Opinion: The End of the Oil Age

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by David L

Historians label time periods for dominant technologies. The Stone Age and the Bronze Age are well known examples. In the latter half of the 1900s, my father, a petroleum geologist, frequently referred to the 20th century as the Oil Age. Almost everything that happened was made possible by vast quantities of oil. He often said that oil was too valuable and limited a resource to simply burn for energy. He felt it should be reserved for lubricants and its vast array of products, such as plastics. Oil and the knowledge to put it to work is probably the single biggest factor in the rise of the United States as the largest economic power in history.

The 21st century will almost certainly be the Electricity Age. The cost of everything electric is plummeting while efficiency is rising. While this trend was pioneered in the United States, China (a vast country with almost no oil) has been the first to go all in on electrification, and is leading the world in 2024. Western manufacturers seem to have suddenly woken up to this reality and are scrambling to catch up. They are saddled with a lot of old technology and infrastructure as well as a vast and well funded PR campaign by the oil industry to slow the transition as much as possible. On one hand, western technology, its open society, and its vast diversity of cultures and ways of thinking are a huge creative advantage that China lacks. On the other hand, Chinese companies are busy building factories and export hubs all over the world while the United States is obsessed with arguments about whether solar power and electric cars are as good as fossil fuels. They are better, and much more importantly, they are cheaper. And the clock is ticking.

There are plenty of examples of dominant companies who ignored radical new technologies to their cost. Kodak, Blackberry, and Nokia come to mind. In our capitalist world, the best product at the lowest price wins 10 times out of 10. I suspect the general public is going to figure this out in the next few years, particularly as more and more cost advantages become obvious. A drop in CO2 emissions and an improvement in air quality will be a nice bonus.

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