Life Without Oil?


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Since 1974 the burning question of how much oil the world has left in its reserves has never fully vanished from my thoughts. At that time I was a sophomore in high school, Richard Nixon was President, our country's involvement in Vietnam had come to a close, and eight-track tapes defined state-of-the-art audio technology. This was also the year that those of us in the U. S. experienced an oil shortage. Because of an embargo that I didn't fully comprehend, gas prices suddenly skyrocketed, resulting in long lines at service stations reminiscent of the days of rationing during World War II. A few years before this, I was in grade school and recalled reading in a science textbook that was probably ten years out of date even then that in the United States alone, there was enough oil to last for about five billion years. My family used to take frequent trips to Oklahoma and Texas in those days, and indeed there were oil wells down there as far as the eye could see. I was a ten-year-old kid and had no reason to dispute my science book, even if it was written before Sputnik was launched.

But by 1974, during the “fuel crisis, " as it was dubbed, suddenly there were geologists and others with expertise who claimed that the world's oil supply was limited and would be depleted in a matter of decades, not in five billion years. As a teenager I scoffed at these dire predictions, still relying on my science textbook from fifth grade, and in fact, around 1977 or so, when the price of a gallon of gas reached $1.00, there was no more talk of shortages. Johnny Carson even made a joke about it. I dismissed the whole thing as a greedy ploy by the oil companies to increase profits. So did a lot of others.

But now as we fast-forward some thirty years there are thousands of pages devoted to the subject of the world's finite supply of oil. There is much debate and speculation regarding the amount we truly have left. There are those who say that there are vast quantities thus far untouched while others say the cost and energy requirements needed to extract these untapped sources is prohibitive, and their most optimistic guess is that we have about forty years of usable oil left. They almost unanimously believe that production will peak around 2010 or so and that the supply will dwindle rapidly thereafter. In fact there are those who say production has already reached its peak. This could make the nearly $3.00 in some locations we currently pay for a gallon of gas triple. So much for my old textbook.

This raises some questions. I'm confident that carmakers will produce vehicles that run on whatever fuel eventually replaces gasoline and diesel, but thousands of classic and vintage cars have survived into the twenty-first century and there is no reason to believe that many examples of these won't survive indefinitely. Will clubs devoted to the preservation of vehicles from the past be limited to trailering their prized possessions a few decades from now behind hydrogen or solar-powered trucks to shows only for museum-like displays? If there is no fuel left, enthusiasts could no longer drive them. Cruises would be limited to new models of whatever make is represented and whatever propels them. Vendors who specialize in mechanical parts for old classics would no longer serve any purpose except for those dedicated few who would continue to perform 100% correct restorations despite the knowledge that they would never be able to be driven. Will we see classic cars modified to run on a different fuel? It's one thing to put unleaded gas into an old car originally intended to run on leaded gas, but quite another to change to an entirely different means of propulsion. Will this mean that previously Stock Class cars would be considered Modified at shows? If not, then the current definitions of Stock and Modified will have to be, well, modified. Let's not forget the later model cars that would become obsolete as well.

I may not be around to witness these possible scenarios, but I pity those who are younger. If there are still billions of potential barrels of oil under the ground, we need to find a feasible way to extract it. I can't imagine a car without an internal-combustion engine. But I do have some eight-track tapes if anybody's interested. . . . . . . . . . . .

Pat Sills is an avid Volkswagen enthusiast and writes articles and feature stories for his club's Newsletter. His first novel, REUNIONS, was published in March, 2005. Check it out at: or at:


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