Energy, transport, petrochemicals… The challenges of “zero oil”

By Adrien Pecout

Posted today at 3:45 p.m.

Can humanity do without “black gold”, this miracle oil that is both a source of energy and materials essential to our civilization and a threat to its survival? The question has agitated minds for many decades. Already in 1956, the American geophysicist Marion King Hubbert had looked into this question on behalf of the major Shell. Following him, many other scientists theorized the famous “peak oil”, prefiguring the moment, constantly postponed, when the production of this depleting resource will enter its declining phase. Until when, a century and a half after the first drilling in the United States, will exploration remain profitable enough for the oil majors? Underground there are enough proven reserves to last at least fifty years based on today’s annual consumption. It is not impossible that they remain there much longer than that.



Because as much as some industrialists would like to postpone the end of oil, so much the defenders of the environment intend to hasten it. Awareness of the fight against climate change has already led to political objectives. That, for example, of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 (Europe, United States), 2060 (China), or even 2070 (India). These “net zero” scenarios, that is to say with no surplus of greenhouse gases in relation to natural or artificial storage capacities, still require a great deal of imagination. They presuppose a technical, political, social and economic challenge: to renounce fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). In other words, to get rid of the main sources of current energy in the coming decades: more than 80% of consumption today, of which about a third for oil resources. Here is an overview of the challenges to overcome to enter a world without oil, in order of increasing difficulty.

Energy: stop burning oil

“The first use that we can think will be easy to part with is the burning of oil to provide energy. Besides, one could even say that it is a pity to burn a product of such complexity”, believes François Kalaydjian, head of the “economy and monitoring” department of IFP Energies nouvelles (formerly the French Petroleum Institute). Intended for the production of electricity, oil-fired power plants already represent only nearly 4% barrels consumed in 2019. Heating and cooking food with the same fuel also occupy a minority share, although not negligible: nearly 8% of barrels, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

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