Sixty years ago I read in Junior Scholastic that there were only fifty years of oil left. Since I intended to live that long, I was alarmed - so alarmed that I still remember the picture of the gushing drill rig that companied the article.
Well, it's still true. This morning the New York Times quotes a report from HSBC: "'We're confident that there are around 50 years of oil left,' Karen Ward, the bank's senior global economist, said in an interview on CNBC." Context makes it clear that she meant “only” 50 years.
Obviously (except to senior economists), we will never run out of oil – it will just get too expensive to use for certain applications. Also obvious (except to senior economists), higher prices lead to more discoveries - new technologies like horizontal drilling, fracking for oil, and tar sands recovery have already led to INCREASED production in North America lately. It may be more accurate to say that, at any given price, the world will always have a fifty year supply of oil. Higher prices will discourage consumption, encourage use of replacement fuels, and incent discovery and vice versa.
Despite all of which President Obama is right to say that we ought to cut our oil imports and reduce our dependence on volatile Middle East, African, and Venezuelan sources. It will be nice if his speech tonight contains a plan for accelerated drilling for oil and gas in the US – not incentives, please, just process the permits and leases and open up more areas for drilling. It will be good if he reaffirms (as it is leaked that he will) his support for nuclear power – even though we do need to learn all that we possibly can from Japan. It will be a real waste and a shame if he announces government subsidized plans for yet more biofuels (also leaked).