Petroleum (Oil)

Petroleum (Oil)

Oil (in Latin petroleum, from the Greek petra, “rock”, and from the Latin oleum, “oil”), also called naphtha in antiquity, is a mineral oil of natural origin composed of a multitude of organic compounds, mainly hydrocarbons, trapped in particular geological formations. The oil in its reservoir is frequently associated with light fractions that spontaneously separate from the liquid at atmospheric pressure, as well as various impurities such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, formation water and trace metals.

The exploitation of this source of fossil energy and hydrocarbons is one of the pillars of the contemporary industrial economy because oil provides almost all liquid fuels — fuel oil, diesel, kerosene, gasoline, LPG — while naphtha produced by refining is the basis of petrochemicals, from which a very large number of common materials — plastics, are derived. synthetic textiles, synthetic rubbers (elastomers), detergents, adhesives, fertilizers, cosmetics, etc. — and that the heaviest fractions lead to bitumen, kinds of paraffin and lubricants.

Pumping trestle in Lubbock, Texas, USA
Pumping trestle in Lubbock, Texas, USA

Accounting for 29.5% of primary energy consumed in 2020, oil is the most widely used energy source in the world, ahead of coal (26.8%) and natural gas (23.7%), but its share has fallen sharply: it reached 46.2% in 1973.

The International Energy Agency estimates global CO2 emissions from oil at 11,415 Mt (million tons) in 2018, up 34.1% since 1990; These emissions accounted for 33.7% of energy emissions in 2019, compared to 44.0% for coal and 21.6% for natural gas; their share reached 49.9% in 1973.

The world’s proven oil reserves reached 245.2 Gt (billion tons) in 2020, according to BGR (German Federal Agency for Earth Sciences and Raw Materials), up 13% from 2010. They represented 55 years of production at the rate of 2019 or 4.49 Gt. OPEC countries hold 69.6% of the world’s reserves.

World oil production in 2021 is estimated by BP at 4,221.4 Mt, up 5.3% in ten years, of which 35.4% produced by OPEC member countries; the top three producers accounted for 41.7% of world production: the United States (16.8%), Russia (12.7%) and Saudi Arabia (12.2%). The main oil importers are China, Europe, India and Japan; the main exporters are Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iraq, Canada, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait; the United States exports a tonnage of petroleum products almost equivalent to the tonnage of its crude oil imports.

Oil exploitation has significant negative environmental and social consequences. The extraction, refining and combustion of petroleum fuels release large amounts of greenhouse gases, making oil one of the main contributors to climate change. The exploitation of oil as a whole has direct social consequences, such as wars or political actions, oil spills, pollution of exploitation sites, etc; and indirect: migration linked to climate change, the decline in biodiversity, etc. Its by-products are also a source of pollution.

Etymology of Petroleum

The masculine noun petroleum is a borrowing from the medieval Latin petroleum, properly “stone oil”, composed of Petra and Oleum, respectively “stone” and “oil” in classical Latin.

Types and quality of oil

Each oil field contains a particular quality of oil, determined by the relative proportion of heavy and light molecules, but also by the quantity of impurities. The petroleum industry characterizes the quality of an oil using its API density, corresponding to its “lightness”: a crude oil of less than 10 °API is denser than water and corresponds to a bitumen, while an oil of more than 31.1 °API corresponds to light crude. Oils between 10 and 45 ° API were said to be conventional, while outside this range oils were said to be unconventional; this definition is nevertheless evolving because current technologies make it possible to treat by standard processes oils hitherto considered exotic: condensates, located above 45 ° API, are a good illustration.

The various categories of unconventional oil are now a major focus of the development of the oil industry. One of these categories is synthetic crude oil from oil shale and oil sands.

BGR (German Federal Agency for Earth Sciences and Raw Materials) estimates oil sands reserves at the end of 2020 at 41.9 Gt (billion tons) in Venezuela and 25.9 Gt in Canada). The integration of shale oil has increased U.S. reserves by nearly 60%, from which they represent 37% 3.16 Gt in 2020. Athabasca oil sands reserves in the province of Alberta, Canada, far exceed Canadian conventional crude oil reserves, estimated at 0.67 Gt; but of the 161.4 billion bl of Canadian oil sands reserves, only 18.9 billion bl are in production.

While the quantities are impressive, the economic profitability of exploiting these fields is significantly lower than that of conventional crude fields in the Middle East, with operating costs of CAD 10 to 14 per barrel. compared to a few USD per barrel in Saudi Arabia. But the full costs of production, including investments, are much higher, between 40 and 80 Canadian dollars per barrel. The figures are quite variable on this subject, while remaining significantly higher than those of traditional productions. In 2011, the price of a barrel close to USD 100 made all these operations very profitable, which is no longer the case in 2015 with the collapse of oil prices to USD 50 per barrel, and even less at the beginning of 2020 with the fall of 45% to about USD 25 per barrel.

In addition, the exploitation (production and primary refining) of the oil sands is highly polluting (air, water, land) and is therefore strongly contested both in terms of production and trade.

Other varieties of unconventional oil are also being considered, such as liquefied coal, synthetic gasoline and oils derived from biomass.


Oil, like coal, was formed by the decomposition of residues of living organisms that were transformed into oil by chemical processes over millions of years. Scientists have succeeded in producing oil using certain types of algae over much shorter periods.


Oil is a product of the geological history of a region, particularly of the succession of three conditions: the accumulation of organic matter, resulting from the decomposition of marine organisms (mainly plankton) accumulated in sedimentary basins, at the bottom of oceans, lakes and deltas; its maturation in hydrocarbons; his imprisonment.

Large quantities of oil were formed 20 to 350 million years ago. Then, as an oil field is drawn into plate tectonics, the story can continue. It can be buried deeper and pyrolyze again, giving a natural gas reservoir – this is called “secondary thermogenic gas”, as opposed to “primary thermogenic gas” formed directly by pyrolysis of kerogen. The reservoir can also leak, and the oil migrate again, to the surface or another trap.

It thus takes a combination of favorable circumstances for an oil (or gas) deposit to emerge, which explains on the one hand that only a tiny part of the organic matter formed during geological eras has been transformed into fossil energy and, on the other hand, that these precious resources are distributed in a very disparate way throughout the world.

Accumulation of organic matter

In general, the biosphere recycles almost all by-products and debris. However, a small minority of the “dead” matter sediments, i.e. accumulates by gravity and is buried within the mineral matter, and therefore cut off from the biosphere. This phenomenon concerns particular environments, such as confined places (paralic environments: lagoons, deltas, etc.), especially in tropical environments and during periods of intense global warming (such as Silurian, Jurassic and Cretaceous), where the volume of organic debris exceeds the “recycling” capacity of the local ecosystem. It is during these periods that these sediments rich in organic matter (especially lipids) accumulate.

Maturation of organic matter

As layers of sediment are deposited above this stratum rich in organic matter, the “source rock” or “source rock” increases in temperature and pressure. Under these conditions, with certain anaerobic bacteria, organic matter is transformed into kerogen, a “dry extract” scattered in the rock in the form of small lumps. If the temperature becomes sufficient (the threshold is at least 50 °C, generally more depending on the nature of the rock and kerogen), and if the medium is reductive, the kerogen will be pyrolyzed, extremely slowly.

Kerogen produces petroleum and/or “natural gas”, which are materials richer in hydrogen, depending on its composition and landfill conditions. If the pressure becomes sufficient, these fluids escape, which is called primary migration. In general, the source rock is several tens or even hundreds of millions of years old when this migration occurs. The kerogen itself remains in place, depleted of hydrogen.

Oil trapping

As for the expelled hydrocarbons, lighter than water, they generally escape to the surface of the Earth where they are oxidized, or biodegraded (the latter case gives oil sands), but a small amount is trapped: it is found in the reservoir rock, a permeable zone (usually sand, carbonates or dolomites) from which it cannot escape because of a covering rock impermeable layer (composed of clay, shale and evaporites), the “trap rock” forming a trap structure.

There are several types of traps. The largest deposits are generally housed in anticlinal traps. There are also fault traps or mixed anticline-fault, traps formed by the crossing of the layers by a salt dome, or created by a fossilized coral reef.

Abiotic petroleum theory

The modern Russian-Ukrainian theory was mainly supported by the Soviets in the 1950s and 1960s. Its main promoter, Nikolai Kudryavtsev, postulated the formation of oil in the Earth’s mantle from iron oxide II (FeO), calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and water. It also indicated that this reaction should theoretically occur if the pressure is greater than 30 kbar (corresponding to conditions that naturally prevail at a depth greater than 100 km in the Earth’s mantle).

Obsolete as the understanding of the geological and thermodynamic phenomena involved progressed, the theory of abiotic oil remains marginal within the scientific community. In practice, it could never be successfully used to discover new deposits.

Oil classifications

Oils are distinguished according to their origin and therefore their chemical composition. The mixture of hydrocarbons resulting from this long process includes linear carbon chains of varying lengths, as well as cyclic naphthenic or aromatic carbon chains.

It is also possible to distinguish the different types of oil according to their density, fluidity, sulfur and other impurities (vanadium, mercury and salts) and their proportions in different classes of hydrocarbons. The oil is then paraffinic, naphthenic or aromatic.

Oil is also classified according to its origin (Persian Gulf, North Sea, Venezuela, Nigeria), because oil from neighboring fields often has similar properties.

There are hundreds of crudes around the world; some are used as a benchmark to establish the price of oil in a given region: the most widely used are Arabian Light (Middle Eastern benchmark crude), Brent (European benchmark crude) and West Texas Intermediate (WTI, US benchmark crude). At a lower level, oils produced in the western provinces of Canada, particularly Alberta, have an average price index called ‘WCS’ for Western Canadian Select. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) publishes an average price benchmark based on a basket of different types of oil produced by its members, known as ORB (OPEC Reference Basket).

Depending on its origin, crude oil may contain dissolved gas, salt water, sulfur and sulfur products (thiols, especially mercaptans). It has too rich a composition to be described in detail. There are simply three categories of crude:

  • predominantly paraffinic: linear hydrocarbons are the most abundant; These crudes are the most sought after because they directly give a large proportion of light products such as gasoline and diesel;
  • predominantly naphthenic: with many saturated ring hydrocarbons;
  • predominantly aromatic: hydrocarbons with an unsaturated carbon ring are more abundant.

In addition, there are crudes capable of making bitumen, they are very heavy crudes of the Boscan type, Tia Juana, Bachaquero or Safaniyah. The two main criteria for classifying the hundreds of different crudes that exist are the density and sulfur content, from the lightest and least sulfurous (which has the highest commercial value) which is condensate, to the heaviest and most sulfurous which contains about 90% bitumen: it is a crude from Italy.

History of petroleum (oil)

Oil has been known and used since ancient times. It forms outcrops in places where it is abundant underground; These outcrops have been used in many ways: caulking boats, cement for street paving, heating and lighting, and even pharmaceuticals. Its distillation, described as early as the Middle Ages, gives this product an additional interest for kerosene lamps.

According to Lemery’s General dictionary of drugs revised and corrected by Simon Morelot in 1807, “oil is used in medicine, in diseases of the muscles, paralysis, weakness of the nerves, and for frozen limbs, in friction. It is also used for horse ulcers”.

From the 1850s, petroleum was exploited and used industrially. It was operated in 1857 in Romania, in 1859 in the United States, in the state of Pennsylvania, and in 1861 in Boryslav in Ukraine. From 1910, it is considered a strategic raw material, at the origin of the geopolitics of oil. The period 1920-1970 was marked by a series of major discoveries of deposits, particularly in the Middle East, which was the object of all desires. Markets for petroleum products are also developing; In addition to fuels such as gasoline, diesel and heavy fuel oil, which accompany the transport boom as a whole, the oil industry generates a myriad of by-products, including plastics, artificial textiles and rubber, dyes, synthetic intermediates for chemicals and pharmaceuticals. These markets make it possible to value all the components of oil. In 1970, U.S. oil production peaked, predicted by geophysicist Marion King Hubbert.

The period 1973-1980 marked the history of the world with the first and second oil shocks. From 1986, the oil counter-shock saw the price of a barrel collapse. In 2003, the price of a barrel rises, despite production still assured and relative world peace, because of speculation on raw materials in general; When this speculation comes to an abrupt halt in 2008, the price of a barrel will follow this spectacular evolution. The 2000s saw several new public sector giants in the BRICS, such as Petrobras and PetroChina, achieve the largest IPOs in the history of oil, with valuations symbolic of investor confidence in their growth.


Units of measurement of petroleum (oil)

The units commonly used to quantify the volume of oil are Mbbl or Gbbl for world reserves, Mbbl/d for production, “bbl” meaning “blue barrel”, the prefixes “M” and “G” meaning respectively million and billion (mega and giga). One barrel is exactly 42 (US) gallons or 158,987 liters. This unit, although universally used for oil, is not a legal unit, even in the United States. One metric ton of oil (1,000 kg) is 7.3 barrels, or 306.6 gallons, or 1,161 liters; its energy content is around 10 Gcal, or about 42 GJ, or 11.6 MWh (thermal), for “average” quality oil; This amount of energy is used to define the tonne of oil equivalent (toe).

Data are also available in tons. In order to allow comparisons between oils with different calorific values and with other energy sources, the International Energy Agency and many other agencies (Eurostat, energy ministries of most countries) use the tonne of oil equivalent.

To get an idea of the orders of magnitude, it is possible to examine the capacity of the largest known oil reservoir, Ghawar, which is about 70 Gbbl extractable and compare it to the world production which is 81 Mbbl/d. It is deduced that the largest known reservoir corresponds to about two and a half years of the current total world consumption.

Oil exploration and production

Oil platform: one of the symbols of this powerful industry
Oil platform: one of the symbols of this powerful industry

The petroleum industry is schematically subdivided into “upstream” (exploration, production) and “downstream” (refining, distribution).

Exploration, i.e. the search for deposits, and production are often associated: States grant companies concessions, for which the latter assume the cost of exploration, in exchange for which they exploit (for a certain period) the deposits found. The financial mechanisms are varied: long-term loans, equity participation, financing through loans from national banks, etc.

Oil exploration (or prospecting) begins with geological knowledge of the region, then goes through the detailed study of geological structures (mainly by seismic imaging, although magnetometry and gravitometry can be used) and the construction of wells. We speak of “frontier” exploration when the region does not yet have a proven world reserve, the risk is then very high but the entry price is low, and the return can be significant.

The production, or rather the extraction of oil, can be a complex operation: to maximize final production, it is necessary to manage a reservoir composed of different liquids with very different physicochemical properties (density, fluidity, combustion temperature and toxicity, among others). During the life of a deposit, new wells are opened to access untapped pockets. As a rule, water and/or gas is injected into the reservoir, via wells separate from those that extract the oil. A poor exploitation strategy (poor location of wells, inappropriate injection, too fast production) can irreversibly reduce the amount of extractable oil. For example, the interface between the oil slick and that of a sulfur-laden liquid can be broken by simple stirring, polluting the oil.

Contrary to popular belief, an oil field is nothing like an underground lake. Indeed, mixed with water as well as dissolved gas, oil occupies, in fact, the microscopic interstices of porous rock. Comparing a deposit to a very rigid sponge would probably be more appropriate.

In recent decades, exploration and production have been increasingly underwater: onshore, which is easier to access, was exploited first. Ricardo’s law applies very well to oil, and, as a general rule, the return on investment tends to decrease: deposits are becoming smaller, more dispersed, and difficult to exploit. There are, of course, exceptions, such as in countries where exploration has long been paralyzed for political reasons.

Oil reserves

Proven oil reserves in 2013
Proven oil reserves in 2013

In 2020, according to BGR (German Federal Agency for Earth Sciences and Raw Materials), the world’s proven reserves (estimated recoverable reserves with reasonable certainty under existing technical and economic conditions) of oil reached 245.2 Gt (billion tons). They represented 53.5 years of production at the rate of 2020. In 2010, BGR estimated these reserves at 216.9 Gt; They have therefore increased by 13% in ten years. They represent 55 years of production at the rate of 2019 (4.49 Gt).

Oil reserves refer to the volume of recoverable oil, from open oil fields, based on current economic and technical constraints. This volume is estimated from the evaluation of the quantity of oil present in the fields already known, with a lower coefficient depending on the ability of existing technologies to extract this oil from the ground. This coefficient depends on each field, it can vary from 10 to 50%, with a world average of around 35% in 2009. Technological developments tend to increase this coefficient (enhanced oil recovery techniques).

Reserves are classified into different categories, depending on their probability of existence in the subsoil: proven reserves (probability of more than 90%), probable reserves (50 to 90%) and possible reserves (10 to 50%). Probable and potential reserves are grouped under the resource category.

There are also different types of reserves depending on the type of oil: conventional oil or unconventional oil. Unconventional oils consist mainly of extra-heavy oils, tar sands and oil shale. The profitability of unconventional oil fields is uncertain, as the amount of energy required to extract them is greater.

Until the early 2000s, reserve statistics corresponded to proven reserves of conventional oil. But the integration of oil sands reserves (Canada, Venezuela) and oil shale (United States) has significantly raised the estimate of global reserves, which reached 245.2 Gt (billion tons) in 2020, including 67.7 Gt of oil sands (41.9 Gt in Venezuela and 25.8 Gt in Canada) and 3.2 Gt of shale oil (United States).

The quantity of reserves depends on highly variable estimates in their quality and age. They are therefore updated every year, as more precise information is provided on deposits already discovered. However, the reserves of OPEC countries, which represent three-quarters of world reserves, have often been considered questionable, because on the one hand they were artificially increased in the 1980s, and on the other hand, the quantities of reserves announced by these countries do not vary since this increase despite the absence of major discoveries. Thus, the total reserves of eleven OPEC countries in 2003 vary between 891 billion barrels according to OPEC and 491 billion barrels according to Colin Campbell, expert at ASPO.

The evolution curve of reserves also depends on how updates are accounted for over time. If the updates are accounted for at the date of discovery of the deposit, the reserves are called backdated. According to this estimation method, recommended by ASPO experts, the quantity of world oil reserves has been decreasing since 1980.

Reserves end 2020 (in Mt)
Country Reserves
end of 2020
% of which
end of 2020
of which
Venezuela 47 385 19,3 % 5 485 41 900 46 820 3 000 43 820
Saudi Arabia 39 617 16,2 % 39 617 11 800 11 800
Canada 26 554 10,8 % 667 25 887 57 170 3 500 53 670
Iran 21 675 8,8 % 21 675 7 200 7 200
Iraq 19 730 8,0 % 19 730 6 320 6 100 220
Russia 14 767 6,0 % 14 767 84 799 64 721 20 078
Kuwait 13 810 5,6 % 13 810 700 nd nd
United Arab Emirates 13 306 5,4 % 13 306 4 160 1 100 3 060
United States 8 493 3,5 % 5 328 3 162 117 768 15 900 101 868
Libya 6 580 2,7 % 6 580 4 750 1 200 3 550
Nigeria 5 019 2,0 % 5 019 5 378 5 300 78
Kazakhstan 4 082 1,7 % 4 082 12 933 4 000 8 933
China 3 542 1,4 % 3 542 29 001 16 200 12 801
Qatar 3 435 1,4 % 3 435 700 nd nd
Algeria 1 660 0,7 % 1 660 1 483 nd nd
Brazil 1 622 0,7 % 1 622 15 206 13 000 2 206
Ecuador 1 126 0,5 % 1 126 107 nd nd
Norway 1 057 0,4 % 1 057 2 415 nd nd
Angola 1 050 0,4 % 1 050 5 095 5 000 95
Azerbaijan 952 0,4 % 952 1 245 nd nd
Total World 245 180 100 % 174 056 71 124 501 176 210 765 290 411
of which OPEC 170 648 69,6 % 128 748 41 900 95 875 44 208 51 667
** convent.: Conventional

Several other countries report significant resources: Australia (13,785), Mexico (4,760), Argentina (4,183), Indonesia (3,572), Greenland (3,500), and Morocco (2,607).

Reserves do not include unknown oil regions. In 2009, the discovery of unconventional oil in the Orinoco region of Venezuela with a reserve of 513 billion barrels, partially offset the decline in conventional oil reserves.

However, the trend has been toward a decrease in deposit discoveries since 1965. During the 2000s, the quantities of oil discovered each year accounted for approximately one-third of global production. The world’s top ten deposits in terms of throughput were all discovered before 1976.

The volumes of hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas) discovered fell by 13% in 2017 to 11 billion barrels, the lowest level since the 1990s. Company exploration spending has fallen by 60% since its record high in 2014, and discoveries are getting smaller and smaller.

Crude oil production

World crude oil production is estimated by the IEA at 190,442(EJ) in 2019 against 123,018 EJ in 1973, an increase of 55% in 46 years; the estimate for 2020 is 4,141 Mt; the United States leads the producing country in 2020 with 706 Mt, or 17% of the world total, ahead of Russia (512 Mt, 12.4%) and Saudi Arabia (511 Mt, 12.3%). The share of oil in global primary energy production in 2019 was 30.9% compared to 26.8% for coal and 23.2% for natural gas; This share declined sharply: it reached 46.2% in 1973.

World crude petroleum production
Year Production (EJ) Growth Primary energy production share
1973 123,018   46.2%
1990 135 716   36,9 %
2000 155 372   37,1 %
2010 171 827   32,1 %
2015 185 571   32,3 %
2016 187 808 +1,2 % 32,8 %
2017 187 366 -0,2 % 32,0 %
2018 191 178 +2,0 % 31,6 %
2019 190 595 -0,3 % 30,9 %
2020 176 809 -7,2 % 29,8 %

According to BP, world production in 2021 amounted to 89.88 Mbbl/d, or 4,221.4 Mt (million tons), up 1.5% in 2021 after falling 6.8% in 2020, and up 5.3% in ten years (2011-2021); of this total, 31.74 ;Mbbl/d, or 1,494.2 Mt (35.4%), come from OPEC member countries including in 2021 the following countries: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Nigeria, Angola, Algeria, Libya, Ecuador, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo. The Middle East accounted for 31.2% of global oil production in 2021 (including Saudi Arabia: 12.2%), North America 25.5% (including the United States: 16.8%) and Russia 12.7%. Europe’s share is only 3.8%, of which 2.2% is in Norway.

The table below ranks the main producing countries in descending order of estimated production in 2021, with:

  • reserves and production, expressed in millions of tons (Mt), and the reserves/production ratio, in years of production;
  • quantities produced and consumed expressed in Mbbl/d including crude, natural gas liquids and unconventional oil — see article: Classification of liquid hydrocarbons — but not other liquid fuels such as biofuels and coal and gas derivatives;
  • balances available for export (production minus consumption).

Major oil-producing countries, some of which are net exporters, are not members of OPEC: the United States, Russia, Canada, China, Mexico, Qatar, Brazil, Norway, Kazakhstan, Colombia, the United Kingdom, Sudan and Oman.

The 20 largest producers in 2021
Country Reserves
at the end of 2020
% prod.
R/P** Production
for export
Units Mt Mt % Years Mbbl/j Mbbl/j Mbbl/j
United States 8 493 711,1 16,8 % 12 16,58 18,68 -2,10
Russia 14 767 536,4 12,7 % 27.5 10,94 3,41 7,53
Saudi Arabia 39 617 515,0 12,2 % 77 10,95 3,59 7,36
Canada 26 554 267,1 6,3 % 99 5,43 2,23 3,20
Iraq 19 730 200,8 4,8 % 98 4,10 0,72 3,38
China 3 542 198,9 4,7 % 18 3,99 15,44 -11,45
Iran 21 675 167,7 4,0 % 129 3,62 1,69 1.93
United Arab Emirates 13 306 164,4 3,9 % 81 3,67 0,95 2,72
Brazil 1 622 156,8 3,7 % 10.3 3,00 2,25 0,75
Kuwait 13 810 131,1 3,1 % 105 2,74 0,45 2,29
Mexico 815 96,5 2,3 % 8.4 1.93 1,35 0,58
Norway 1 057 93,8 2,2 % 11.3 2.02 0,20 1,82
Kazakhstan 4 082 86,0 2,0 % 47,5 1,81 0,33 1.48
Nigeria 5 019 77.9 1,8 % 64 1.63 nd  
Qatar 3 435 73,3 1,7 % 47 1,75 0,31 1.44
Libya 6 580 59,6 1,4 % 110 1,27 nd  
Algeria 1 660 58,2 1,4 % 28,5 1,35 0,40 0,95
Angola 1 050 56.6 1,3 % 18,6 1,16 nd  
United Kingdom 340 40,9 1,0 % 8.3 0,87 1,24 -0,37
India 618 34,0 0,8 % 9.7 0,75 4,88 -4,13
Indonesia 332 33,8 0,8 % 9.8 0,69 1,47 -0,78
Total World 245 180 4 221,4 100 % 58 89,88 94,09 -4,21
of which OPEC 170 648 1 494,2 35,4 % 114 31,74 nd  
  ** R/P = Reserves at the end of 2020/Production 2021.

Venezuela, which is not among the top 20 producers, has the largest reserves in the world: 47,385 Mt, or 19.3% of world reserves, ahead of Saudi Arabia (39,617 Mt, 16.2%), but 88.4% of its reserves are Orinoco oil sands, which are difficult and expensive to exploit.

Decommissioning of petroleum platforms

More than 700 oil platforms in the North Sea will have to be dismantled after the hydrocarbon fields have ceased, and more than 7,000 wells will be plugged. The Boston Consulting Group estimates the total bill at between $100 billion and $150 billion from 2020 to 2050. A large part of this bill is borne by taxpayers because the States concerned (United Kingdom, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark) grant tax deductions to oil groups. The British state covers 50% of the expenses, the Netherlands more than 60% and Norway nearly 80%, despite protests from environmental associations.

Downstream industry

Refining originally consisted simply of distilling petroleum, to separate more or less heavy hydrocarbons. Distillation under atmospheric pressure has been supplemented by vacuum distillation, which makes it possible to go further in the separation of the various heavy hydrocarbons. Over time, a number of processes have been added, with the aim of maximizing the production of the most profitable cuts (gasoline and diesel, among others) and reducing that of heavy fuel oil, as well as making fuels cleaner for use (less sulfur, particles and heavy metals). These processes, which include reforming, deasphalting, viscoreduction, desulfurization, and hydrocracking, consume energy.

These processes continue to multiply, with refiners having to meet increasing demands on product quality (due to changes in market structure and environmental standards) while the quality of crude oils tends to decline, with heavier and higher sulfur oils accounting for an increased share of production. Another important development is the improved upgrading of gases (LPG) and solids (petroleum coke, asphalt) co-produced by refining.

Refineries are typically a huge infrastructure, handling tens or even hundreds of thousands of barrels per day. In metropolitan France, only eight refineries remained in operation in 2014, four of which (representing half of the capacity) are controlled by Total. Refineries directly supply fuel distribution networks and petrochemicals with commodities (ethylene, propylene, ethylene epoxide, ethylene glycol, acrylic acid, acrylonitrile, xylenes, butenes;and syngas).

The transportation of oil, both crude and refined products, primarily uses tankers and pipelines for long distances and large volumes. Transportation by rail, freshwater barge and truck is mainly used for the final distribution of products. The transport of oil alone is an important economic sector: for example, oil tankers represent about 35% of the tonnage of the world’s merchant navy.

Oil companies

The oil industry is a pillar of the global economy: of the twelve largest companies on the planet in 2014, seven are oil companies. In addition, some national airlines far exceed the size of these private majors. Indeed, there are several kinds of oil companies:

  • large multinational and “vertically” integrated private companies (i.e. concentrating all or part of exploration, production, refining, and distribution activities), known as “majors”, such as ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Total, ENI and Chevron;
  • refiners, whose activity concerns the “downstream” (refineries and possibly service stations) such as the Swiss Petroplus;
  • independents, who seek and produce crude oil to sell to refiners; some are very important companies and operate on several continents, such as Anadarko, Occidental Petroleum or Perenco. Others are much smaller, with family companies managing only one or two wells (in Texas in particular);
  • national companies, wholly or partially owned by the State, which are quite diverse; Aramco (Saudi Arabia) or Pemex (Mexico), for example, have a monopoly on production in their countries, and behave like an organ of government; others, such as the major Chinese oil companies Sinopec (2nd in the world) and China National Petroleum Corporation (4th in the world), listed on the stock exchange but controlled by the Chinese state, as well as Sonatrach (Algeria), Petronas (Malaysia), Petrobras (Brazil), Equinor (Norway) and PDVSA (Venezuela) are seeking international expansion, and try to behave like “majors” even though their capital is (in whole or in part) public; in terms of oil production, Aramco is four times equivalent to ExxonMobil, the largest private company by turnover; and some small producing countries have a national company with little industrial activity whose role is mainly to market the State’s share of production.

Consumption of petroleum (oil)

Accounting for 29.5% of primary energy consumed in 2020, oil is the most widely used energy source in the world, ahead of coal (26.8%) and natural gas (23.7%); Its share fell sharply: it reached 46.2% in 1973.

Oil is used in all energy sectors, but it is in transport that its dominance is clearest. Only rail transport is largely electrified, as well as a share of urban transport (trams and trolleybuses); For other means of transport, alternatives are still in the minority, although the electric and plug-in hybrid car, as well as various types of electric vehicles (buses, bicycles, boats, etc.), are developing. In 2020, 57.2% of petroleum products were consumed in the transport sector, covering 94% of its energy needs; Industry consumes only 12.7%, the residential sector 7.6%, the tertiary sector 3.6%, agriculture 4% and non-energy uses (chemicals) 13.7%.

The situation is different in electricity generation, where the share of oil has steadily declined over the past 30 years, falling to 2.5% in 2020 from 11.1% in 1990. Coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewable energies have largely replaced them, except in special cases (producing countries with cheap oil, islands and other places that are difficult to access). In addition, the petroleum product used in the production of electricity is mostly heavy fuel oil, difficult to use in other fields (except marine) without profound transformation.

Agriculture accounts for only a modest fraction of oil consumption, but it is perhaps this sector that is most dependent on it, with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides produced from oil or natural gas. Among the frequently used fertilizers, i.e. those based on nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N, P, K), nitrogen fertilizers are synthesized from natural gas.

The greater the demand, the more investment there is in oil exploration, allowing the development of new oil fields. However, reserves are limited and will eventually be exhausted. In situations where supply exceeds demand, as in 2014-2015, oil prices collapse and investment suffers drastic cuts; Production then declines gradually, until the market regains its equilibrium.

Consumer countries of petroleum (oil)

Here is the consumption of the main consuming countries in 2021, estimated by BP, expressed in exajoules per year and millions of barrels per day:

The 20 largest consumers in 2021
Country EJ % Mb/d
United States 35,33 19,2 % 18,68
China 30,60 16,6 % 15,44
India 9,41 5,1 % 4,88
Russia 6,71 3,6 % 3,41
Japan 6,61 3,6 % 3,34
Saudi Arabia 6,59 3,6 % 3,59
South Korea 5,39 2,9 % 2,81
Brazil 4,46 2,4 % 2,25
Germany 4,18 2,3 % 2,04
Canada 4,17 2,3 % 2,23
Iran 3,25 1,8 % 1,69
Singapore 2,93 1,6 % 1,33
France 2,91 1,6 % 1,42
Indonesia 2,83 1,5 % 1,47
Mexico 2,56 1,4 % 1,35
United Kingdom 2,50 1,4 % 1,24
Spain 2,45 1,3 % 1,17
Italy 2,35 1,3 % 1,16
Thailand 2,25 1,2 % 1,21
Australia 1.93 1,0 % 0,94
Total World 184,21 100 % 94,09
European Union 21,32 11,6 % 10,42
Africa 7,86 4,3 % 3,92

Trade in petroleum and petroleum products

The value of a crude oil depends on its origin and its own physicochemical characteristics which, after processing, make it possible to generate a greater or lesser quantity of products with a high market value. To simplify, it can be said that the lighter the crude oil (i.e. capable of providing, after processing, a large quantity of products with a high market value) and the less sulfur it contains, the higher its value. To a lesser extent, the distance between the place where the oil is consumed and the producing regions also comes into play. The crude oil then enters an industrial transformation process, in which it will be refined and transformed into products such as plastic, glass…

As market participants sought to protect themselves from price fluctuations, the NYMEX introduced heating oil futures contracts in 1978. The same type of futures contract exists for crude oil and various petroleum products: naphtha, kerosene, fuels, heavy fuel oil, etc.

Top exporters and importers

Exporting (-) and importing (+) balances of major countries or regions in 2021 (Mt)
Country Crude oil balance Balance of petroleum products
China +524,4 +42,8
Europe +431,3 +87,0
India +213,6 -19,9
Japan +121,7 +32,0
United States +166,2 -131,5
Saudi Arabia -323,2 -41,6
Russia -263,6 -138,8
Iraq -176,1 -4.0
Canada -173,5 -2.9
United Arab Emirates -142,9 -54,9
Kuwait -88,4 -23,4

Oil impacts

The development of the oil industry provided the liquid fuels that enabled the second industrial revolution and thus significantly changed the course of history. In this sense, oil is truly the successor to coal, which made the first industrial revolution possible. Its use is also a source of controversy because it causes major damage to the environment: global warming, and pollution.


As oil is the largest international trade in materials on the planet in value (and volume), it has a significant weight on trade balances. The major producing countries have such revenues that their governments often have a public surplus to invest, which gives them significant financial weight. For example, around 1998, Russia had a very large public debt and seemed close to default. Since then, the rise in the price of oil and that of its production have allowed it to collect tax revenues such that the debt has been practically repaid and the country had the third largest foreign exchange reserves in the world in 2006.

Fluctuations in the price of oil have a direct impact on household budgets, and therefore on consumption in developed countries. They also influence, in varying proportions, the price of a large proportion of goods and services, since most are produced using oil as a raw material (petrochemicals) or as a source of energy (transport).

The discovery of oil reserves in a country is often seen as beneficial to its economy. However, the sudden inflow of foreign exchange is sometimes poorly managed (see Dutch disease), it can encourage corruption, foreign interference, waste and divert investment and labor from other sectors such as agriculture. The real effect is therefore often more ambivalent, especially for the poorest countries, to the point that we speak of an oil curse.


Having become indispensable to daily life in most developed countries, oil has a significant social impact. Sometimes violent riots have broken out in some countries as a result of price increases. In 2006, some French unions called for the introduction of a “transport voucher” to help employees who travel a long time to cope with fuel prices, which are at least two-thirds of which are made up of taxes.

In developed countries, higher oil prices translate into more car budgets, but in poorer countries, it means less lighting and less hot food, as kerosene is often the only source of domestic energy available.

In addition to the fact that oil is used in most mechanized industries as basic energy, its chemical derivatives are used in the manufacture of all kinds of products, whether hygienic (shampoo), cosmetics, food, protective, container (plastic), fabrics, agricultural inputs, etc. In doing so, oil has become indispensable and therefore very strategically sensitive.


Coastal clean-up in Prince William Sound, Alaska, after the sinking of the Exxon Valdez tanker in March 1989
Coastal clean-up in Prince William Sound, Alaska, after the sinking of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez in March 1989

Greenhouse gas emissions

The most worrying environmental impact of oil is the emission of carbon dioxide at the different stages of its production, transport and especially its consumption, especially in the form of combustion as fuel.

The International Energy Agency estimated global CO2 emissions from oil combustion at 11,415 Mt (million tons) in 2018, up from 6,672 Mt in 1971 and 8,510 Mt in 1990; the increase since 1990 has been 34.1%.

In 2019, these emissions accounted for 33.7% of energy emissions, compared to 44.0% for coal and 21.6% for natural gas; The share of oil has fallen sharply: it was 49.9% in 1973.

In a report published on 2nd June 2021, the International Energy Agency estimates that in 2021 oil companies will devote 4% of their investments to carbon-free energies, against 1% in 2020, thanks to the transition undertaken by major European groups such as Total, BP and Shell. Total will invest $3 billion in carbon-free energy and electricity production, representing more than 20% of its spending. The American Exxon and Chevron do much less, as do the national companies of producing countries such as Saudi Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom and Brazil’s Petrobras. The IEA warns that investments in renewables remain largely insufficient to combat climate change.

The Oil Change International (OCI) association published in May 2022 a report, supported by 44 environmental NGOs, which analyses the climate commitments made by eight of the main oil groups (BP, Chevron, Eni, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Repsol, Shell and TotalEnergies). This report reveals that these 8 companies are involved in more than 200 expansion projects in the process of approval, whose emissions are equivalent to those of 77 new coal-fired power plants over their lifetime. None of them comply with the minimum criteria for alignment with the Paris Climate Agreement. Chevron and ExxonMobil are considered largely insufficient for all criteria.


The combustion of oil releases other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), into the atmosphere, but these can be controlled, for example by desulphurizing fuels or soot. It is estimated, however, that if oil is more polluting than natural gas, it would be significantly less polluting than coal and oil sands.

Oil extraction itself is not without impact on local ecosystems although, as in any industry, risks can be reduced by vigilant practices. Nevertheless, some fragile regions are closed to oil exploitation, due to fears for ecosystems and biodiversity. Finally, oil and production leaks can sometimes be disastrous, the most spectacular example being that of oil spills or that of pollution due to oil theft in the Niger Delta (see Energy in Nigeria). The effects of degassing or even more hidden ones such as the abandonment of waste oils are far from negligible.

Other impacts

Oil can be carcinogenic in some forms, as well as some of its derivatives.

The geological consequences of its exploitation such as induced earthquakes are very little studied.

Science and technology

Oil exploration and exploitation have required the progress of many sciences and technologies for their development, particularly in geophysics. Gravimetry, seismic and logging were developed for oil exploration as early as the 1920s. Since 2000 for offshore, a new practice, seabed logging has developed that can directly detect oil. Production required materials from the steel industry that were resistant to acid gases (Lacq gas), pressures and temperatures. The oil industry is a demanding testing ground for many emerging technologies, which would prove too expensive in other fields: synthetic diamond for drill bits, dynamic positioning of ships, etc.


Since the very beginning of the twentieth century, oil has become an essential factor in geopolitics. The dependence of developed countries on this raw material is such that its lust has triggered or influenced the course of several wars; Civil wars against a backdrop of oil fields are countless. The oil supply of the belligerents has several times influenced the fate of weapons, as in the two world wars.

Culture and symbolism

Oil has become a symbol of wealth and luck, partly supplanting the gold that has long held this role. It is also regularly referred to as black gold. Popular culture has drawn stereotypical images, which can be found, for example, in the series Dallas, or in the expression “kings of oil”. Private oil companies are emblematic of the capitalist economic system, so authors of novels or films will often use them to play the role of the “villain”. Conversely, the public oil companies of some countries are an emblem of national independence and economic power, one can give as an example the construction of the Petronas towers.


Understanding the mechanism of oil formation suggests that its total amount on the planet, bequeathed by millions of years of maturation, is limited. Although this total quantity is unknown, it suggests that exploitation of it will one day approach this ultimate limit.

What is called “proven reserve” today is, by convention, constituted by an identified deposit, exploitable with available techniques, and at a price compatible with the current selling price. This definition has remained the same for nearly a century; The evolution of techniques has therefore gradually led deposits considered unexploitable at one time into the exploitable category as soon as the techniques have been available. Thus, offshore oil, considered “unconventional” before 1930, is in 2011 extremely widespread and considered “conventional” up to water depths of 1,500 m. The oil sands, long considered unexploitable, are in 2011 exploited on a common basis.

In demand

BP announces on June 15, 2020, a major revision of its forecasts after the Covid-19 crisis: “BP now expects that the pandemic could have a lasting impact on the global economy, with potentially lower energy demand over an extended period […] The energy transition could be accelerated.” As a result, BP has cut its price forecast for oil and gas, now forecasting an average price of a barrel of Brent to $55 between 2021 and 2050, from $70 previously. BP also predicts that CO2 will be taxed at €100 per tonne in 2030, compared to less than €25 in Europe currently. These price developments will make low-carbon investments more attractive; BP will therefore write down the value of its assets by between 13 and 17.5 billion dollars, or up to 20% of the total value of the group’s balance sheet.

A BNP Paribas Asset Management report published in 2019 concludes that “the decline in the economics of oil for petrol and diesel vehicles compared to electric vehicles powered by wind and solar energy, is now irreversible and irreversible”. The most recent wind and solar energy projects will be able to provide an electric vehicle with 6 to 7 times more useful energy than oil will provide a combustion vehicle. About 36% of global oil demand is generated by combustion engine vehicles and about 5% by electricity production: oil will therefore eventually lose 40% of its market.

The IEA does not expect oil demand to decline in 2018 in the future. It is rather concerned about production failing to cover needs from 2025.

A study by the Boston Consulting Group published on July 20, 2017 provides four possible scenarios for oil demand to evolve by 2040: the Reference Case, extending recent trends with global GDP growth of 3.5 percent per year between 2015 and 2040 and a barrel of around $60, leads to demand growth of 0.9 percent per year until 2040; The other three scenarios lead to a peak in demand between 2025 and 2030, the first with a decrease in the cost of electric car batteries to $100 per kilowatt hour from around $250 in 2016, and an improvement in charging capacity, bringing the market share of electric cars to 90% in 2040 in developed countries; the second with global growth limited to 3%, coupled with an improvement in the energy efficiency of combustion vehicles (with a consumption of 4.3 liters per 100 kilometers in OECD countries, compared to double currently).

Finally, the third is with the discovery and exploitation of large shale gas deposits in regions other than the United States, notably in China, producing oil by gas substitution effects in the petrochemical industry.


Factors of evolution

The future of global oil production will depend on a higher level of technology and greater investment, as well as the exploration of territories that are currently inaccessible. These points converge to result in more expensive oil.

The global oil recovery rate in 2008 was around 35%; This rate, which is slowly increasing, has a considerable impact on production; Modern techniques aim to improve this rate.

Some territories, such as the Arctic, are currently inaccessible to exploration/production for all kinds of reasons: political, climatic, environmental, landlocked areas, etc. A possible increase in the price of a barrel could make the exploitation of these regions profitable.

Offshore oil, popularized in Europe by the exploitation of North Sea deposits in the 1970s, has been exploited by increasing water depths since that time; In 2008, it is commonly reached 2,000 m of water. This depth of water will also have to increase to allow the exploitation of deposits currently inaccessible. In the same field, certain geological conformations that made conventional exploration instruments “blind” are the subject of fruitful research, as demonstrated by the discovery of the giant Tupi deposit in 2006. This deposit is part of a considerable ensemble, the Santos Basin, which suddenly brought Brazil into the top ten reserves in the world.

Deep oil was also long considered unexploitable, either for reasons of cost (in 2004, for wells deeper than 4,500 m, the final 10% of drilling constitutes 50% of its cost) or because of technical problems exceeding the available technology. The Elgin-Franklin field presented in 1995 the record of technical possibilities, with a deposit at 1,100 bar and 190 ° C.

Oil sands are a natural mixture of raw bitumen, sand, mineral clay and water. The best-known deposit is that of Alberta; Already in operation, it supplied more than two million barrels per day in 2011, making Canada the second largest supplier of oil to the United States. Their extraction poses major environmental problems; this giant deposit is equivalent to half of Saudi Arabia’s reserves. Heavy oil, very viscous, is today difficult to exploit; it is building up considerable reserves, with 315 billion barrels for Venezuela alone.

A predictive method has been proposed by geologist Dr. King Hubbert to determine when production from an oil field peaks. In 1956, he announced the peak oil of the United States in 1970. According to Hubbert’s model, the production of a non-renewable resource follows a curve that first looks like exponential growth, then plateaus and decreases. This method does not take into account economic elements or the development of technological alternatives. Whatever the reasons, most observers agree that global oil consumption will decline before the year 2040.

Recent forecasts

After years of stagnation or even decline, 2022 saw upstream investment (exploration and extraction) jump by 13% worldwide; however, they are still 45% lower than the total observed in 2014. According to the analysis company Rystad, offshore investments, more profitable than those on land, are expected to increase by 27% by 2024 compared to 2021, to reach $ 173 billion. Thus, the Norwegian Equinor plans to resume its pharaonic North Bay project of more than $ 12 billion, 500 kilometers off the coast of Canada, after receiving the latest authorizations from the public authorities. Total Energies and its Chinese partner CNOOC will invest $10 billion in the Eacop project in Uganda; Total Energies is also involved, with Italy’s ENI, Britain’s Tullow Oil and Canada’s Africa Oil Corp, in the $3.4 billion South Lokichar project in Kenya.

In a report published on June 23, 2020, using data from the Norwegian economic intelligence agency Rystad Energy, the think tank The Shift Project predicts that the European Union is likely to experience a contraction in the total volume of its current sources of oil supply of up to 8% between 2019 and 2030, in particular, Russia and that of all the countries of the former USSR, which supply more than 40% of EU oil, and Africa (10%).

Discoveries of new oil and gas reserves reached their lowest level since the end of World War II from 2016 to 2018 and 2019 remains on the same trend. Oil companies are reluctant to invest in exploration, an expensive and risky business in a depressed context for crude oil prices; U.S. shale oil and gas, whose reserves have been known for decades and therefore do not require exploration, offer great flexibility for producers, who can stop or postpone drilling in a matter of days if prices fall. The discoveries of 2019 represent only 16% of the barrels that were consumed in the year, while this rate was close to 40% in 2015. Given the development time of the projects, the decline in discoveries from the years 2015-2019 will only have consequences on production from the middle of the 2020 decade.

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2019 annual report predicts a sharp increase in U.S. oil production from 11 mbl/d (million barrels per day) in 2018 to 13.8 mbl/d in 2022, accounting for more than two-thirds of the increase in global volumes. Most of it will come from the Permian Basin. Russia and Saudi Arabia will cap between 11 and 12 mbl/d. As U.S. domestic oil consumption stagnates, the extra production will be exported: U.S. gross exports will reach 9 mbl/d in 2024, overtaking Russia and catching up with Saudi Arabia. The IEA acknowledges that the pace of U.S. expansion is not entirely certain, as it will depend in part on the evolution of the price of a barrel. But the reserves are gigantic: 155 billion barrels, or 35 years of production at the current rate, and they are constantly being revalued upwards.

The International Energy Agency’s 2018 annual report envisages a global slowdown after 2020 due to energy diversification programs launched in several countries, particularly in China: public transport running on natural gas, the development of electric vehicles. The United States, whose production exceeded 10 Mbbl/d, is expected to accelerate further in 2018 and then become the world’s leading producer in 2023 with 12.1 Mbbl/d, ahead of Russia; Shale oil accounted for just under half of U.S. crude production in 2017 and could account for two-thirds in 2023. The oil sands of Canada, Brazil and Norway will also experience strong growth.

The IEA’s 2015 World Energy Outlook 2015 forecast continued growth in oil consumption from 91 million barrels per day (Mbbl/d) in 2014 to 103.5 Mbbl/d in 2040. The oil crisis that caused the price of oil to fall to $50/barrel is due to an excess of production: the shale oil boom in the United States has created a global overcapacity of 1 to 2 million barrels per day, which will gradually be absorbed: the price of a barrel of Brent will not rise to $ 80 before 2020, to reach $128 in 2040.

OPEC’s 2015 annual report estimates oil production at 97.4 Mbbl/d in 2020 and 109.8 Mbbl/d in 2040, up from 92.8 Mbbl/d in 2015. The organization has revised its long-term estimates downwards to take into account efforts to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions: a year earlier, it had forecast more than 111 Mbbl/d for 2040. Nevertheless, its projections are much higher than those of the IEA: 103.5 Mbbl/d in 2040. OPEC forecasts a decline in its market share from 39.2% in 2015 to 38.3% in 2020, then a rise to 45.6% in 2040. U.S. shale oil production would increase from 4.4 Mbbl/d to 5.2 Mbbl/d in 2020, then fall to 4.6 Mbbl/d in 2040. The price of a barrel would rise to $80 in 2020.

The fall in oil prices has had a massive impact on oil companies’ investment: from these prices began to plummet in mid-2014 until the end of 2015, oil groups have postponed 68 major hydrocarbon development projects, or $ 380 billion in investments, according to the Wood Mackenzie firm. In oil, deep offshore was the most affected, in Angola (75 billion in staggered investments), Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico. The report also cites Canada’s oil sands, which are particularly expensive to develop. The magnitude of the figures quoted is also linked to the postponement of phase 2 of the Kashagan gas mega-project in Kazakhstan. These deferrals will lead to lower future production, from the beginning of the next decade: Wood Mackenzie estimates their impact at 1.5 million barrels per day (MMb/d) in 2021 and 2.9 MMb/d in 2025.

Energy alternatives

According to a 2021 report by The Shift Project, global oil production will halve by 2050. The declines, instability and foreseeable difficulties in oil supply pose many problems for importing countries:

  • geopolitics;
  • financial (currencies, trade balance);
  • environmental (CO2 emissions);
  • strategic (resilience and energy independence of 95% of the world’s countries that do not have the resource in their subsoil and are dependent importers);
  • economic (risk of decline caused by lower overall energy availability, with transport consuming 32% of total energy consumed in France in 2011, 98% of energy coming from oil);
  • agricultural (risk of decline of mechanized agriculture due to lack of fuel for machinery, production of inputs produced from oil and gas such as fertilizers and pesticides, agricultural yields increased risk of famine);
  • social (risks of job losses, reduced transport and travel opportunities, difficulties in supplying basic necessities).

Many countries (including Europe) have therefore embarked on a policy of reducing their dependence on oil since the oil shocks of the 1970s. The table below (which includes non-EU countries, including Turkey, Ukraine, Switzerland, etc.) shows a certain success of this policy, with a decrease in European consumption of 24.8% over the period 1990-2020 (and 28.5% compared to the peak of 843.1 Mt reached in 1979), despite population growth and rising living standards; a significant part of these savings were obtained in the early 1990s in the former communist bloc countries after the fall of communist regimes in Europe, thanks to the elimination of many wastes. There was a clear increase in consumption from 2014 to 2017: +7%. The crisis caused by Covid-19 caused consumption to fall by 13.3% in 2020, but consumption rose by 5.3% in 2021.

Oil consumption in Europe (including Turkey)
unit 1965 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
million tons 422,3 682,1 785,9 802,3 774,5 730,2 672,9 659,6 677,1 693,3 705,2 703,7 700,0 603,1  
Exajoules             29,09 28,53 29,25 29,94 30,47 30,40 30,28 26,25 27,57

Low-carbon alternatives

As an indication, a power plant running on heavy oil emits 778 g CO2eq/kWh (Gas: 443 g, coal: 1,058 g).

  • nuclear energy (6 gCO2eq/kWh);
  • renewable energies such as hydropower, solar and wind energy (10 g CO 2 eq/kWh), heat pumps and geothermal energy (38 gCO2eq/kWh);
  • biofuels, an unlikely track since the orders of magnitude of the area needed are not compatible with the availability of agricultural land necessary for food; climate drift further jeopardizes the development of biofuels, as it is already known that it undermines the yields of all agricultural crops;
  • wood, whose development is also endangered by climate drift (fires, droughts, accelerated disappearance of current forests for which warming is too rapid to allow natural adaptation);
  • Nuclear fusion will not be operational early enough to constitute an alternative to oil: even if technological developments (not yet available but necessary for its advent) occur at the rate hoped for today, the most optimistic projections envisage the first prototypes of reactors allowing a significant production of electrical energy only around the middle of the century and for ITER after 2050. Even considering a general transition to the electrification of the needs covered by fossil fuels today, it is far too late for nuclear fusion to be a serious alternative to deal with the scarcity of oil in particular and fossil fuels in general.

Carbon-based alternatives

As the global climate emergency requires reducing CO2 emissions, other fossil fuels cannot be a sustainable alternative to oil without worsening the current climate crisis. However, the addiction and dependence of world economies on oil have increased its use at the beginning of the 2020s.

  • natural gas, whose production is expected to peak around 2030, and of which Russia is one of the world’s leading producers, poses geopolitical problems following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Natural gas requires fixed installations (pipelines, gas terminals, storage sites), as well as very long-term contracts that slow its expansion, and which can permanently compromise supplies in the event of diplomatic unrest or armed conflict.
  • Coal is the fastest-growing energy source between 2017 and 2022. Unlike oil, coal is mainly consumed in the countries that produce it (lower energy density and much more complex transport); Only about 15% of world production is exported. However, the IPCC paints a catastrophic picture of the climate consequences of the growing use of coal by the world’s five largest producers (the United States, China, Russia, India and South Africa). Coal can be substituted for oil either directly or in transformed form by the Fischer-Tropsch process. Growing oil supply difficulties are prompting renewed interest in this application in countries where coal is abundant. It has the disadvantages of a very heavy CO2 balance and a very high cost that confines applications in laboratories with the notable exception of South Africa (necessity under the embargo during apartheid, strategic choice for energy independence then, thanks to local coal resources). The carbon footprint of the use of coal for electricity production is between 50% and 100% more unfavorable than oil, therefore totally incompatible with the objectives of phasing out fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions necessary to limit the very costly global effects of global warming.
  • the exploitation of methane hydrates, whose reserves are still poorly known are probably very large, but for which there is not yet a functional technology. Since methane is a greenhouse gas with a warming potential much higher than that of CO2, its natural release now established even if we do not know the rhythm, made possible because of global warming, already poses a serious problem as to the possibilities of controlling the limitation of the current climate catastrophe. Exploiting this resource today would run the risk of a runaway greenhouse effect, and the combustion of the methane eventually produced would further increase CO2 emissions, aggravating the climate crisis.

Consume less

  • Limit waste (night lighting, illuminated signs).
  • Increase the lifespan of objects, repaired and not thrown away, promote recycling.
  • Promote group transportation, carpooling, public transport.

Energy efficiency

Increasing energy efficiency means producing the same goods and services with less energy, and in our case, petroleum products. Since it provides a solution to the three problems mentioned above, this method appears satisfactory when it is not counterbalanced by an equivalent or greater rebound effect. The means of energy efficiency have the advantage of being frequently intuitive and known to all:

  • build better-insulated homes (passive energy efficiency);
  • use energy control systems to optimize the energy consumption of habitats (active energy efficiency);
  • use more economical combustion engines (with lower specific consumption). This applies to cars, but also to transport that uses almost exclusively fossil fuels (ships, planes), agricultural machinery, construction machinery, generators, etc.

These methods are slowly making progress in developed countries where energy is made artificially expensive (taxes, subsidies to virtuous methods). Among other things, insulation is increasingly presented as the alternative of the future in temperate countries (BedZED) but is struggling to penetrate the market.

Reduced commuting

The distance of the inhabitants from their place of work today favors the use of the car and therefore the consumption of oil. In France, according to INSEE estimates from 2015, on average and at the national level, 70% of employees use their car to go to work while 16% of them use public transport. The draft law on the orientation of mobility plans to force companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate with employees a “mobility plan”, to promote carpooling and teleworking.

References (sources)