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What If the World Ran Out of Oil?

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Benjamin Welton
Written by Benjamin Welton It's a resource at the centre of the international economy, worldwide industry, global politics and environmental issues. So how different would the world be if we suddenly ran out of oil? How would trade links be affected? Would our energy supplies run low? And which countries would experience most change and upheaval?
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What If the World Ran Out of Oil?


Black gold. That is just one of the more common names for oil. The value of the dark liquid is undisputed. According to Forbes, the world’s largest oil company, the Texas-based ExxonMobil, raked in around $4 billion dollars in a single quarter in 2017. Overall, the American oil giant is the largest oil company in the world. Right behind ExxonMobil are Royal Dutch Shell, PetroChina (the state-controlled oil company of China), and Chevron, another American oil company. In Mexico, one of the most oil-rich nations on earth, government-controlled Pemex made over $57 million dollars in 2017. As for Gazprom, a public joint stock company headquartered in Russia, it accounted for $3.4 billion dollars in the third quarter of 2017.

Clearly, oil is big business. The top oil producing nations on earth, including the United States, Canada, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, are all wealthy nations that exert an incredible amount of influence on global geopolitics. One might even say that what happens on the oil market affects everyone in the world.

Given the sheer amount of money to be made in oil, it is unsurprising that corruption is rife in the industry. Several oil companies have gone out of their way to downplay environmental concerns about oil drilling, especially offshore oil drilling. In 2010, when an offshore oil rig near Louisiana operated by British Petroleum, or BP, suffered a massive explosion, eleven workers died and approximately 3.19 million barrels of crude, unrefined oil spilled out into the Gulf of Mexico. Despite all of BP’s attempts to cover up the true extent of the spill’s damage, marine wildlife in the area is still struggling several years later.

Besides posing a threat to the environment, the worldwide oil industry has also provided a hot meal ticket for criminal organizations and terrorist groups. At the height of its military prowess in Iraq and Syria, ISIS made most of its millions by selling illegally obtained oil. In early 2017, the U.S. State Department claimed that ISIS made up to $1 million dollars a day selling oil, with their biggest buyer being President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria.

Such disturbing facts often do not pop into the heads of everyday people at the gas station. For most of Earth’s inhabitants, oil is simply a pricy necessity that fuels travel, work, leisure, and life. As much as people might complain about the cost of a gallon of gas, they still put it in their car, heat their homes with some variation of it, and use tons of plastic products that have oil as their central component. Oil is a part of everyday life.

But what would happen if all the world’s oil dried up tomorrow? While plenty of wildlife would be happy with such a development, it would pose a serious problem for the human population. Here’s why.

Heavy Restrictions/Wealth Disparity

The oil industry is one of the most stringently documented, calibrated, and analyzed industries in the entire world. Oil companies like BP and ExxonMobil keep detail-oriented documents about the yearly standing of oil consumption and oil reserves. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the world would one day dry up without major oil companies being prepared.

That being said, oil consumption has shown a tendency to outpace oil production. When this happens, the price of a single barrel of oil increases in an attempt to cut down on consumption. If the world really did find itself dangerously close to running out of oil, then the price of a single barrel of oil would skyrocket to the point where the average consumer would not be able to purchase a gallon of gas.

The increase in oil demand with a concurrent decrease in oil production would benefit those oil-producing and economically diverse nations, to the serious detriment of nations that rely on importing oil. Economically speaking, such a scenario would further imbalance wealth ratios, both between developed and developing nations, and within developed nations themselves.

Conflict

A world with extremely scarce oil resources could also be a conflict-ridden one. Much like in the apocalyptic Mad Max films, several state and non-state agencies would rush in in order to lay claim to diminishing oil supplies. Since a large portion of the world’s oil comes from the Middle East, terrorist groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and others could become unimaginably wealthy and powerful thanks to the control of oil-rich territories. With such power, it would be likely that these organizations would finance other terrorist cells around the world, and greenlight spectacular attacks against their enemies.

On a much grander scale, the quest to control oil reserves could lead to multiple states going to war with each other. Remember: back before World War I, the great naval arms race between Great Britain and the German Empire involved a quest to control access to various resources, including oil. Once Berlin and London undertook their ship-building frenzy, an armed confrontation became all but inevitable.

In the Second World War, one of the key reasons why the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor was to keep the United States from disrupting Tokyo’s attempts to fuel its war machine. After all, Japan’s “Strike South” initiative called on the Japanese Army to quickly seize British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies in order to provide its soldiers and sailors with much-needed oil and metals.

Depletion

On a less abstract level, diminishing oil reserves would be hard on the average consumer in the developed world. Travel would be greatly reduced across the board. No more road trips, no more trans-national flights, and no more public transportation. Also, given that coal and oil are the most widely consumed fossil fuels in the world, all of the products and industries that rely on said fuels would virtually constrict. That means more limited computer usage, less lights in your house, more limited cooking options, etc. Many people across different occupations would probably find themselves on the unemployment line. An oil-less world might also find itself low on food, since grocery stores rely on 18-wheeler trucks to deliver large shipments of edibles every week.

Do Not Fear

As panic-inducing as these scenarios are, the likelihood of a full-scale oil-pocalypse is exceptionally low. Even if the world ran out of oil, there are other energy sources that could be tapped to fill the void. Wind, solar, and hydro power are three of the most common and renewable sources of energy currently in use, and natural gas, although a fossil fuel, is often used as an oil replacement as well.

Of course, if the world ran out of oil, there would be a period of global transition. It would not be easy for billions to just switch to an oil-less lifestyle overnight. Governments would likely place serious restrictions on household energy consumption for an extended period of time. It might even come to pass that laws would be enacted that would set limits on how far people could commute on a daily basis. Overall, during this transition phase, state control would increase exponentially. Unfortunately, bureaucratic organizations are not known for voluntarily relinquishing control, and even in democracies, governments rarely agree to cut down on their own power. Therefore, the heavy centralized control of this transitional period might become permanent.

As with everything else, the death of oil would affect every nation-state differently. Some of those countries that over rely on oil production, like Nigeria, Algeria, and Venezuela, would undoubtedly face the prospect of internal revolution. With their main cash cow gone, these countries would become economically depressed.

For countries with more diversified economies, the end of oil would open up new opportunities for alternative energy sources. Public and private investment in renewable energy would make new billionaires, while formerly impoverished areas might experience unprecedented economic growth, depending on how open they are to embracing change. Take for instance North Dakota. This American state does not have a history of big money, but thanks to the fracking industry, which extracts natural gas and oil, North Dakota has experienced a major economic boom for a number of years.

Of all of the popular disaster scenarios, this one is arguably very mild. Thanks to increased concerns about climate change, organizations have been developing new ways to power the world without the aid of fossil fuels. Similarly, while oil’s disappearance would kickstart a rather tough transition period for the world economy, many nations are already prepared to tap into alternative energy sources. Ordinary people would certainly be expected to change their lifestyles, but unlike a nuclear missile attack or the sudden onset of a pandemic, an oil-less world probably not cause immediate genocidal chaos. While you might not be able to enjoy this video more than once, you’d still be able to breathe fresh air and not have worry about radiation sickness.

Count yourself lucky.
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