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Peak oil projections from Chevron's CTO

What's a planet to do when there's only about a trillion gallons of oil readily available for human consumption?

REDWOOD CITY, Calif.--How much conventional oil is there left in the ground? Close to 2 trillion barrels, according to Don Paul, Chevron's chief technology officer.

The "geological endowment" of conventional oil--that is, the amount of oil in the Earth--once totaled about 3 trillion barrels, he said during a presentation at the Dow Jones Alternative Energy Innovations conference here. We've used about 1.1 trillion. Oil companies with current technologies can't get it all out of the ground, so maybe there is a trillion barrels left for human consumption.

Chevron CTO Don Paul
Don Paul, CTO, Chevron Chevron

And we're consuming a lot of fuel: about 3 billion gallons a day worldwide, or roughly a half-gallon for every person on the planet. By 2012, the human race will have consumed 1.5 trillion barrels, Paul said in a hallway conversation.

Thus, peak oil--the theory that we're about to get into declining numbers on conventional oil--is probably real. However, Paul said, "I don't think it has to be the catastrophe that other people have predicted because there are other ways to make fuel."

The alternatives include shale oil and oil sands. There might be a trillion barrels of oil in shale. One problem is that producing oil from shale or oil sands generates significant amounts of carbon dioxide--but a lot of that carbon dioxide comes from producing the hydrogen needed to process the raw materials. "It is this production of hydrogen that is creating the CO2," Paul said.

Some French companies, he said, have proposed building nuclear plants in Canada near the oil sands deposits to generate steam--that is, water vapor.

Biofuels will also contribute, but biofuels are small right now. Roughly 20,000 gallons of biofuels get made a day, and that needs to be increased by 10 or 20 times, Paul said.

Electric will also come, but batteries need work. "Even the best batteries have 1/10th of the energy density of gasoline," he said. (Others, such as Nobel-winning chemist Richard Smalley, have pointed out how there's no easy alternative when it comes to energy density.)

Liquid fuel makers will also have to develop carbon capture and sequestration sites. Chevron is kicking off a large sequestration project in Australia. Sequestration is a technological challenge, but the bigger problem is financing and planning the infrastructure. These are huge construction projects after all. Just to capture the carbon dioxide coming out of power plants, factories and other "stationary" CO2 emitters, it would take an infrastructure the same size as the natural gas infrastructure.

"That's a lot of pipe," Paul said.

Expect to see sequestration projects in the U.S. Given that the U.S. has produced more oil than anywhere else in the world, historically speaking--250 billion gallons have been sucked out of the ground here--there is lots of empty space underground.