Maybe you've heard that North America is producing a lot more oil these days, courtesy of fracking, tar sands and other new sources. The Atlantic has a nicely reported cover story on the whole phenomenon by Charles C. Mann. Headline: "We will never run out of oil."
It's a great article, but here's an key bit of additional context. Stuart Staniford has some great charts looking at the rapid growth in Chinese oil consumption over the past few decades. He's also done a simple extrapolation to see what China's oil demand would look like if it kept growing at 7 percent annually for another decade — hardly a wild assumption:
Things would get very interesting. By 2025, in this hypothetical, China would be consuming 15 million barrels per day more than it does today. "If you compare this to things like the extra 4 [million barrels per day] you might hope for from tar sands in this time frame, or the 2mbd that global crude supply has increased since 2005, you can see that this is going to stress the global oil system a lot," Staniford writes.
China helps put everything in perspective. There's a lot of hype, for instance, about the "tight oil" boom in North Dakota. At last count, the state now produces about 750,000 barrels of oil per day. But as analysts at Barclay's have pointed out, tiny swings in China’s appetite for crude can easily gobble all of that up.
So what happens if oil supplies can't keep up with the rise in Chinese demand in the decades ahead? Prices would start rising. And one of three things would have to happen, as Staniford explains: "Either the global crude supply is going to grow a lot faster than it has been, or OECD oil consumers are going to have to consume a great deal less than they are now, or China (and other rapidly growing consumers) are going to have to slow down a lot."
Pay attention to that middle option especially. In a recent interview, energy analyst Chris Nelder explained why growing oil demand from places like China and India would likely force Europe and the United States to curtail their own oil consumption:
Right now, all of the new oil consumption in the world is coming from outside the OECD and the developed world. It’s largely coming from in China and India. And that new oil demand is now being met, almost exactly, by declining demand in North American and Europe. ...
... The growing economies of Asia get so much more marginal economic utility out of a gallon of fuel than we do. In a poorer country, you might have a couple guys on a moped, burning one gallon of fuel to get to the market and back. They get so much more economic value out of doing that than a construction worker in the U.S. gets in his pickup truck burning 5 gallons per day.
Now, obviously Staniford's scenario might never come to pass. China's economy could slow down further in the years ahead, which would cause its demand for oil to drop sharply. (A Chinese recession could create all sorts of other problems, but push those aside for now.) Or maybe some new energy source — electric cars? natural gas? — will put a major dent in oil consumption, either in China or the United States.
In theory, though, China still has plenty of room to grow and burn more oil. And that basic dynamic is worth watching closely. The world might not "run out of oil" anytime soon. But if supplies can't expand quickly enough to keep up with growing demand, that will put a lot of strain on the system. At that point, we either find new sources of oil or we use less of the stuff — and the latter can happen either voluntarily or involuntarily, through slower economic growth.