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United States Oil Consumption and Reserves: A matter of exponential growth and finite resources

It is a well known fact that the United States has been importing Oil since the 1970's because the home oil production cannot meet the rising demand. According to 2009 yearly average, the U.S. Crude Oil consumption is around 21 million barrels a day and home production is only around 5 million. Why are things escalating so fast? Why are resources running out at such speed? We will try to answer these questions on this article. There is no simple answer but it is all pretty much related to one single concept: exponential growth.

Within the last two centuries, advances in human technology has made the civilization completely Oil, Gas & Coal dependant, which are mainly used as fuel for diverse purposes. What makes Oil different is the immense variety of products that can be derived from it. A "brief" list of some of these products: Gasoline, Diesel, Fuel oil, Propane, Ethane, Kerosene, Liquid petroleum gas, Lubricants , other alkanes, Heating oil, asphalt, bitumen, Plastic, bags, toys, candles (paraffin), clothing (polyester, nylon), cosmetics, petroleum jelly, perfume, dish-washing liquids, ink, bubble gums, car tires, etc, etc etc.
So it is obvious that the modern industry is completely dependant on Oil.

However, the amount and size of Oil Reserves on the U.S. is - or was- enormous. It is in fact the third producing country after Saudi Arabia and Russia. So once again, why it is running out so fast? Answer is exponential growth in both population and oil-dependant technologies.

Exponential Growth:

According to Wikipedia, Exponential Growth occurs when the growth rate of a mathematical function is proportional to the function's current value. Lets put this in simpler terms: Exponential Growth is used to describe anything growing steadily, for example, 5% per year - as described by Professor Albert Bartlett.
The most common thing when one reads or hear that something is growing around 5% per year is to imagine that it is just a little more per year. But what is hardly ever understood is the escalating process that such percentage growth means.

Here is an example: say we have a certain population of 1000 persons with a 5% growth rate. Since the 5% of 1000 is 50, one may first think it just means 50 more persons per year, but really it is not that simple. Let's see what really happens year by year:

  • On the first year there will be 1050 persons (1000 + 1000 * 0.05) 50 persons more
  • On the second year, the 5% has to be calculated with the 1050 persons there are now, not the original 1000 so: 1050 + 1050 * 0.05 = 1102.5 = 1103 (since half a person makes no sense). 53 persons more
  • And the third year: 1103 + (1103 * 0.05) = 1 158.15 = 1159. 56 persons more
  • Fourth year: 1159 + (1159 * 0.05) = 1216.95 = 1217. 58 persons more

And so on. So in around 15 years the population would be doubled to 2000 and in about 47 years the population would be 10 times larger. That's 100000 persons!
You can see how the growth escalates from year to year. This is the key to understanding exponential growth, which can be used to describe both population and technology growth within the last 150 years.

U.S. Population

From 1960 to 2008 the U.S. Population growth rate has varied from 1.7% to 0.9% per year (Google Public data), with an an average of around 1.1% per year. Once again, this seems like just a little addition, but following the above described logic procedure, a 1.1% growth rate means a double of population in just around 63 years, that is 2023. According to U.S. Census the population on 1960 was roughly 180 million. Currently on 2010, there are roughly 310 million people on the U.S. So it seems the calculation is quite exact since it assumed there would be 360 million persons on 2023. You can imagine that at current growth rate population will keep escalating. We'll give you a hint: in 2063 population would triple the original 1960 figure at 540 million persons, and going a little further population would be 10 times larger on 2171, that is 1 billion 800 million.

Oil-dependant Technology

A similar Exponential Growth can be seen on technological advances. Since the 1850's the number of patents, technological inventions and scientific breakthroughs have been also increasing exponentially. And all these inventions are all pretty much based on electricity, fuel, plastic and oil derived products. It is very logical since most inventions/discoveries are built on the base of things and concepts previously invented & discovered.
The following is a graphic representation of the amount of U.S. granted patents over the decades.

U.S. Patents Granted

Round up?

1. We have an exponential population growth along with an exponential growth of devices that rely on Oil to function.
2. Oil is a finite resource. So even if new reserves are discovered which double the amount that we have already used. the exponential growth on demand will make it last just a few more years.

The conclusion is that the current situation will not be able to be sustained for much longer. It is certain that no more than 60 or 70 years at the most. We now understand why. The question remaining is: What will happen to prevent the collapse in society that this would imply?
Stopping the population growth seems almost impossible, unless some big catastrophe happens. Lets hope that will not be the solution.
A more positive and possible solution is stop relying so much on Oil. Interesting advances have been made on renewable energy sources but nothing really significant so far.
This last question remains, currently, unanswered.

We will be addressing related subjects on following articles. Thanks for reading!
Oil.com Team

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