is crushed, and the iron content particles are separated and concentrated into pellets, and then shipped to steel mills. The uniform iron content of the pellets compensates in part for the lower-grade ore by allowing blast-furnace operations to be more efficient than when using raw but somewhat variable quality higher-grade ores. Despite competition from foreign high-grade ores, technology partially compensates for the depletion of the high-grade ores of Minnesota. This enables that area to continue being a competitive source of iron ore, although iron mining is substantially reduced from what it once was.

The blast furnaces around Chicago, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh produced it. American steel production was only 20,000 tons in 1867. But by 1895, it surpassed the British production of six million tons, and reached 10 million tons annually before 1900. Ultimately, a large steel network of rails stretched from coast to coast, an impossible task were it not for the great iron ore deposits, which had been discovered and developed on such a timely basis.

Steel also built the factories and machines with which more goods were produced. The railroads efficiently distributed the manufactured products such as steel farm implements for the pioneers breaking sod in the Midwest and the Great Plains. The railroad brought needed equipment and supplies to miners and ranchers of the mountain regions, and to the growing settlements on the West Coast, previously supplied mainly by ships, which had to go all the way around the southern tip of South America, rounding the treacherous Cape Horn.

Steel made the world’s first skyscraper possible. After the great Chicago fire of 1871, large areas of the city needed to be rebuilt. An architect named William Jenney demonstrated that walls of buildings were no longer needed for bearing the weight of the structure. Rather, with abundant and relatively cheap steel available, he could build a steel frame to act as the skeleton of the building. Using lighter weight materials, the structure could be walled in. Thus the first skyscraper was erected, the 10-story Home Insurance Building finished in 1885. It was such a success that two more stories were added later. The giant steel mills came into being because of the rich iron ore deposits of the Mesabi Range, which built the great railroad network, and provided the structural steel to build the huge complexes of office buildings and factories we know today.

The highways on which civilization moves in a literal sense, are made either of concrete (limestone and sand and gravel with some gypsum and clay) or asphalt (from an oil well) with crushed rocks mixed in for durability. An average asphalt road is about 10% tar. Without the tar, it would just be gravel road.

Our houses—since they first became a reasonably comfortable place with space heating and indoor plumbing—come largely out of mines. Surely, indoor plumbing alone was a major advance in civilization, especially in cold climates! The house foundation is probably of concrete, which is made from limestone, clay, sand, and gravel. The exterior walls may be made of stone or brick (clay). The insulation may be glass wool (quartz sand, feldspar, and trona—a sodium carbonate which is mined). The lumber is put together with screws and nails of steel and zinc. The wallboard that forms the interior walls of many homes is made chiefly of gypsum. The roof is probably covered with asphalt shingles. The asphalt came out of an oil well, and the filler in the asphalt shingles is a variety of colored silicate minerals. The fireplace is brick or stone with a steel fire box. The sewer pipe is made of clay or iron pipe or may be plastic from material out of an oil well. The electrical wiring is copper. Plumbing pipes are copper; fixtures are brass (copper and zinc) or stainless steel (nickel and chrome with iron). Roof gutters are galvanized steel (iron and zinc) or plastic from an oil or gas well. The various paints are derived from petroleum. Windows are glass made primarily from quartz sand. Doorknobs, locks, and hinges are of brass (copper and zinc) or steel (alloy of iron). It is truly said, “If it can’t be grown, it must be mined.” And finally the mortgage, if not written on newsprint, is written on quality paper made from wood or cloth fibers and filled with clay.

Iron ore deposits in Canada, Liberia, Brazil, and Australia now dominate the world supply. With little domestic aluminum ore (bauxite), the U.S. imports most of its ore from Jamaica and Australia and a few other places.


Gold was the first metal used by humans as it is bright and attractive in the native (pure) form, in which it commonly occurs. It can easily be worked into many shapes and does not tarnish. Gold nuggets in stream beds attracted attention very early.

The finding of gold in Australia, as in California, had a profound effect on the nation’s economy, and would do so in other parts of the world where gold was soon to be discovered: New Zealand, South Africa, and Alaska. The gold rushes, wherever they occurred, brought new settlers, new ideas, new vigor, and created new wealth. Without the enormous amounts of gold that were produced in the latter half of the nineteenth century the commerce of the modern world could never have reached the proportions that it has today. Only after the gold rushes was it possible to speak of something called world trade.

More recently the Siberian city of Norilsk has been built 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Temperatures there reach -40ºF and for two months there is no sunlight. Minerals are the only reason for the city, which is situated on what is probably the richest ore body in the world. It contains an estimated 35 percent of the world’s nickel, 10 percent of its copper, 14 percent of its cobalt, 55 percent of its palladium, and 20 percent of its platinum. The mine, even without additional discoveries, can continue to produce at the present rate for at least 40 years. The city will be home to the mines’ 155,000 employees and their families far into the twenty-first century.

In Colorado, an uninhabited broad upland valley in a few short months became Cripple Creek, which grew from a population of 15 people in 1891 to 50,000 by 1900. Similar growth occurred in several other areas of Colorado where gold was discovered, such as Central City.

In 1829, gold was discovered in what became the town of Dahlonega in northern Georgia and a new gold rush was on. Some of the land involved was Cherokee Indian territory, but with the influx of gold miners, the demand for the land grew and ultimately the Cherokees lost out. In 1835, the Cherokees were forced to give up all their lands east of the Mississippi River and ordered to move westward along the Trail of Tears. However, about 14,000 refused to leave, and in 1838 were forced out militarily. Some 4,000 died during their expulsion. The cause of this displacement was the discovery of gold.

The Sioux knew there were gold deposits in the Black Hills and had shown specimens of it to Father De Smet before Custer’s soldiers found it in French Creek (Wolle, 1953). Although the area had been set aside by the government for the Native Americans, this was ignored when news of the gold discovery spread, and miners flocked in. The initial discovery of gold in French Creek was on Native American land, which by the terms of the treaty of 1868 was off limits to white settlement. But miners persisted, and when restrictions were lifted during the years of 1875-1876, 11,000 miners entered the Black Hills. This invasion led the Sioux to resist and resulted in the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn where General Custer and his men were massacred on June 25, 1876. By September of that year, however, the Sioux were forced to sign a treaty giving up the Black Hills. Gold led to the expulsion of the Sioux.

All across the West, Native Americans came into conflict with the miners and had to give up territory. This resulted in a great weakening of their economic and political positions and with destruction of what had been a sustainable, albeit primitive, way of life.

The Yukon and Alaska gold rush of 1897-1898 was the last great gold rush of the nineteenth century, but it had all the excitement and problems of previous gold rushes, and it, too, opened up virgin territory. It had its origin when two prospectors, Robert Henderson and George Carmack, were salmon fishing in the Klondike River, a tributary of the Yukon River in far northwestern Canada. These men saw the glint of gold in the stream bed late in the summer of 1896, but news of the discovery did not get out until 1897. The Klondike Gold Rush was then on.

The town of Valdez at the head of Prince William Sound was a little fishing village until the Alaska gold rush started. Although it was not the shortest route to the goldfields, it was a route that did not cross into Canada and therefore avoided border inspection. Twenty- thousand people flooded into Valdez. In a few years the gold was minded out, and by the 1930s the population was fell to about five hundred. The population remained small until it was determined that the Trans Alaska Pipeline would terminate at Valdez, and once again Valdez boomed. Now, with the steady work the pipeline terminal affords, the population of Valdez has settled to about 4,000. Thus Valdez has seen two major bursts of population growth, one caused by gold and one by oil. And after oil?

Just as minerals move people into areas, exhaustion of these deposits may cause an outward migration. Many ghost towns in the western United States as well as in other parts of the world are grim testimony to the fact that minerals are a one-crop resource. The complete economic cycle is the discovery, development, and then decline and exhaustion of the one-time mineral crop. People move into developing mineral resource areas. Then, as the mineral base gradually declines, people move out. There are examples of this in partially abandoned mining towns, and the decline of once rich oil-producing areas. This can be seen even now in parts of the one-time oil producing giant, Texas

Gold rushes are a strikingly visible demonstration of how minerals move people and make for romantic history. Far more people have moved because of the availability of new lands with fertile topsoil to cultivate. Unlike the one-crop minerals and energy minerals, properly managed soil brings a crop year after year so people move in and stay.

Silver was discovered in many areas of the ancient world, but in one particular area, it played an important role affecting the course of Western Civilization. In the limestone hills near the town of Laurium, and also near the village of Plaka, about 30 miles northeast of Athens, large deposits of silver were discovered. For many years, Athens and Greek culture flourished in part because of the wealth taken from these mines. Each citizen of Athens was given an annual share of this treasure recovered at great effort and loss of life by thousands of slaves working in the mines.

Many specialty metals are very important in war. For example, magnesium is used in flares to illuminate enemy positions. Without cobalt and vanadium, the jet engine would be impossible. Molybdenum is a particularly useful metal employed in equipment of war as well as in civilian uses such as automobile sheet steel. It makes steel tough, rather than brittle. Without it, neither the ships and guns of the navy, nor the tanks and guns of the army, could be built.

Levi Strauss was a poor immigrant in New York. He made tents out of canvas material. His brother went to California during the gold rush and enthusiastically wrote back to Levi that there was great demand for tents for the miners. But by the time Levi arrived in California, the demand for tents had fallen off. Instead, there was a great need for durable work pants, which could also be made from heavy tent-like material, denim, with which Levi worked. Levi Strauss set up his factory in San Francisco that still supplies Levi’s to the world — a legacy, in a sense, from the California gold rush.

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Youngquist: Geodestinies Population

Preface. Youngquist emphasized overpopulation in everything he wrote, since this is the root of all our problems — pollution, climate change, soil erosion, fresh water depletion, extinction, biodiversity loss — can you think of a single problem that wouldn’t be better if there were fewer people?

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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“Population growth is the primary source of environmental damage. Any organization dedicated to environmental protection must recognize that and devote at least part of its efforts towards population control. Treating only the symptoms of the problem while ignoring the cause is no solution.”   Jacques Cousteau

In 1992, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London together issued a warning that “If current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world.

It is important to understand that a technology fix is not an answer to unrestrained population growth. It is a decision made by people, and they may or may not choose to use the “technology” of family planning.


Because past predictions of resource and population problems have proved incorrect, future predictions will not come true, therefore there is no need to be concerned. This view stems in part from past predictions of impending disasters that did not materialize as scheduled. Notable were those made by Thomas Malthus in 1798. The argument presented by those who apparently see no need to relate population to resources is that since Malthus’ predictions of two centuries ago proved so wrong, why should similar predictions be taken seriously today. Malthus’ predictions were wrong because he could not foresee the coming industrial and scientific revolution, including the Green Revolution. The Industrial Revolution provided much improved housing with adequate space heating, greatly improved sanitary facilities, and the machines and the energy to run them. It provided the basis for supporting an enormously much-expanded population. Huge resources not known to Malthus were discovered and developed. But, in the long run, Malthus was clearly right. Unchecked population growth will outstrip food supply (Ferguson, 2008d). That time may be near at hand. In 2008, world grain supplies stood at a 60-year low and per capita cereal grain production was the lowest it had been in more than 50 years. It is still on a steep downward trend.

Ferguson further observes that “For many decades, there has been a willful blindness to recognize that population is the pre-eminent problem.” In 1798, Malthus wrote, “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio, but subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” This is an early recognition of the importance of the exponential factor, which applies to many aspects of human existence and resource consumption.

We are running out of more Earth to explore and exploit. In Malthus’ time, the entire world’s mineral and energy resources were virtually undeveloped, and the means to exploit them did not exist. The situation is now reversing. The difference is the present peaking or declining energy and mineral production in many parts of the world, and an already huge and continually expanding population. We live on a finite globe, and there are no more new continents to move to as one region becomes depleted. The globe has been encircled.

United states. Based on indigenous resource sustainability and its ecological footprint, the U.S. is already overpopulated. The U.S. standard of living has been declining for several years. Costs of food and energy, both vital elements of everyday living, are rising faster than incomes, and 46 million people now receive a food stamp subsidy. The U.S. has no population policy. The size of a nation’s population, and on a personal basis, the number of children and standard of living are almost always in an inverse relationship. The only substantial meal some children in the United States now receive is at school.

The United States continues to add more people, but we are almost certainly already beyond a sustainable population size. Pimentel (2006) estimates that a sustainable U.S. population may be between 100 and 200 million, with the smaller figure more likely unless unexpected technological advances are made in energy sources. The U.S. population is now 315 million and counting. For the world, “Our suggested 2 billion population carrying capacity for the Earth is based on a European standard of living and sustainable use of natural resources” (Pimentel and Pimentel 2006).

World population still growing. The Population Reference Bureau (2005) writes: “Some stories in the popular media suggest that world population growth has stopped — but world population is still increasing at 1.2 percent per year, resulting in an additional 80 million people annually.” All estimates are for world population to increase for the next several decades at least. Riley and McLaughlin (2001) conclude: “Population growth the next two or three decades is possibly the world’s most serious problem, reducing our chances for a successful transition to sustainability while maintaining quality of life.

In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized the serious problem of a growing population related to Earth resources and urged family planning as a solution. He said: There is no human experience more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is easily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is solvable by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.

In an article titled “There Is No Global Population Problem” Hardin (1989) points out that unlike air pollution, which can be a global problem, population problems are within countries. He writes: We will make no progress with population problems, which are the root cause of both hunger and poverty, until we deglobalize them. Populations, like potholes, are produced locally, and, unlike atmospheric pollution, remain local unless some people are so unwise as to globalize them by permitting population excesses to migrate into the better endowed countries … . We are not faced with a single global population problem but, rather, with about 180 separate national problems.

Globalizing the population problem by allowing the free migration of excess populations is no solution. If we follow that road, eventually we will have perfect equality. Poverty and hunger will be equally distributed. If individual countries match their populations to the resources they can secure on an environmentally sustainable basis, then a reasonable standard of living can be achieved. But at present, this does not seem to be on the world’s agenda.

Subsidizing families larger than two children with tax incentives is a highly questionable policy. It does not improve the environment nor make it easier to obtain the resources to sustain a high standard of living. Governments should aid in family planning. This is probably the single most important thing that governments can do through the United Nations or individually for the future of the Earth’s inhabitants. Just a small fraction of the money spent on armaments would be a great asset for such a cause. Excess population in some areas is a cause of war, and continued population growth in other regions is the sole factor in environmental degradation. Environmental quality is a major part of any standard of living. If religious factors enter in, respect for the quality of life surely can be invoked. Quality, not quantity of life should be the goal.

Optimum population size

The most important variable for determining future quality of life will be population size. Optimum size depends to some extent on culture. What one culture regards as a good quality of life may be considerably different from another culture. But comprehensive studies indicate optimum population size is significantly less than the seven billion on Earth today. Smail (1997a) says: “ …the Earth’s long-term carrying capacity, at what most would define as an ‘adequate’ standard of living is probably not much greater than 2 to 3 billion people.” Other studies indicate less. Brown and Kane (1994), in a book with the very clear title, Full House, provide compelling evidence the environment now contains all the humanity it can handle. Pimentel and Giampietro (1994a) arrived at the same conclusion: “This brings us to the present situation where the world is full. The exponential increase in the demand for natural resources, due to demographic and economic growth, is rapidly eroding resource stocks and national food surpluses all over the world.

Birth control methods are relatively simple and are widely used, but not widely enough. The problem is human nature and ignorance. That is where the social sciences and education can do more than technology. And it would help to have the widely read and influential New York Times, as well as other media, find the courage to recognize and publicize the problem — and solutions. Legislative bodies must also confront population growth in the allocation of their resources. Funding family planning would probably do more for world peace than any other dollar spent.

Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Justus Liebig was a German chemist (1803-1873), who, working with the chemical elements as they are applied in agriculture, determined that regardless of how many other nutrients were put on plants, if one essential element was below the minimum required, the plants would not grow. His law can be stated: “The growth of a species is limited by whatever required nutrient is least available. An organism is no stronger than the weakest link in its ecological chain of requirements. Liebig’s Law can be applied to inanimate natural resources as well. For example, the ultimate limiting factor on the rate of production of oil from the Athabasca oil sands is likely to be either water supply or energy available for the recovery process

In the Great Plains of the United States, the limiting factor for agricultural production is water supply from the underlying Ogallala aquifer. The general tenet of Liebig’s Law has widespread validity throughout the environment. The point is that there are limiting factors in the survival and growth of anything.

In determining what level of population is optimum, Liebig’s Law also applies. It means that the sustainable carrying capacity of a region is determined by the minimum environmental circumstances, not by the maximum. A simple example is in the populations of big game animals in northern latitudes. It is not the lush summer range that determines the survival rate, but the much more limited and harsh winter range environment. By the same token, human populations tend to expand for a time under favorable climatic conditions, as in parts of Africa for example. But periodically prolonged drought conditions arrive, and we see pictures of emaciated and dying children when famines occur. In the harsher minimum conditions, the population is beyond sustainable size. Sending food into such a situation is logical and humanitarian, but it ensures that when the next drought arrives, even more will starve.

Energy is the key that unlocks all other resources. It mines our minerals, and transports, smelts and processes them into useful forms. It plows our fields, transports our crops, processes them, and distributes them to consumers.

Energy supplies have determined the outcomes of wars

Two problems certain to dominate worldwide concerns this century are energy and population. The most basic source of energy for humans is food. More than oil, natural gas, coal, or any other form of energy, food is the first concern of everyone. In some regions, it already is. Eventually this concern will be universal. Unfortunately, as Roberts (2008) warned, the basic foundations of food production, soil and fresh water are being depleted. He says, “ … because water, unlike energy or fertilizers, has no alternative, this emerging scarcity poses a constraint on food supplies that in some ways is more final than that of oil or climate.

If anything backs the U.S. dollar now, it is the country’s manufacturing capacity, the ingenuity of its people (e. g., advanced electronic and medical devices, sophisticated forms of heavy equipment, airplanes), and its natural resources. Chief among these are its remaining minerals, its forests, and especially its fertile soil and freshwater supplies related to agricultural productivity. The United States is the world’s largest source of corn.

In some regions and in different times, emigration was the historical outlet for overpopulation. Movement of people to less occupied lands or recently to more affluent lands relieved social stress. But there are no longer empty lands, and many nations resist large immigrations.

David Attenborough (2011) raises this question concerning the problem of population growth: “I meet no one who privately disagrees that population growth is a problem…So why does hardly anyone say so publicly? There seems to be some bizarre taboo about the subject…this affects the people who claim to care most passionately about a sustainable and prosperous future for our children…their silence implies their admirable goals can be achieved regardless how many people there are in the world, even though they all know they can’t.

Population now grows faster than food production, and the result is that more than half the world population is currently undernourished. This is the largest number ever in history (Pimentel, 2011). Future agriculture is not likely to be as mechanized as it is today, and transport of foodstuffs from far places will not be as easy or inexpensive. Chilean grapes, Brazilian orange juice, and Australian oranges will show up less frequently on American and other nations’ tables, and ultimately not show up at all. Estimates are that the total distance food now travels to the average American dinner table is now about 1500 miles.

People use energy. More people use more energy if per capita physical standard of living is to be maintained. To raise the low standard of living in many nations takes more energy. It is as simple as that. Almost all deliberations about future energy are concerned with obtaining more and more energy from every possible source. The idea that population growth is the main, underlying problem does not seem to be generally recognized.

Deffeyes’ comment (2005) is pertinent: “Global per capita oil production peaked in 1979. Since 1979, the world has been producing people faster than we have been producing oil.” This will be a major problem this century.

The more people, the lower the standard of living.


The effects, some very subtle and some very obvious, are gradually decreasing the carrying capacity of our planet.

Although the interdependent relationship between humans and the Earth was understood in most earlier cultures, in many parts of the world today, this vital point is unrecognized or ignored in the current ideology of growth. We live in the shallow zone of a friendly environment. Relative to the size of the Earth, it is thinner than a coat of shellac on a large schoolroom globe. The topsoil on which all land life depends averages less than a foot deep, and above about 30,000 feet, the air is too thin for humans to exist. It is within these two limits where we must live. This delicately balanced zone vital to our existence needs great care.

In a classic and comprehensive study of past civilizations, Ponting (2007) writes: The most important task in all human history has been to find a way of extracting from the different ecosystems in which people have lived enough resources for maintaining life — food, clothing, shelter, energy and other material goods. Invariably this has meant intervening in natural ecosystems. The problem for human societies has been to balance these various demands against the ability of the ecosystems to withstand the resulting pressures.

Biodiversity is our most valuable but least appreciated resource (Wilson, 1992). Countless organisms support our life systems by diverse processes, which, collectively have been aptly termed “nature’s engineering,” the value of which can hardly be overstated. Eldridge (1998) states, “Scientists estimate that humans utilize over 40,000 species every day.” He lists 400 (just one percent of the 40,000), which help to support us. The substances these organisms give us, and the tasks they do, include antibiotics, food, pest control, pollination, nitrogen fixation, anti-inflammatory medicine, laxatives, skeletal muscle relaxation, antiseptic, carbon cycle, anti-hemorrhagic, anesthetic, fermentation, cellulose metabolism, and anti-malarial drugs.

Nearly half of humanity’s medicines are drawn from, or based on, natural ingredients, extracted from the very few species with which we are passably acquainted. Of the world’s higher plants, for example, scientists have screened only 0.5 percent, and these now provide the bases of forty-seven of the world’s major pharmaceutical drugs. Yet, according to a recent survey … tropical forests contain about half the world’s 125,000 species of flowering plants, and each plant will yield an average of six compounds that have medicinal potential…. Nevertheless, the world’s tropical forest, already reduced to half its preindustrial size, is disappearing faster than ever (Morrison, 1999).

In just one year, 2005, 10,400 square miles of the Brazilian rainforest were destroyed. At that rate, it will all be gone within less than 30 years. This great diversity of plant life, already the source of many useful drugs has been called “the green pharmacy.” To destroy it before we have studied the other 99.5 percent of plants for their medicinal potential has been described as burning down a library before we read any of the books. Yet, the destruction continues.

Rainforests are the world’s greatest repository of naturally occurring drugs, with a greater percentage of alkaloid-bearing plants than in any other region. Fourteen-hundred plant species may offer a degree of protection against cancer. One example is that someone suffering from leukemia in 1960 faced a one-in-five chance of remission. But, two drugs developed from a tropical plant raised the chances of survival four times. Worldwide sale of these two drugs in one year totaled more than $100 million.

Robert Costanza of the Institute for Ecological Economics has calculated an economic value for our natural biological systems. Studying forests, wetlands, and other ecological systems, he concludes that the value of nature’s services come to “ …about $33 trillion a year.” A freshwater marsh in Canada was worth 58 percent more intact thanks to hunting, angling, and trapping, than farmed…. A mangrove swamp in Thailand was worth 72 percent more when left intact to provide timber, charcoal, fish, and storm protection than after being converted to a shrimp farm” (Begley, 2002). A study by biologist Andrew Balmford at Cambridge University concluded, “In every case we looked at, the loss of nature’s services outweighed the benefits of development, often by a large amount.” A simple example of the value of natural services is the pollination of fruit trees by bees. It cannot be done by humans, but the bees’ work results in millions of dollars worth of produce just in the United States. Unfortunately, through the indiscriminate use of pesticides, the loss of honey bees has become a severe problem. In 2011, the traveling beehives available to orchardists needing their services were substantially fewer than the needs. Every act of destruction of part of the environment costs money, and adds to the perils of our survival.

The impact that population growth is having on the environment was clearly summarized in 1992 by the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. Signers of this appeal included 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, among them were 102 Nobel laureates. These were a majority of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences living at that time (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2012). “Human beings,” they said, “and the natural world are on a collision course.” This important document, spearheaded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Henry W. Kendall, who is a Nobel Physics Laureate, and Union of Concerned Scientists cofounder, went on to say about population:

The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth’s limits…. Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future. If we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth…. No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.


More than 10 million people crowd Haiti’s limited area. Once almost entirely wooded, Haiti is now nearly treeless. People are digging up roots for fuel.

With Haiti’s population growth rate of about 2.8 percent annually, one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere, the problem will only intensify. At that rate, the population will double in about 25 years, which can become an absolute disaster. Supplying more and more imported food to such a situation with no attention to population control, simply treats the symptoms and not the cause, ensuring even greater problems in the future.

Some reasonable relationship between population and the resource base a country has or can import must be established. Otherwise, people will either starve or depend on permanent international welfare. To continue to export population cannot be the ultimate solution. Fewer and fewer countries are now willing or ultimately able to continue to be the safety valve for migrating population. Japan accepts virtually no immigrants, and Sweden for the first time has been turning some away. Germany has been expelling foreign nationals.

the United States now has a liberal immigration policy, allowing over a million newcomers in each year. It also has a relatively porous border, which lets in another estimated half million or more illegal immigrants

Because of the impact of illegal immigrants upon their resources, the states of California, Texas, and Florida filed lawsuits against the U.S. Government in 1994. The suits asserted that lack of enforcement of federal immigration laws resulted in an intolerable drain of resources from the states. In California, all the recent growth of that state has been due to foreign immigration. To accommodate the increase in children, in 1995, one new schoolroom had to be built each hour, and one new school each day (Carrying Capacity Network, 1995). In 1994, California passed Proposition 187 denying illegal immigrants a variety of services, including schooling. This caused numerous protests and demonstrations. But the immigration which accounts for almost 100 percent of the state population growth continues. California, which has had a 75 percent increase in population since 1970, now has 38 million residents, and expects to have a population swelling to 58 million by 2040. California is now the fourth largest consumer of oil in the world behind the United States as a whole, China, and Japan. Water is becoming critically scarce in some areas of the state, with Imperial Valley agricultural irrigation water from the Colorado River being sold to the cities. California’s resource base is already strained. How will the additional 20 million expected by 2040 be supported? This prospect must be squarely faced because most people living in California today will see that increase and its accompanying demand on resources.

The high physical standard of living in the United States, which attracts immigrants, legal and illegal, is based on availability of Earth resources. To maintain that standard of living, each year, each person in the United States must be provided with some 20 tons of mineral resources. As more and more people enter the country by birth or legal or illegal immigration, 20 additional tons of minerals must annuall—not just once, but every year—be provided for each individual.

Ethiopia, with a present population of 57 million faces a colossal increase of 106 million during the next forty years, based on current growth rates. It is almost impossible to imagine how Ethiopia could possibly feed so many more people. It has some of the world’s most severely eroded soils, much of its cropland is on steep slopes, and its tree cover stands at a mere 3 percent. Many in Ethiopia’s next generation will probably have to choose between emigration and starvation.


if nations do not shift spending priorities from military security to investments in the long-term environmental and social health of their citizens, these numbers may be dwarfed by the tide yet to come.

Today there are no large unoccupied resource-rich areas to absorb migration. There are no vacant fertile, well-watered lands. The globe filled up. New lands with untouched resources were no more.

With no new geographic frontiers in which to expand, today’s nations jostle for position within the well-populated and fully explored world. The competition through migration and perhaps military conflict will increasingly be over access to Earth’s remaining resources of energy, water, fertile soil, and other minerals. Making rational and successful adjustments between population and resources will determine the destiny of the human race. Populations must recognize that this destiny is by geology imposed upon them. There must be a recognition of natural limits (Hardin, 1993; Meadows, et al., 2004).

Because resources and population are unevenly distributed, the current trend is for people to move from distressed areas to areas that have more resources, or for wealthier nations to send basic resources to the impoverished regions. Such aid does not solve the basic problem and may only make it worse if it allows more people to survive temporarily on a land already over-populated for its resources.

Hardin’s observations are a facet of his “lifeboat ethics” (Hardin, 1974). A ship is sinking, and there is one lifeboat. It is launched and filled to its stated capacity of 50 people, but there are still 100 people in the water. Do you, in the spirit of fairness for everyone, take on the additional 100 from the water and have everyone drown, or do you preserve the one lifeboat and its passengers so they can get to the far shore and survive? Do you convert the entire world to a giant slum by unrestricted immigration and no population control? Or do you restrict immigration and insist that individual nations do something about population, so that at least some of them who are successful survive? At present, a number of nations are trying to export their population problems, which ultimately will, if not checked, become a global disaster. However, it will have the merit of equality. Poverty will be universal.

Continued population migration will make this concept of “lifeboat ethics” a serious consideration. Responsible and firm action may be required to prevent “lifeboat nations” from being swamped and sunk. Lucas and Ogletree (1976) relate this problem to world hunger. Pimentel and Giampietro (1994) have an implied “lifeboat” role for the United States in their statement, “Self-sufficiency in food production and other basic resources should be viewed as a strategy to guarantee a continued high standard of living and national security to U.S. citizens in the face of turbulence that can be expected around the world in the next decades.

The United States should consider where these trends are taking the nation. Together with Canada and Australia, it is one of the few industrial nations still experiencing rapid population growth. With an increasing population consuming diminishing domestic resources, it is difficult to see how the present standard of living can be maintained. By some measures it is already in decline. Inevitably, a balance between resource consumption and population must be achieved. The question is: at what standard of living will that be achieved? People use resources. Divide resources by population to help answer the question.


NEPAL nestles amongst the Himalayas. Much of the land is precipitous, and winters are cold. The Nepalese need fuel, which they get from trees. Because more Nepalese are being kept alive now, the demand for timber is escalating. As trees are cut down, the soil under them is washed down the slopes into the rivers that run through India and Bangladesh. Once the absorption capacity of the soil is gone, floods rise faster and to higher maxima. The flood of 1974 covered two-thirds of Bangladesh, twice the area of the ‘normal’ floods, which themselves are the consequence of deforestation in preceding centuries.

Hardin observed that it is never said that people die of overpopulation. They die of floods, famine, typhoons, landslides, and other disasters. Bangladesh has an area of 55,126 square miles, about 1,100 square miles smaller than the State of Iowa. Yet, 151 million people now live in this area! Imagine 151 million people living in Iowa with a substantial part of the state consisting of a marshy deltaic area only a few feet above sea level. At times, typhoons from the Indian Ocean sweep in and flood the Bangladesh lowlands killing thousands of people. At other times, floods from the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, whose headwaters lie in the once heavily forested areas of the southern Himalayas, inundate the extensive lowlands. Stripping these headwater areas of vegetation to use for fuel caused by the overpopulation of the region, further compounds the problem, increasing the rate of runoff from the barren slopes.

HAITI is a country of 10,500 square miles inhabited by more than ten million people. It is projected to have 11.5 million people by 2025 and 14.3 million by 2050 (Population Reference Bureau, 2010). Haiti has no oil, natural gas, coal, or significant water power. Much of it is mountainous. To obtain fuel, the country has been almost entirely deforested. Roots of trees have been dug out to make charcoal. It experienced devastating heavy rains in 2004. I visited Haiti and observed the worst erosion I have seen anywhere during my travels in more than 70 countries. Haiti has been dependent on international welfare for many years. Given present trends, there is no apparent escape. The question arises as to how much longer such welfare can be provided, and who will provide it? The rest of the world cannot support Haiti indefinitely. Population problems are homegrown and ultimately must be solved there. In the meantime, when the next heavy rains come, more people will die from debris floods caused by the deforested hills. Clearly, overpopulation resulting in the destruction of the environment kills people.

Some countries are still unable to feed themselves from domestic food production, and are now permanently dependent on international food assistance. At the same time, this has enabled their populations to grow without the basic historic limitation of food supply. Currently, 27 countries depend on international food assistance, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, and Senegal.

Too many people destroys the environment

At the same time that environmental rules are enacted, it is important to remember that society has been brought to its present state of affluence through the use of these resources. A higher standard of living in material terms, means the use of more energy and mineral resources. Environmental impacts of obtaining these resources can be mitigated to some extent, but to drive an automobile, holes in the Earth have to be dug somehow to obtain the iron, aluminum, copper, and glass to build the car. Energy has to be obtained to process these materials into the car (all materials listed have to be smelted which is an energy intensive process). Energy in some form, now chiefly from derivatives of petroleum, is necessary to move the car. Getting all this energy involves environmental impacts. To lead the good life, or any life, Earth resources must be used. The more people, the more is demanded from the Earth.

Many offshore ocean areas are now off limits to mineral resource exploitation, which mainly affects petroleum operations. This is particularly true off the California and Florida coasts. The reason for this, in part, is that ocean view property is extremely desirable and expensive. Tourism in both states is also important to their economies. Therefore, the value of a pristine view, unobstructed by offshore drilling rigs or petroleum production platforms — or large wind turbines for that matter — is thought to be more valuable than the resource that might be developed. Yet both states are highly dependent on imported oil and are huge oil consumers. In world oil consumption, the United States is first, China is second, Japan is third and considered all by itself, California is fourth. But California has large areas, chiefly offshore, where oil exploration and development is forbidden. “Dirty someone else’s backyard, not ours, for the resources we use,” is the prevailing view. This ethic is referred to as NIMBY, Not-In-My-Backyard.

Substantially adding to the problem is that population continues to increase. Currently 80 million people are added to the world each year, a number about equal to the population of Germany. The additional resources to support all these people must come from somewhere. Also, many relatively undeveloped countries are striving to achieve a higher-material standard of living. So there is not only the problem of providing material resources for 80 million more people each year, but to provide increasing amounts of raw materials for the many people already here who aspire to a better existence. The so-called Third World and lesser-developed countries account for half the world’s population. The resources necessary to appreciably raise their living standards are enormous, and in fact may not be available. The problem has the potential for serious conflict.

The current world environmental scene with regard to mineral resource development is mixed. In some areas, the situation is not good; in other places, strict laws are minimizing impacts. On the negative side, one might cite the 1980s central Amazon basin gold rush (Lea, 1984). Tens of thousands of people invaded the area and set up crude mining facilities. The panning and sluicing operations put tons of sediment into local streams much to the detriment of the fish. But possibly even more destructive was that in most operations, mercury was used as an agent to recover the fine gold. This mercury is now in parts of the Amazon drainage and can be a deadly contaminant to the aquatic life, and ultimately a part of the food chain that leads to humans. Elemental mercury (Hg) is converted by bacteria into toxic methyl mercury (HgCH3), a neurotoxin. Through bioaccumulation and biomagnification, methyl mercury concentrations increase to potentially dangerous levels in organisms higher on the food chain – in carnivores and predators like human beings.

Population and Climate Change

If population growth promotes more industrialization with more power plants, more cars and trucks on the road, and is a significant factor in global warming, then those concerned with global warming should also be concerned with population matters. Professor Tim Dyson of the London School of Economics argues that the positive effects of a 40% cut in per capita carbon emissions in the developed world would be completely canceled out by global population growth by 2050.

Overpopulation is decimating fisheries and wetlands

Fish populations are diminishing around the world. The dramatic decline of codfish off the coast of Newfoundland and the decimation of fisheries in the China Sea are two of many examples. Sharks, swordfish, and other big game fish are been greatly overfished, with some populations reduced by 90 percent. Off the West Coast of the United States, bottom fish (rockfish) found in markets, have been greatly reduced and fishing is greatly restricted. A contributing factor is the use of bottom trawlers, which scrape the seafloor, catching everything, and in the process tearing up the seafloor’s delicate balance of organisms. Another factor is the slow growth of many bottom fish. Some take 5 to 20 years to reach reproductive maturity. The yelloweye rockfish begins to bear young at 16 years, and may live to 114 years. Overfishing off the Oregon coast resulted in a drop in yelloweye landings from 364,458 pounds in 1992 to 9,564 pounds in 2000. An extreme example of overfishing a particular species is the boccaccio. It is estimated that even if it is not fished again, it will take 92 years to rebuild the population to earlier levels. One fisherman said, “We have the technology to catch all the fish in the sea.” This is the problem. Off the Oregon coast, fish landings dropped 61 percent from 81 million pounds in 1993 to 39 million pounds in 2001.

Water habitats also are being destroyed by sedimentation, contamination from waste water, and toxic runoff from the streets of cities and towns. This is the story of streams and estuaries across the United States. Coastal marshes, the nurseries for many fish and other organisms, are in decline because of human encroachment. California has lost about 90 percent of its valuable wetlands. In the states of Oregon and Washington, wetlands are under assault from both development and pollution, degrading their life supporting systems.

The state of Louisiana contains 40 percent of the wetlands of the United States. The value of these lands is huge, with 95 percent of all marine species in the Gulf of Mexico spending all or part of their lifecycles there. They supply the source of more than 30 percent of the nation’s fisheries’ catch. It also is one of the largest habitats in the world for migratory waterfowl. It provides protection from storm-generated ocean surges for the more than two million people living in the coastal zone, including New Orleans. Yet, about one million acres of these wetlands have vanished since 1900; many square miles are lost each year.

In part, the loss is due to the natural sinking of the land. But in nature, this is compensated largely by the inflow of sediments from river distributaries. However, levees have been built to keep the Mississippi River in a single channel away from where it would naturally spread out and distribute the load of sediment laterally through marsh areas. There is a program under way to restore the wetlands as much as possible by river water introduction, sediment and nutrient trapping, vegetative planting, marsh creation and other measures. This is projected to be a 20- or 30-year project costing $14 billion or more. At best, it can only be partially successful in replicating the natural system.

Interfering in natural systems such as deltas and river courses has been disastrous in many areas. This is now widely recognized. One project was undertaken in Florida, in which streams were “channelized” by straightening the meandering streams that entered the Everglades region. This practice proved to be destructive to the Everglades environment, so now more money is being spent to restore the streams to their previous natural meandering courses. The once lush four million acres of wetland Everglades wilderness has been reduced to less than half that size. It is finally apparent to the six million residents of southern Florida that they depend on the Everglades for their drinking water. They are now directly interested in preserving what is left, and have launched the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Human habitation, however, continues to expand. The Commission for a Sustainable South Florida warned that, “rapid growth and sprawling development patterns are leading South Florida down a path toward wall-to-wall suburbanization.” Population growth is the problem. Land and water resources cannot expand accordingly.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states that the U.S. loses 60,000 acres or more of wetlands annually. In the ten years from 1986 to1997, the loss was 644,000 acres. During that decade, the United States added 30 million people to its population.

The coastal marshes and shallow waters of the continental shelves are far more biologically productive than deeper open ocean areas. They are the nurseries of many marine species. But these are the areas subject to increasing contamination from the polluted run-off of the continents.

In a study of United States coastal areas, Brinckman (2001) makes a number of significant observations: Half the U.S. population lives in a 50-mile-wide ribbon along the coasts. Projections for the next 25 years show that half the nation’s population growth will occur within that ribbon adding 39 million people to 17 percent of the U.S. land area…. The construction of roads, buildings and parking lots along U.S. coastlines has become one of the most serious dangers to the oceans, joining the better-known threats of overfishing, industrial pollution, and invasion of non-native species. The primary reason: Development and roads near ocean shores send toxic chemicals and other pollutants directly into fragile ocean marshes, estuaries and lagoons…. Findings released this month in Portland show that when paved areas near ocean shores exceed 10 percent of the land area, coastal ecosystems degenerate rapidly. Rainwater flows off impervious surfaces quickly, instead of seeping into the ground. Stream banks erode, the water gets warmer, and pollution from cars and homes washes into estuaries and marshes…. Population growth in coastal regions is increasingly recognized as a major cause of harm to fish, birds, and ecosystems along the shore.

The Mississippi River system drains parts or all of 31 states, a total of 1.2 million square miles. All the pollutants drained from this large area eventually become concentrated in this one river. Water runoff from streets and farms create huge amounts of chemical runoff. In places, raw sewage sometimes discharges into the river. This huge volume of chemicals, much of which is agricultural fertilizer and feedlot runoff, becomes nutrients breeding widespread algal blooms at the mouth of the Mississippi.

These blooms grow and multiply until all available nutrients are consumed by the algae at which time the algae dies and sinks to the sea floor. Bacterial decomposition of the algae then uses up all the oxygen available in the water column, killing all marine species that require oxygen and can’t rapidly leave the area. Oysters, worms, and other similarly immobile species perish. This dead zone moves around in the northern Gulf of Mexico with the prevailing currents and can even trap and kill mobile crustacean and fin fish species (Phillips, 2005).

Lack of media recognition of the basic population factor.  An example of how the issue of population and population growth is be ignored by a major newspaper is found in an article by a columnist for the New York Times. Returning from Niger, which he identifies as, “ … the most wretched country in the world”) he writes: I stopped in village after village where peasants told me of young children dying of starvation in the last few months. One man named Haroun Mani had just buried three of his eight children…. We need a new international initiative to extend the Green Revolution to Africa…. Momom Burhary, a 63-yearold man, stated: ‘And this land used to be far more productive than it is now. When I was a young man, the annual harvest would last a full year. Now it only lasts three months and then we run out of food.’ We are not even using our aid money wisely. Unless we help start a Green Revolution in Africa, we’ll be back in Niger year after year — and every village will be surrounded by more tiny graves. What the columnist advocates is simply making more food available so more people can survive to produce more children, and on and on. Producing more food would be good — only if population is stabilized at the level where the food supply can support the population at a decent standard of living.

The columnist avoids any mention of population or population control. One would think when the man told him he had just buried three of his eight children, it would have dawned on the writer that population is a large part of the problem, and until it is recognized as such, all other efforts are doomed to fail. Niger’s population, now 16 million is projected to reach 55 million by 2050. But, the word “population” does not appear in the article.

It is always the children who do most of the starving. Emaciated bodies are carried in the arms of people still at least able to get around to some degree. If we don’t want to see starving children, we must first acknowledge they are long-term responsibilities. People must assume responsibility for each life they create and not pass their child on to others for care. This most personal aspect of public policy must be confronted the world over in undeveloped areas, as well as in industrialized societies. Global lack of responsibility on population growth will assure that, as resources become more and more limited, social chaos will grow. If it could be arranged that whenever more children are brought into the world than parents can support, the parents would be the ones to starve and the children be allowed to survive, the problem might be solved rather quickly. Children who are totally innocent in creating the problem have to suffer the ultimate consequences.


Herschel Elliott (2005) in his book, Ethics for a Finite World, an Essay Concerning a Sustainable Future, writes: It is important to stress that to prevent the citizens of overcrowded nations from becoming permanent residents of less-populated countries is not racism or imperialism. Rather it is a logical consequence of the finitude of every nation’s boundaries. Inevitably, the land and resources of every nation have a maximum support capacity at any given standard of living…this is not a cultural racial prejudice; rather is a logical consequence of the fact that people live in a finite world — a world in which citizens become desperate when their rapidly rising numbers exceed the capacity of their environments to sustain them.

Beyond whatever other matters relate to immigration, the problem should be viewed in the larger, more fundamental context of how many people a country can adequately support at a desired standard of living in both the immediate and long-term future. In the case of the United States, people continue to migrate to it because it is, among other things, a “rich” country. However, that view may be increasingly an illusion. With an annual deficit in international payments of more than $600 billion, the rest of the world is loaning the U.S. nearly $2 billion a day to support the American lifestyle. It is like a giant credit card and, like all credit cards, it has limits, and must eventually be paid. Historically, the U.S. economy has generated employment and that is the “pull” of many immigrants to the United States. During recent street demonstrations by Hispanics, one who was interviewed simply said, “I can’t make a decent living for my family in Mexico.” To a considerable extent, this reflects a failed Mexican economy. It also reflects a population growing beyond what the environment can support. In 1960, Mexico’s population was 34 million. By 2011, the population had more than tripled to 115 million. This trend ensures strong and continual pressure to migrate.

In direct contrast to its actions at its northern border, where Mexico has provided maps and instructions on how to cross into the United States, Mexico is actively trying to protect its southern border with Guatemala. Guatemalans and Hondurans, with annual population growth rates of 2.5 percent and 2 percent, respectively (doubling times of 28 and 35 years, substantially higher than Mexico’s at 1.3 percent), seek to enter Mexico. In Mexico, illegal entry is a felony that is subject to a two-year imprisonment and a $28,000 fine. Mexico is very cognizant of its population problem, and, indeed, has done much more to address it than all of the Central American countries except Costa Rica.

Eventually, some nations will try to balance population with indigenous renewable resources. This cannot be achieved with unrestricted immigration. Elliott (2005) writes: “Autonomous nations must be allowed to carry out their own cultural experiments without incurring the moral obligation to rescue the nations whose misguided experiments have failed. The autonomy of nations requires them to be self-reliant and self-supporting … the citizens of all nations have to experience the destructive consequences of their own experiments in order to learn how to correct them and better to fulfill the goals of moral life. Any nation that does not limit immigration loses its ability to make its own cultural/ moral experiment. Its failure to curtail immigration would prevent it from choosing to use its lands and natural resources to support a minimal population at a high standard of living, and maximum quality of life. In effect, uncontrolled immigration allows the nations whose experiments have failed to overload the world lifeboat and cause it to founder.” When the world is forced to rely chiefly on renewable resources, the challenge will be for each nation to live on its indigenous resources. This was the world condition prior to the industrial revolution.

Many immigrants to the United States are refugees because environmental problems are not being dealt with in their native countries…many of the world’s violent conflicts are heavily influenced by — if not caused by — overpopulation and environmentally mismanagement of agriculture, water, and forestry resources. Immigrants from Central America, Haiti, and other places to the United States are, in many instances, environmental refugees.

End note

I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it.

I’ve made eight posts of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).

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Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies

Preface. I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it. I’ve made eight posts of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).

More than any other energy and resources writer I know of, he focused on population as being the main problem that needed to be solved if we hoped to have a better future.

This first part covers many topics about energy, consumption, war, soil, oil production on various countries, and more. I have several more sections of this book in other posts under Experts/Walter Youngquist

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


The destinies of all nations and all people are in many ways bound up with the mineral and energy mineral resources of the Earth. Events of the geologic past have richly endowed some nations with valuable resources, whereas others have very few. The result is markedly different destinies for different nations. How these resources have affected the peoples of the past, how they influence our lives now, and how they will determine our futures is the study of GeoDestinies.

In a relative geological fraction of a second, these resources are being consumed. Soon these gifts from the past — in the case of mineral energy resources, petroleum, coal, and uranium — will be gone forever. Some metals can be reclaimed and recycled. Still, there is an inevitable percentage that will be dissipated and can never be recovered.

Currently in the United States, about 25 percent of all energy produced is used to produce other energy. Energy is essential to drill for oil, mine coal, mine uranium, cut wood, make solar and wind energy conversion devices, and so on. As the easily recoverable energy mineral resources (petroleum, coal, uranium) are increasingly exhausted, the cost in energy to produce more energy is estimated to rise to about 33% in the next ten years. It will almost certainly continue to rise after that. This trend in energy costs can be fatal. If it ultimately takes as much in energy as the energy produced by the effort, there is no energy surplus to use in other energy consuming sectors of the economy. At that point, the game is up.

Professor David Rutledge at the California Institute of Technology projects that 90% of all economically recoverable fossil fuels will be exhausted by 2070, meaning that they will be diminishing far earlier than that.

The globalization of commerce and trade by use of oil has led to the worldwide exploitation of mineral and energy resources by the industrialized and industrializing countries, in effect, “the tragedy of the commons” (Hardin, 1969) in its ultimate final form. The decline of oil production will in turn result in the return of local economies forced to exist on more locally available resources, as has been the circumstance during much of human history. This will greatly remake our economies and lifestyles from what we know today.  

Due to differences in living standards, some populations (in industrialized countries) use more resources per capita than other populations. In some places local populations are so desperate to survive they destroy the environment with present use and cannot preserve it to sustain future population. In general, population growth and the environment are in direct conflict.

Around the world, the most easily discovered and recovered, higher-grade mineral and energy mineral deposits are used first. Thus, there is increased demand each year against resources that are declining in quality and cost more in both energy and money to obtain.

The desire for an understandable increased standard of living, together with the continuing rise in population, creates an exponential demand on mineral resources. In the first 50 years of the 20th  century, the total world production of minerals and mineral fuels was far greater than the total production of these materials during all previous history. Then, in the following twenty years, this production was exceeded again by approximately 50%. When graphed, these statistics show an exponential curve that is rising steeply toward a vertical line. Such a rate of consumption cannot be sustained.

The dependence of the United States on imported minerals continues to increase. In 1986, the country imported 100% of five essential minerals. By 2000, the number of minerals for which we are 100% import-dependent increased to 13. U.S. dependence on imports includes manganese necessary for steel production, the yttrium used in color TVs and computer monitors, and mica used in electrical transformers. In 2000 the United States had a net import reliance of greater than 50% for 33 mineral materials.

Over the long-term, fertile soil and fresh water supplies of the United States are the most valuable of all its resources.

Minerals, including energy minerals, are the basis for our modern civilization. Nations not possessing these are either doomed to remain at a relatively low standard of living, or they have to get these resources in raw or finished form by trade or by moving industries abroad where the resources exist. Can free trade and access to raw materials prevent the “Japan decision” to go to war for resources? Minerals and energy minerals have markedly altered the course of civilization through warfare.

We must become stewards of the resources of our own regions, assuring that the fertility of the soil and the purity of water and air are maintained to provide material and energy needs and to absorb wastes, and recycling materials for continual use.

The story of the importance of minerals and the rise and progress of civilizations are parallel stories. The search for and discovery of minerals from salt to gold and silver have caused mass migrations of people. Searching for minerals has been the cause of the opening of new lands. It has been said that “the flag follows the miner’s pick.” The quest for gold and silver lured Spaniards to the New World, resulting in the conquests of Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and some of the adjacent lands.

Migrations of people today to resource areas, or to nations that can import resources, are perhaps greater than at any time in the past. Seeking jobs and a higher standard of living, largely based on Earth resources, people today are moving, both legally and illegally, by the millions.

As a result of resource depletion caused by rising population, refugees, often with different birthrates, will markedly change the demographics of much of the world in this century. The fundamental causes of resource-related population migration and growth, such as land degradation and desertification, energy, food and water demand, are the essential forces for monumental changes we will see this century (Duguid, 2004). People are on the move.

Although the resources are consumed mostly by the generations that discover and develop them, there is an argument that at least some of these riches should be passed on in some form to future generations who did not have the good fortune of living during this period of great mineral wealth. These are your children and your children’s children. To be sure, some of this wealth will be there in the future in the form of the buildings, factories, houses, roads, bridges, railroads, locks, canals, power stations, water lines, sewers, and many other structures for which mineral resources and the wealth derived from them are used. But in the case of fossil fuels, although they help to construct these physical features of civilization, their use leaves no legacy when used to power motor vehicles. The same is true with other energy uses such as space heating, and in producing products with a limited life such as automobiles, airplanes, household appliances, and sporting goods. Some of these products can be recycled, but inevitably much will be discarded.

The United States still has rich fertile land, but even that is being degraded by erosion and soil nutrient depletion, and the groundwater supplies needed to support irrigated lands are being over-pumped. Increasingly, the United States lives on “imported affluence.” Unending tides of immigrants continue to arrive in a land that is now the third most populous nation in the world, to share in a fading American dream.

In general, the oil we now recover is lower grade than previously. It takes more energy to refine the same high-quality end product from lower grade oil than higher-grade oil. Recovering oil from the Athabasca oil sands of Canada, for example, and then upgrading it to a product equal to what we can recover from conventional oil wells takes considerably more energy.

The answer to the question “what’s the answer?” is that it is not going to be possible to keep the current game going, hugely dependent as we are on fossil fuels. When I say this, I sometimes add that if I did have “the answer” and could patent it, within five years, I would be the world’s richest man. When I tell the audience there is no simple solution, I generally do not get invited back. We all like simple, inexpensive answers to problems. The problem of replacing oil offers no easy or inexpensive solutions.

The thin veneer of civilization. The isolated violence that occurred in the gasoline lines in the U.S. during the 1973 and 1979 oil crises suggest that civilization, even in a highly civilized United States, is a perilously thin veneer. The British social critic, C. P. Snow, wrote: “Civilization is hideously fragile and there’s not much between us and the horrors beneath, just about a coat of varnish.” That thin coat of varnish consists of the availability of the basics of life — food, shelter, and clothing. The ability to produce and distribute them in the huge quantities in which they are in demand today is possible only through the use of mineral and energy resources. Earth resources will increasingly affect the stability of our societies (LindahlKiesling, 1994).


Since World War II, the world, led by the United States, has consumed more natural resources than in all previous history. That was the twentieth century.

North America, and particularly the United States, initially had resources in variety and abundance virtually unmatched by any other area of the world. With this marvelous spectrum of mineral and energy resources, the United States grew from a wilderness to become the richest and most powerful nation in the world in less than 400 years

Such development is historically unprecedented and can probably never be repeated.

By the late 1920s, the United States, with six percent of the world’s population, was producing 70 percent of the world’s oil, almost 50 percent of its copper, 46 percent of its iron, and 42 percent of its coal (Groner, 1972). The ability to produce and use these basic industrial materials and energy resources in large volumes was the key to the phenomenal development of the United States.

Including sand, gravel, cement, dimension stone, clay, and the energy and metal supplies already listed, more than five billion tons of new minerals are needed each year to support the U.S. economy. These demands add up to more than 20 tons of raw energy mineral and mineral supplies which have to be produced each year for every man, woman, and child in the United States, if our material standard of living is to be maintained. And, importantly, these demands increase in total size each year as our population grows by natural native increase, and by both legal and illegal immigration.

How fast a culture advances has largely been determined by what mineral and energy mineral resources it had available to it and to what degree technology development allowed them to be used. Mineral and energy resources combined with human ingenuity have been the mainsprings of civilization.

Energy is the key which unlocks all other natural resources and provides the physical and economic foundations of modern civilization (Ayers and Scarlott, 1952).

Without energy, the wheels of industry do not turn, no metals are mined and smelted. No cars, trucks, trains, ships or airplanes could be built, and if built, they could not move without energy. Without energy, houses would remain cold and unlighted; food would be uncooked. Our large agricultural areas could not be plowed or planted with the ease and on the vast scale they are today with relatively little human labor. Military defense as we know it today would not exist.


Pope (1996) commented, “If oil wealth is like winning the lottery, nations act like lottery winners: They tend to blow the money”. Some do, and some don’t.

Possibly the last mineral to significantly move people in the United States is the oil in the Bakken Formation in the Williston Basin of North Dakota. People from all across the United States moved to Williston to work in the development of the Bakken Field and all the supporting facilities. Building housing for the inflow of population could not meet demand, forcing people to sleep in their trucks. When the oil is gone, North Dakota will likely return to its agrarian economy, perhaps symbolic of all economies when the exploitation of nonrenewable Earth resources ends, and industrial societies must revert to agrarian economies.

Energy resources have since moved much of the population off the farms and into the cities. Today, with the use of petroleum powered farm machinery, only about two percent of America’s population farms the land, where a hundred years ago the majority of people did. But energy slaves (chiefly oil) now do the farm work, causing another great migration of people to the industrial areas, which, in turn, exist because of abundant energy to run factories.

Oil: A highly complex expensive enterprise. The oil industry plays an important part in countless ways in the lives of nearly all of us. The oil industry in its entirety including the exploration, drilling, production, transportation, refining, petrochemical production, and marketing uses more varied technology than any other industry in the world. These range from space satellites, to the highly complex science of organic chemistry. In between, seismology, directional drilling, drilling in waters a mile or more deep, and putting vast quantities of steam into the ground may be involved, among many other activities. The oil industry invests more money, by far, than any other industry in the world to conduct its operations.


I wholeheartedly support Brown’s comments regarding military budgets and priorities. Brown observes that the projected military budget for the U.S. is $492 billion, which is approximately equal to the combined military budgets of all of the rest of the world combined. He proposes an annual U.S. budget of only $161 billion that would include such social goals as universal health care, family planning, adult literacy programs, and universal primary education. Goals and expenditures to benefit the Earth include reforestation, protecting topsoil on cropland, restoring fisheries, restoring rangelands, and protecting biological diversity.

The resource that all warring sides must have is water. Control of water supplies has been a tool in warfare in various ways. In the sixth century B.C., the King of Syria seized water wells as part of his campaign against Arabia. The Inca conquered the desert coastal cities of Peru such as Chan Chan by cutting off their water supply. In feudal times in Europe, castles or other fortresses under siege were vulnerable if they did not have water supplies within their walls. The enemy quickly determined if such was the case. Also, moats filled with water were part of the standard military protection of the day.

In peacetime, control of water can be used as a form of economic warfare. More than 30 nations receive one-third or more of their water from outside their borders. In the case of Egypt, it is 97 percent, Hungary 95 percent, Syria 79 percent, and Iraq 66 percent. With their surface waters chiefly under the control of other countries, these and 16 other nations which obtain more than 50 percent of their surface waters coming from outside their borders are vulnerable to economic water warfare.

Hitler’s oil supplies began to fail. German motorized divisions toward the end of the war suffered markedly from lack of oil. When General George Patton was finally on the move across France with the Germans in full retreat, pipeline specialists from Texas (where else!) followed Patton’s tanks and laid pipeline at a rate of up to 50 miles a day. And there was oil to fill those pipelines, because during World War II, the Allies controlled 86 percent of the world’s oil supply.

To obtain markets for finished industrial goods, and to obtain raw materials, chiefly minerals, for building armaments, and to supply their industrial complex, Germany began to look hungrily at adjacent territories. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, Germany annexed iron-rich Alsace-Lorraine. Unfortunately, they later found that the boundaries they set did not include the bulk of the iron deposits because of the geologic structure there. Germany captured the surface outcrop area, but the iron-formation beds, with most of the iron ore, dipped westward into French territory. They apparently had a good military department, but a poor geology department. Germany fought the First World War in part “to correct the error of 1871.” After losing World War I, however, Germany had to give up this territory.

The experience of World War I made both the Allies and the Central Powers (Germany and its allies) keenly aware of the need for minerals with which to conduct military operations. Immediate and extensive post-war mineral exploration and development programs for both foreign and domestic sources were started by Britain and France. Because these countries, especially Great Britain, still had extensive colonial holdings, there was a lot of territory to explore. Germany, in contrast, lost all its foreign possessions, which was one of the circumstances that precipitated World War II. As Germany prepared for World War II in the 1930s under Hitler, it had been unable to regain its colonies, so it began to annex its immediate neighbors who possessed useful resources. Austria was next door and had some small iron deposits. It was the first to be taken. Czechoslovakia contained famous mining districts with fairly large iron deposits, and a variety of other metals. Czechoslovakia was taken next. With the early defeat of France in World War II, Germany regained control of the iron of Alsace-Lorraine.

Growing industrialization, with its huge demand for raw materials, growing populations, and the desire for a higher standard of living were the immediate causes for the intensified search for resources. And in the background was the thought that should another war come, the materials must be available in order to survive and win it. Hitler

In World War II, once Germany had conquered France and driven the British back across the English Channel, Hitler turned east. In keeping with his belief in lebensraum (the territory necessary for national existence and economic self-sufficiency), Hitler long held the view that only the Soviet Union had adequate land and minerals to take care of Germany’s needs (Rich, 1973). After taking this region, Hitler said, “We shall become the most self-supporting state in every respect in the world. Timber we will have in abundance, iron in unlimited quantities, and the greatest manganese-ore mines in the world, and oil—we shall swim in it.” Hitler turned his armies toward the Urals and the Ukraine. This region, along with the Donets Basin, contains extensive deposits of hematite (high grade iron ore), excellent coking coal, and limestone—the three fundamental ingredients for steel-making.

Oil to move implements of war It was not only metals that became so clearly evident as important tools of warfare in World War I. Energy, chiefly in the form of that relative newcomer, oil, was obviously going to be very significant. Some of the Allied ships bringing troops and supplies across the Atlantic from the United States to Europe were coal-fired and some were oil-fired. The oil-powered ships were the better and faster vessels, greatly speeding delivery of both troops and equipment. Oil grew more important in warfare. Gasoline-powered tanks made their first appearance on the military scene in World War I. Airplanes, fueled by gasoline, primitive as they were, also came into the war in a limited fashion.

For the first time in a major conflict, trucks replaced horse-drawn vehicles on a large scale. Recognizing this in the time between World War I and World War II, world military establishments began to give serious consideration to oil supplies. This is why Hitler coveted the oilfields of the southern Soviet Union.

By the time Pearl Harbor broke out, all of Europe was under the domination of Hitler. Africa, Latin America, Australia, India, and even parts of China remained accessible to the U.S. The only competitive customer for the mineral exports of these vast areas was the United Kingdom. An agency called the Combined Raw Materials Board was created by the U.S. and the U.K. and a coordinated buying program was launched. It was possible to fight World War II without an actual shortage of these critical materials. But the key was the fact that we retained access to Latin America, to all of Africa, to most of Asia and to Australia. Had we been denied access to them, we would have been in trouble.

After it opened up to the rest of the world in the late 1800s, Japan resolved to become an empire, but it had very few natural resources (Abbott, 1916). The nearest significant coal and iron deposits were in northern China (Manchuria). In the early twentieth century, as an emerging Pacific power, Japan was increasingly in need of raw materials, particularly metals, coal, and oil to equip its military. Japan invaded Manchuria for its deposits of iron and coal, and later southeastern Asia for more raw materials. As the military seized such resources, it also gained materials for Japan’s expanding civilian economy.

If Japan had possessed adequate oil deposits within its own borders, the Japanese probably would not have gone to war with the United States.

However, as the war continued and the United States was gradually able to cut off oil shipments to Japan, the matter of fuel became increasingly desperate for the Japanese. In the waning days of the war, Japan resorted to “kamikaze” (Japanese for “divine wind”) action – suicide pilots who would crash their planes into the ever-closer ships of the U.S. Navy. This was in large part a matter of fuel efficiency, because the planes would be given just enough fuel to fly one way. They were not expected to return and the pilots were told so. More than 4,000 young Japanese men were sacrificed this way. It was a desperate way of stretching fuel supplies. If a plane did hit a U.S. Navy ship, this would be a highly effective use of a small amount of fuel. Some planes did get through the anti-aircraft barrages and did considerable damage, but many more kamikaze planes were shot down. Finally, there was not enough oil to keep either the Japanese navy or air force operational.

Chile and nitrates.  For a long time there was a boundary question between Chile and Bolivia, but no one really cared about the exceedingly desolate northern Atacama Desert territory until nitrates were discovered there in great quantity. These were the causes of the Nitrate War. Chile declared war on both Peru and Bolivia on April 5, 1879. The Chileans were victorious and obtained all of the Atacama Desert area by the Treaty of Ancón in 1883. The victory was of great economic value to Chile. From 1879 to 1889, the duty on nitrate exports alone reached more than $557 million dollars, a very considerable sum in those days. The total value of nitrate exports in that period exceeded $1.4 billion. Nitrates have continued to be an important Chilean export, although the synthetic production of nitrates has reduced their value.

South China Sea. This is a region where oil was recently discovered, and the potential for future modest discoveries is good. The Spratly Islands dot the area and consist of about a hundred coral reefs, tips of rocks, and 21 slightly submerged landforms. The emergent land is less than two-square miles in total. Although these islands are located about 700 miles from China and only 100 miles from the Philippines, China claims a huge swathe of sea that overlaps and conflicts with the claims of other nations. Indeed, ownership in the strategic South China Sea is asserted in whole or in part by nine nation states, mainly China, which claims at least 80 percent, and Vietnam. In 1988, China and Vietnam clashed violently over the Spratly Islands, and in 2012, China and the Philippines are in a tense naval standoff over their competing claims there as well. All nine nations have set up little outposts on different rocks. Despite lacking clear ownership, both Vietnam and China have issued lease blocks to oil companies. In the meantime, oil-short China is building its navy and expanding its presence in the South China Sea. China needs much more oil as it plans to greatly enlarge its road network, increase motor vehicle production, and fuel its rapid industrialization, and transport system.

Many think that water may be the oil of the future relative to resource disputes. If so, nations like Egypt may face critical decisions about military action for its very survival, because nearly all of the water from its lifeblood, the Nile River, originates in other nations which are now building dams. Up from just 28 million people in 1960, Egypt now has 82 million and is expected to have 111 million in 2025, and 124 million in 2050. Clearly, Egypt has some critical times ahead. Thirsty and hungry people become desperate people.

Colombia has an on-going drug war. It is the world’s largest producer of cocaine, 90 percent of which goes to the United States. Oil accounts for a third of Colombia’s export earnings. Drug-running rebels have tried to cut the government’s oil income. Since 1986, they have attacked the country’s major pipelines more than 900 times. In 2001, they put a pipeline out of operation for 266 days, which cost the government nearly $600 million in lost revenue (Renner, 2002).

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), major conflicts between rival groups over very rich deposits of cobalt, tin, copper, molybdenum, and diamonds have resulted in the killing and displacement of several million people. This has given rise to the evocative term “blood diamonds,” which have also helped spark and sustain cruel insurgencies in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast.

Russia has been obtaining about 60% of its hard currency from the sale of oil and gas. Without this income, Russia would have a difficult time supplying its military with needed technological equipment such as state-of-the-art computers. Oil and gas earnings also buy grain, something in chronic short supply in Russia. Grain bolsters the civilian economy, but grain also feeds Russia’s large standing armies.

Will the Russia of the future prove to be a friendly neighbor to the western nations, or will it return to its political isolation and antagonism toward the West, using its huge coal, gas, and metal resources as weapons? The Cold War was a time when the Soviet Union was active in economic warfare against the NATO allies in many regions. The reality of Russia’s nearly complete self-sufficiency in minerals and energy minerals compared with other industrial nations will be important in future world affairs. With the largest and broadest energy and mineral resource base of any nation, Russia could do very well economically.

Oil: The United States, China, and Japan. In order, these are the three largest oil-consuming nations in the world, and their economies are vitally dependent on oil at the present time. It is doubtful that alternative energy sources can arrive in quantity or in time to replace diminishing quantities of oil. The result will be an intensified scramble for the remaining world oil reserves, in competition, of course, with all economies that use oil.

How this war for oil resources will be conducted is not entirely clear, but to some degree it is already in progress. All three countries are engaged in a worldwide search for oil, both through their oil companies and also through investments in various operations in oil regions—pipelines, refineries, and others. In the iron-mining region of northeastern Minnesota, for example, Chinese investment has reopened a mine and built a pelletizing plant (to upgrade the low-grade taconite iron ore—only 30 percent iron). They are shipping the product to China. This trend will continue, and the outcome is uncertain as we create a globalized economy. China is the 800-pound gorilla on the scene.

The cheap labor weapon. Economic warfare over the past two decades is also seen taking the place in the area of labor costs. Low-wage countries aided by free trade agreements have been able to transfer the manufacture of many products from industrialized countries, particularly the United States, to their own shores. This has created huge trade imbalances. China, in particular, has a large positive trade balance with the rest of the world, especially the United States.

Armed with U. S. dollars and other foreign currencies, China, and to a lesser extent India, have embarked on a worldwide buying spree to obtain a variety of raw materials. Particular investment targets are Canada for its metal resources; Chile for its metals; Venezuela for its oil; and Australia for its metals, natural gas, and coal. This investment strategy is intensifying, particularly by China as it also reaches into Africa for both metals and oil.

One result of low-wage competition for the United States has been a large decline in its manufacturing base. The increasing deficit in international balance of payments threatens the stability of the dollar. Dollars exported to pay for things previously produced domestically, come back to compete with the United States in the form of buying power of the cheap labor countries who use the dollar to bid against the United States for natural resources worldwide. Thanks to its trade surpluses, China has had a great inflow of dollars to use for worldwide resource acquisition.

War or Reason? Struggles for resources, especially oil, will continue as population pressures grow and resources become increasingly scarce (Tanzier, 1980). Will this worldwide increased demand for energy and minerals, compounded by the current exponential growth in population, be resolved by reason, or will the struggle result in war and anarchy as suggested in the very thought-provoking book by Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy (Kaplan, 2000)? Around the world, reason and goodwill are in shorter supply than they should be. By myriad adjustments in lifestyles and economics, the world must adjust to the new realities of resource availability. It is clear that the future cannot supply a continually growing population with resources as we use them now.

Wilderness to World Power. The establishment of a government by a free people, and an open economic system together with a great variety of abundant and easily exploited natural resources, destined the United States to change from a three-million square mile wilderness to the wealthiest and most powerful nation the world had ever seen in less than 300 years. In terms of the total energy minerals and minerals spectrum, the United States was without equal among nations at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed. Also, the millions of acres of fertile soil in the nation’s heartland favored by a good growing season are unmatched in the world.

Part of its good fortune was that the United States was established at the right time. The U.S. emerged as a nation shortly after the Industrial Revolution. It started in Great Britain and promptly spread to Europe, and then to the United States. New inventions and new technologies developed rapidly. The technologies enabled people to extract and process important raw materials like iron ore in great quantities. The invention of the steam engine fostered the development of the railroad, which was able to haul raw materials cheaply and in great quantities to the factories and distribute finished products across the country.

This combination of the right time (during the spread of the Industrial Revolution), together with a poor but ambitious free people, and the right place (three-million square miles of virgin land with a tremendous variety and quantity of mineral resources), was responsible for producing the great economic and military might of the United States in the first three-hundred years of its existence.

Of the three factors, the great variety and abundance of mineral and energy resources was probably the most important. Without these, even a free people would have seen the industrial age largely bypass them, or else arrive much later. But the rich geological endowment of the United States shaped its destiny.

One might suggest that Canada also had the same potential as did the United States, but Canada has somewhat less conveniently deposited mineral resources. It does not have high-grade iron and coal adjacent to the inexpensive Great Lakes transportation system. Little oil was discovered until recently in eastern Canada (which is offshore), whereas there were numerous oil fields in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana where people first settled and industry was established in the United States. There is no region in Canada comparable to the prolific Gulf Coast region of the United States where the famous Spindletop oil gusher discovery was made in 1901. Canada’s major oil industry really dates only from post-World War II, and, although important, it does not rival the size and wide geographic distribution of oil fields all across the United States. Also, Canada’s northern geographic position with its hostile cold climate and the difficult terrain of lakes, bogs, swamps, and large areas of tundra underlain by permafrost delayed its development except for roughly a two-hundred mile wide strip of land adjacent to the United States.

It may be, however, that the best is yet to come for Canada. The world’s largest deposits of oil sands, for example, will be an asset for many decades to come, and large high-grade iron ore deposits remain to be exploited. The United States has already depleted its high-quality iron deposits as part of the price for its phenomenal economic growth.

Russia would miss one advantage the United States had in its rapid economic rise, a relatively small population compared to large mineral wealth. Today Russia would have to spread its geological wealth over a far greater number of people then the United States had when it rose to its affluent world position. In 1880, as the United States began to reap the advantages of the Industrial Revolution, the population was approximately 50 million. The Russian population today is about 142 million. Large mineral wealth spread over a small population has the potential of raising the standard of living. This has been clearly illustrated in such countries as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Russia missed a great opportunity. Now, although it does have mineral wealth, it has more people. And Russian oil production has peaked before the benefits of its oil riches have been enjoyed to any large degree by the average citizen. The United States combined its oil wealth with its world class motor vehicle industry to bring a degree of affluence and lifestyle for the average citizen, that would be difficult if not impossible for Russia to duplicate now.

For many years, the United States was the world’s dominant producer of most vital raw materials. The United States was, until 1982, the world’s largest copper producer. Until about 1950, it produced half the world’s oil. It has been the leader in molybdenum, zinc, and lead output, and it still has the largest recoverable coal reserves in the world. Following the 1859 discovery of oil, the United States was completely self-sufficient in petroleum for more than 100 years. Ultimately it was the possession of large oil resources and U. S. self-sufficiency that brought about the reversal of power between Great Britain and the United States. Until World War I, coal was the dominant energy source, and British coal mines were a major source. After World War I, oil became the major fuel on which the world depended. Britain at that time had no oil production. With the arrival of the oil age, economic power shifted to the United States. One might note that the dependence of the United States on foreign oil has substantially decreased the relative world economic strength of the United States,

By 1909, the United States was producing more oil than the rest of the world combined, and continued to do so through 1950. With the discovery of oil found all across the U.S., and the development of trucks and automobiles, soon a nationwide network of roads and service stations was established. Travel came into vogue, because oil was inexpensive. The average citizen could afford it. Thus the great travel boom arrived and the novel idea of motels spread across the country. The travel industry became an important part of the U. S. economy.

In the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, mineral and energy mineral resources in the U.S. were in seemingly endless supply. The United States provided its allies with vital energy and mineral resources first to win World War I, when it was said that “the Allies floated to victory on a sea of oil.” U.S. oil supplies again played a vital role in World War II. Both Japan and Germany lacked oil. In terms of metals, it has been said that both wars were fought from the great hole in the ground which is the Hull-Rust iron mine on the north side of Hibbing, Minnesota.

With cheap and abundant mineral and energy mineral resources, the United States enjoyed an unprecedented rapid rise to the world’s highest material standard of living and to economic and military pre-eminence.

When considering the future, as compared with the past, it is important to note that the United States achieved its industrial position and its high standard of living on abundant, cheap energy, and rich mineral resources. It took enormous energy to mine and smelt the ores to produce the metals vital to industrial development. It took vast amounts of energy to conquer the frontier and do the work needed to convert a raw wilderness into the world’s largest, most affluent society. During most of the time between 1940 and 1960, the United States enjoyed $3-a-barrel oil, natural gas costing about 15 cents a thousand cubic feet, and coal costing about $4 a ton, all available within the United States. Abundant and inexpensive energy sources and high-grade iron and copper deposits were exceedingly helpful to a young and rapidly growing nation. High-grade metal deposits take less energy to mine and smelt than low-grade deposits do.

The combination of high-grade ores and inexpensive energy combined to provide very inexpensive finished products that fostered economic growth. Conversely, as ore grade decreases, it takes more energy to produce the same amount of metal as previously. Combined with higher energy costs, the result is substantially higher finished product costs.

The United States’ peak of power may have been symbolized by its use of the ultimate energy weapon, the atomic bomb, to end World War II in 1945. At the time, the United States was the sole owner of this fearsome form of energy. It was the possession of a particular metal, uranium, within its borders that allowed the United States to arrive at this zenith of world power. Now this capability is shared by several countries, and the number is growing.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, there were those who argued that the United States stood alone as the unrivaled world power. Unlike 1945, however, in the 1990s the United States was no longer self-sufficient in its principal energy need, oil. In fact, it was importing more than half of its supplies, and lacked the ability to reverse the trend. The United States no longer controlled its economic destiny, which was partly in the hand of foreign oil producers. And the continuing imbalance of foreign trade, in which imported oil was the largest single (and growing) factor hurt the prestige and value of the U.S. dollar in world markets.

The United States rose to international economic dominance in record time, but in the process depleted many of its high-grade resources. The rich ores of the Mesabi Iron Range are gone. All the high-grade native copper mines of Upper Michigan are closed. The United States now searches for oil off the frozen north coast of Alaska and in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. is no longer nor will it ever be self-sufficient in oil again. Its oil reserves, once the largest in the world, are now dwarfed by those of several other countries. Although it consumes about 25 percent of the world’s oil, the U.S. now contains only about four percent of the estimated conventional proved world oil reserves.

The United States has changed from being an exporter of energy and mineral resources to now being a net importer on an increasingly large scale. In the process, the United States also went from being the world’s largest creditor nation to being the world’s largest debtor nation in less than 20 years. Oil imports now are the single largest item contributing to our annual balance of trade deficit. Other basic commodities are increasingly imported as the U. S. continues to decline in resource self-sufficiency.

The saga of the astonishing rise of the United States to affluence and power will never be duplicated in the world. There are no more virgin continents to exploit. The story of the growth of the United States has been a phenomenon beyond comparison. The question now is: where does it go from here?


No other oil fields the size of the approximately 12 billion-barrel Prudhoe Bay Field are expected to be discovered in Alaska. About 60 miles to the east of Prudhoe Bay, the geology suggests that perhaps a field or fields not as large as Prudhoe Bay might exist in a small portion of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Alaska’s oil revenues are certain to decline in the long run, to the point where there will be little or no such income. If future generations of Alaskans are to be considered, then the abundant but transient oil revenues of today must be used differently. The political process has allowed this generation of Alaskans to capture benefits at the expense of future generations by plundering much of the wealth of its nonrenewable oil resource.

Of the initial 12 billion barrels of oil reserves in the Prudhoe Bay Field, seven billion have been produced. Production has peaked, and is now declining.


This archipelago is the fourth-most populous nation in the world with 240 million people. Until 2009, it was a member of OPEC. Its oil deposits were developed by Shell Oil Company, which began as a trading company that actually dealt in part in seashells when Indonesia was a Dutch colony. This is how the Shell companies got their start, and they still retain the shell symbol. Indonesia was the prize the Japanese needed to keep their war machine going, and they occupied it for a time during World War II. After the war, Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands, and continued to be an oil exporter. It has now become a net oil importer, with domestic oil demand now exceeding production.

Military spending by oil-rich countries, principally in the Middle East, has overshadowed all other investments. In the 12 years following the first Arab oil embargo in 1973, with the subsequent huge rise in oil prices and concurrent huge increase in revenues for oil producers, the Gulf nations spent more than $640 billion for military purposes. Iraq and Iran spent billions, which served only to finance an eight-year war of attrition ending in stalemate. An estimated million people were killed and many more were wounded. Without the oil money to finance the advanced weapons of war, it is probable that at least the casualty figures would have been less. What a tragic way to waste forever the proceeds from a non-renewable resource.

Now these countries have the latest state-of-the-art weaponry including all sorts of missiles, tanks, jet fighters, helicopters, warships, and other hardware. But there is a question whether or not these nations are safer or happier with all these devices of destruction. Arms shows in the Middle East have become regular events. It is big business. The judgment of history on the way in which some of the temporary oil riches are being spent is likely to be severe. The government-owned oil industry has been ineffective in using oil wealth for general social improvement.


Pemex is not run efficiently, and is grossly overstaffed with more than 108,000 employees.  The oil revenues have not been used to raise the Mexican standard of living. Pemex provides the government with 40 percent of its revenues and pays 70 percent of the cost of running the national electric grid. Exactly where the rest of that tax revenue goes is uncertain.

The Cantarell oil field that supplies 62 percent of Mexico’s total production has peaked and is in steep decline.

Just to maintain Mexico’s oil production, the government will have to invest as much as $100 billion in the coming decade. Taxes prevent Pemex from retaining enough of its earnings to finance needed expenditures. Francisco Rojas, who ran Pemex from 1987 to 1994, referred to Pemex’s decaying infrastructure and lack of money for exploration saying, “ … we are looking at a time bomb….”  

In Mexico in 1996, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) set up blockades at oil installations in the oil field areas of the southeast coast protesting the actions of Pemex, the Mexican government oil monopoly. The PRD said Pemex had contaminated farm land, had not cleaned up oil spills nor raised living standards as promised, but had diverted its oil money to political ends and into politicians’ pockets. Mexico is another example of how oil may prove to be a destabilizing influence on a country. The national oil company, Pemex, provides 40 percent of government income but production has dropped 30 percent from its peak in 2004. In 2009, there was a substantial cut in government employment (10,000 workers), increased personal and corporate income taxes ($13 billion), and reduced subsidies for things such as electric power. The country was living on a diminishing resource, and now “It’s crunch time in Mexico” (Smith, 2009). How this increased austerity will affect Mexican social and economic structures is not yet clear, but it will surely do so as it will in all countries dependent on income from nonrenewable resources.


This is the largest African nation in terms of population, with 162 million people and a growth rate projected to increase its population to 237 million by 2025, and 437 million by 2050 (Population Reference Bureau, 2011). Nigeria remains beset with problems. It is rated as one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. Lack of civil control has reached the point that Shell Oil Company says it may not be able to continue operations there because of the ongoing sabotage of equipment. With corruption, lack of civil order, growing religion-based terrorism, a fast-growing population – already the largest of any African nation — the future for Nigeria is dim. A jihadist terrorist organization — Boko Haram — whose name translates from the Hausa language to “Western education is sacrilege,” and which began attacking Christian targets in 2010, is only the latest threat to Nigeria’s fragile stability. Oil revenues surely have not been used as wisely as they might have. Nigeria has about 37-billion barrels of oil reserves. And if civil order can be maintained, there are fair prospects for additional discoveries. But Nigerians themselves lack the ability to conduct oil operations, so foreign technology and investments are required. The country’s production is expected to peak about now.

When the day arrives that Nigeria is not oil rich, it may revert back to the bloody civil wars that marked the country 30 years ago. Today, even with oil riches, or perhaps because of them, corruption and civil unrest continue to plague Nigeria.


About 2% of Norway’s land is arable. There is not a drop of oil in Norway’s largely igneous rock terrain. Norway has always had to live in considerable part from the sea. Norway has used a lot of their oil revenues to keep unemployment low. Billions of dollars of petroleum revenues have been poured into what turned out to be money-losing projects in agriculture, iron mining, smelters, and fishing in order to keep people employed. This is a temporary fit, and does not build a sound economic base for the long term. Norway’s oil reserves are about 5.3 billion barrels. Production peaked in 2001 and is now in decline. The resulting decline in oil revenue will be a problem, but not so much as in countries with a high population growth rate. Norway’s population of 5.0 million has a very low growth rate of about 0.4 percent annually bringing its projected expected population to 5.6 million in 2025 and 6.6 million by 2050.


In spite of Venezuela’s rapid population growth and associated social needs, President Hugo Chavez purchased seven Russian MIGs, and a fleet of Russian attack helicopters in 2004. In 2005, he bought 100,000 Russian AK-47 rifles. Flush with the money from high oil prices, President Chavez spent over four billion dollars (equivalent) in 2005 and 2006 buying additional military equipment, making Venezuela the most heavily armed country in Latin America. Since 2005, Venezuela has signed contracts with Russia for 24 Sukhoi fighter jets, 50 transport and attack helicopters, and 100,000 more assault rifles. Venezuela also has plans to open Latin America’s first Kalashnikov factory to produce rifles in the city of Maracay.

In Venezuela in 1989, there may have been a preview of what could happen more widely when income from a depletable resource, such as petroleum or metals, declines. Oil income began to falter. The government had to change its free-spending ways that were based on abundant oil income from 1974 to 1979, when oil prices moved up very rapidly. It started budget cutting as oil prices declined. When subsidized bus fares were raised along with previously cheap gasoline prices, riots erupted in Caracas and 17 other cities. More than 300 persons were killed, 2,000 were injured, and several thousand arrested. The government had to rescind the increases. When the price of oil dropped in 2008 from $147 a barrel to less than $60, Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy was severely affected.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez began running into problems. In 2005, Venezuela’s oil production declined to 2.2 million barrels a day from its peak of approximately 3.7 million barrels a day several years earlier. To maintain support for his regime, President Chavez diverted more and more of the national oil income to financing growth in social programs so there was not enough capital left in the industry to keep oil production stable, much less increase it.

Venezuela’s social structure, in a country with a growing number of poor, is under severe strain. Recognizing the need to help the poor is commendable. As noted elsewhere, this diverts money needed to maintain oil production, so population and population growth are in conflict with preserving the resource that supports it. A smaller population would help considerably. But Venezuela’s population is 29 million and is projected to reach 35.4 million in 2025, and 42 million by 2050. Oil production and the income from it cannot possibly be increased proportionately. As in other oil-rich nations, oil revenues in Venezuela have not kept pace with the growth in population and the related growth in the costs of the social services created in earlier, more affluent oil income years.

Venezuela’s situation with its 29 million people and daily oil production of 2.2 million barrels, can be contrasted to Saudi Arabia with 28 million people and daily production of more than nine million barrels. Saudi oil is also higher quality and brings a better price than Venezuelan heavy crude. So Venezuela, with a slightly larger population, is on an oilincome diet less than one-fourth that of Saudi Arabia. Both countries are almost totally dependent on oil income for foreign exchange.


The world’s largest geothermal electric generating plant is located at The Geysers, about 70 miles north of San Francisco. Electricity was first produced there in 1960. More than 2,200 megawatts was eventually being generated, the equivalent of two large dams, and enough to supply the electric power needs of about one and one-half million people. However, the field was apparently over-drilled, and production eventually fell to about 1100 megawatts. When geothermal energy is used for electric power generation, it is nonrenewable because eventually the reservoirs of steam and/or hot water will be depleted to the point where they are no longer capable of sustaining

electric power generation. The time to depletion is variously estimated to range from 40 to 100 years in most geothermal electric power fields. However, after being shut down over a period of many hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, the field will recover and could be used again, because the heat will still be there. It is only the hydro system that gathers the heat from fractured hot rocks and brings it to the well bore that becomes exhausted.

For this reason, geothermal energy used for electric power generation in a practical sense does not appear to be a renewable resource. There is, however, technology being tested which may modify this conclusion. In some geothermal fields, waste water is being injected back into the reservoir to see if the reservoir level and pressure can be maintained without reducing the temperature. At The Geysers field in northern California, a 65-kilometer pipeline was recently completed bringing waste water north from Santa Rosa for injection into the geothermal field. An earlier project brought water from a lake that resulted in a recovery of 68 megawatts of power and slowed the area’s pressure decline. If this technology continues to be successful, it can materially extend the life of geothermal electric generating fields. With proper management, it could make geothermal electric power a sustainable energy resource.

Worldwide geothermal electric power. Currently the installed capacity of geothermal-powered electric generating plants totals more than 10,000 megawatts. This is the equivalent of about seven to nine conventional coal-fired plants. Leading countries, in declining order, are the United States (2,685 MW); Philippines (1,970 MW); Indonesia (992 MW); Mexico (953 MW); Italy (810 MW); Japan (535 MW); New Zealand (472 MW); and Iceland (421 MW).

Renewable for space heating? When used for space heating, hot water usage can be controlled to be kept in balance with the natural recharge of the hydro system which brings the heat from the permeable hot rocks to the well bore. In this case, geothermal energy is a renewable resource. Thus, depending on its end use, geothermal energy can be thought of either as renewable or non-renewable. Even when used for space heating, the geothermal reservoir can become depleted if it is over-used. This seems to be the case in several of the district heating systems in southern Idaho, and at Klamath Falls, Oregon, where studies of this problem are under way. However, using geothermal water for space heating is its most efficient use and it should be pursued. The efficiency stems from the fact that there is no change from one energy form to another. When geothermal water is used to generate electric power, heat energy is changed to mechanical energy and then to electrical energy. Any change in energy form results in an energy loss (second law of thermodynamics).

The lower-temperature waters that can be used for space heating are far more abundant and widespread than the high-temperature waters required for efficient electric power generation. Even where there is no especially warm water to use, the general heat flow of the Earth can be tapped by using groundwater heat pumps, which are efficient in most temperate areas, and better in some places than standard air-to-air heat pumps.

Use of Earth’s natural heat flow It is feasible, particularly in a hilly setting, to build a split-level house with part of it below ground level. In colder countries, in particular, the natural heat flow of the Earth will add to the warmth of the house in the winter. Because it is a steady temperature, it also can have a cooling effect in the summer. Such an arrangement is a natural air conditioner. Some houses are built almost entirely underground. Whereas this requires more power for lighting, there is a net reduction in power use because both heating and cooling take far more energy than lighting does. It is also land efficient in cases where people grow gardens on the roofs of such dwellings. By using the natural heat flow of the Earth in this fashion, geothermal energy is renewable,


The exploitation of wood and other biomass is removing vegetation in many areas beyond the replacement rate, causing large and fatal landslides, devastating floods (as in Bangladesh, 1988), and widespread erosion and loss of valuable topsoil (Pimentel and Krummel, 1987

In Haiti, which was once nearly all forested, only two percent of the land is now, because the demand for charcoal, an important fuel for cooking and household use, far exceeds the reforestation rate

In the countryside around Bogota, Colombia, the highlands of Peru, and throughout much of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and other parts of Asia including China, in Central America (Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras), and especially in Africa there is a serious firewood supply problem. Depleting forests and brushy groundcover has harmed the soil, both by erosion and from the loss of biomass important to soil health. It is doubtful that the use of wood for fuel can be significantly expanded. In many regions, the forests need to grow back to prevent further erosion and floods, which are already severe. Loss of trees and vegetation is a particular problem in the foothills of the Himalayas where forests once regulated the gradual run-off of water. That has been changed by deforestation and now great floods occur in the lowlands to the south, especially in the densely populated lowlands of Bangladesh. In both India and Bangladesh, deforestation has also resulted in eroded soil filling reservoirs far faster than was projected for dam sites.

Wood is still a useful local fuel for cooking and heating. Some utility companies use wood in small amounts for power generation. However, the woodlands of the world are so important to the health of the environment for preventing erosion, as a sink for carbon dioxide, and in countless other ways that they cannot be used as a sustainable fuel supply in any significant amount.


Dr. T. Stauffer, a research associate at Harvard, said, “The bottom line is that using alcohol to stretch gasoline is like using filet mignon to stretch hamburger.

“Renewable power and fuels will be more expensive than the dirtier sort for the ‘foreseeable future.’ This leaves the clean-energy business largely dependent on government handouts.” (The Economist, 2007).

Although ethanol is commonly thought of as a farm product, it is largely a product of the energy inputs noted, and the oil-based pesticides and fertilizers used to enhance the growing. This fact is conveniently ignored by politicians and others who endorse ethanol as an alternative to gasoline at the same time they berate the oil industry that provides the basis for modern agriculture, including corn production.

Consumer Reports (October, 2006) weighed in on the ethanol issue with a cover article The Ethanol Myth pointing out that because of the lower-energy content of ethanol (27 percent less than gasoline) ethanol may not save as much energy as claimed, and that it greatly reduces the mileage range of cars. In one test case, it reduced car mileage from 450 miles to 300 miles per tank of fuel.

Pimentel and Patzek (2005) estimate that if the entire U.S. corn crop were used to make ethanol, “ … it would replace only 6% of fossil fuel used in the U.S. And because the country has lost over a third of its agricultural topsoil, no large increase in the corn crop is possible.” Pimentel and Patzek (2005) further write: Moreover, the environmental impacts of corn ethanol are enormous. They include severe soil erosion, heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, and a significant contribution to global warming. In addition, each gallon of ethanol requires 1700 gallons of water (mostly to grow corn) and produces 6 to 12 gallons of noxious organic effluent.

Using food crops such as corn to produce ethanol also raises major ethical concerns. More than 3.7 billion humans in the world are currently undernourished, so the need for grains and other foods is critical. Growing crops to provide fuel squanders resources; better options to reduce our dependence on oil are available. Energy conservation and development of renewable energy sources, such as solar cells and solar-based methanol synthesis, should be given priority.

In terms of gasoline, Smil (2010) estimates that if the entire U.S. corn crop was converted to that use, it would produce an equivalent of less than 15 percent of current U.S. annual consumption.

The impossibility of using methanol as a replacement for oil in the United States is summarized by Pimentel: “If methanol from biomass (33 quads) were used as a substitute for oil in the United States, from 250 to 430 million hectares of land would be needed to supply the raw material. This land area is greater than the 162 million hectares of U.S. cropland now in production” (Pimentel, 1995).  

Biodiesel also has limitations beyond either gasoline or ethanol. The Minnesota Legislature passed a law in 2005 requiring diesel sold in that state to contain 2% biodiesel. This worked fine in the summer, but given the nature of the Minnesota winters, it turned out that even 2% biodiesel in the fuel would congeal and plug the fuel line in cold weather. This aroused the ire of the truck drivers, and the law was temporarily suspended. “It’s not like they weren’t warned” said C. Fords Runge, a University of Minnesota economist who prepared a biodiesel study in 2001 on behalf of a Minnesota trucker trade group (Meyers, 2005). Others had cautioned that there would be problems. “I’d stop short of saying, ‘Ha, I told you so,” said Russell Sheaffer, Vice President of Cummins Power, a regional distributor of Cummins [diesel] engines (Meyers, 2005). B100 (100 percent biodiesel) is not recommended for use in temperatures below 40 F. Decreasing temperatures below 40 F require that increasing amounts of petroleum-derived diesel be blended into the fuel because petroleum-derived diesel does not have such temperature limitations.


Overall, one-third of the topsoil of U.S. cropland has been lost over the past 200 years. Worldwide, degradation of agricultural land is causing irreversible loss of an estimated area of six million hectares (nearly 15 million acres) annually. Soil is being lost from land areas 10 to 40 times faster than the rate of soil renewal, endangering future human food security.


The concept of sustainable growth is analogous to the concept of perpetual motion — both happy illusions that are detached from reality. The former ignores limitations of a finite Earth, and the latter ignores the second law of thermodynamics.

Growth in population creates a tremendous impediment to any program to solve the world’s energy problem. The nearly 80 million people being added each year to world population is more than the combined population of The Netherlands and France.

“The gain in realistic energy conservation efforts would be nullified within a decade by population growth.” Keep this statement in mind whenever a serious discussion of energy problems comes up. It is almost always overlooked.

The terms “smart growth” or “managed growth” seems to make people feel better, and they believe the problem of growth is being solved. But growth is growth by whatever name it is called. Smart or managed growth is analogous to moving the deck chairs on the Titanic closer together, and finally stacking them on top of one another. This simply results in the ship going down in a more organized manner than it would otherwise.

Herman Daly is one of few economists who understands the limits of a finite Earth. As early as 1987, in “The Steady-State Economy: Alternative to Growthmania” he related his concerns about “growthmania” and the ecosystem with the observations: The economy grows in physical scale but the ecosystem does not…. Standard economics does not ask how large the economy should be relative to the ecosystem, but this is the main question posed by steady-state economics…. Standard economics…is indifferent to the scale of aggregate resource use. In fact, it promotes an ever-expanding scale of resource use in appealing to growth as the cure for all economic and social ills…steady-state economics stresses the optimum scale of resource use relative to the ecosystem.

“Growthmania” (In growth we trust.) is the current guiding creed of both industry and government and of both main political parties in the U.S.. Chambers of commerce enthusiastically and unanimously promote it. This century will show it to be a false pursuit, even a delusion.

Abernethy (1993) makes the important observation that the carrying capacity of a region is not constant: Life support systems deteriorate from overuse and are less able to support life. This means that overpopulation in one period decreases the future number of people who can be maintained without aggravating the damage. The carrying capacity does not remain constant. It shrinks.

 Nor is the solution recycling because 100% recovery cannot be achieved. Some is inevitably lost in the process. Furthermore, to recycle materials requires energy.

One of the most difficult problems is how to stabilize population size, and at what level? The issue of population size is frequently ignored, and when it is considered, it is treated very cautiously because it involves delicate cultural, religious, and racial matters. But some population size must be assumed to rationally describe what resources and technologies would be required to sustain humans indefinitely.

Pimentel and Pimentel (1979) and others at Cornell University have made perhaps the most comprehensive and quantitative study of “sustainability,” relating it to the two most vital parts of our resource base — soil and water. “For erosion under agricultural conditions, we should be losing less than 1 ton per hectare per year for sustainable farming. For groundwater resources, we should be pumping no more than 0.1 percent of the total aquifer for use.” But, we rarely manage these two vital resources based on these criteria. Pimentel et al. (1994), have suggested a figure of about two billion as the sustainable population of the Earth, and about 100 million for the United States.

The term “sustainable development” is commonly used with optimism that implies the growth trends we now experience can really be indefinitely sustained. Economists, in particular, are very fond of it. So are real estate developers and chambers of commerce. To meet objections about the continuing growth of various projects, the term “smart growth” has been invented and is widely used.

However, as Bartlett (1997a) pointed out: “The claim is made that growth management will save the environment. Whether the growth is smart or dumb, the growth destroys the environment.

Problems relating to “sustainability” come in many forms. Land use and food production are important issues. From 1980 to 2002, the U.S. per capita agricultural land declined from 1.5 acres to one acre. At the same time, population increased by 60 million. For the first time, the United States became a net importer of agricultural products (Hartmann, 2006).

In the U.S., cities occupy only 3% percent of the land area, but 26% of the best agricultural land.

We talk about energy conservation as a way to balance demand and supply. But, the goal is constantly overwhelmed by population growth. California is a good example. “Per capita energy use dropped 5% between 1979 and 1999. However, during that same 20 years the state’s population grew 43% largely as a result of immigration” (Hartmann, 2006). In spite of the per capita reduction in energy use (conservation), the amount of energy used in California increased by 93%.

As the British writer, Bligh, has stated: “Contraception is so much kinder than starvation and genocide.

Professor James Duguid (2004) from Scotland has made this observation on individual nation sustainability: The guiding ethical principle should be that each nation should live within the resources of its own country, with only such trade in surpluses as is beneficial to all. None should depend on foreign aid, on large imports, on exporting surplus people, or in otherwise appropriating the biocapacity of other countries.

In their book, The Lessons of History (1968), Will and Ariel Durant wrote: “In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war … . The causes of war are the same as the causes of competition among individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride, the desire for food, land, materials, fuels, mastery

Many people now living will see the year 2050. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in their beginning and ending, will be vastly different from any other back-to-back centuries the world has seen, or probably ever will see. Just as those alive in 1900 could not have foreseen the changes that occurred in the next 50 years, we cannot foresee the changes that will occur in the next 50 years. But it is safe to say that energy and population will be among the most prominent things to change. Perhaps the most difficult thing to visualize is what sort of social structures will arise in response to the new resource and energy paradigm. What we do know is the changes are likely to be profound. Because increasing depletion is a new paradigm, history offers no guidance on the future.


Some cities have efficient sewer systems, some do not. Forty percent of world population has no access to sewers, and millions of gallons of raw sewage are put daily into the remaining already degraded wetlands and rivers, sometimes called the Earth’s kidneys. They can no longer absorb it all. The scale of this universal human pollution problem is beginning to grow beyond what nature can effectively recycle back into the environment (George, 2008).

The rapid rise in jet fuel and gasoline prices during 2004-2007 in the U.S. was exacerbated by hurricanes damaging and destroying offshore drilling and production platforms and by reduced refinery output.

Asphalt paves 94 percent of the roads in the United States.  This is a total of about four million miles, and is the basis of our entire ground transport infrastructure, except for railroads.

The pre-colonial famines of Europe raised the question: ‘What would happen when the planet’s supply of arable land ran out?’ We have a clear answer. In about 1960 expansion hit its limits and the supply of unfarmed, arable lands came to an end. There was nothing left to plow. What happened was that grain yields tripled. The accepted term for this strange turn of events is the green revolution, though it would be more properly labeled the amber revolution, because it applied exclusively to grains — wheat, rice, and corn. Plant breeders tinkered with the architecture of these three grains so that they could be hyper charged with irrigation water and chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen…. This innovation meshed nicely with the increased ‘efficiency’ of the industrialized factory-farm system [powered with fossil fuel]…. The way in which the green revolution raised that grain [production] contributed hugely to the population boom, and it is the weight of the population that leaves humanity in its present untenable position…. All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food it produces.

WIND POWER devices are unsightly, noisy, kill birds, and like solar collectors, deteriorate and have to be replaced with more materials mined from the Earth. Both wind farms and solar farms need access roads to service the equipment and the motor vehicles to do it. In brief, “there is no free lunch” in the use of any alternative energy source with respect to the environment. All have an impact.

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