Bottom of the Barrel

Going to new depths in the search for old oil

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


At the rate we’re going, the Department of Energy expects conventional oil production to peak in 2050. But the end of oil won’t necessarily usher in a greener future. Locked in sand, rock, natural gas, and coal are enough hydrocarbons to supply the world’s oil refineries with so-called unconventional crude through most of the 21st century.

conventional oil
How it’s produced: Drilling in the ground
Where it’s found: Middle East, Russia, United States, elsewhere
Average production cost per barrel: $9
Greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions from production: 5 grams of carbon equivalent per megajoule
Potential output: 2,162 billion barrels
Dirty secret: 77% is controlled by state-run companies, so Big Oil is turning to unconventional sources to survive.

enhanced oil recovery
How it’s produced: CO2 is injected into old oil wells to squeeze out the last 30 to 60%.
Where it’s found: United States, Middle East
Average production cost per barrel: $16
ghg emissions from production: 67% more than conventional oil
Potential output: 1,011 billion barrels
Dirty secret: Could have an environmental upside if oil companies figure out how to sequester CO2 in old wells—and guarantee it won’t leak out again.

tar sands and heavy oil
How it’s produced: Ore is extracted and processed into synthetic crude.
Where it’s found: Canada, Venezuela
Average production cost per barrel: $23
ghg emissions from production: 151% more than conventional oil
Potential output: 1,535 billion barrels
Dirty secret: Each barrel of oil produced leaves behind two of toxic waste. Refining tar sands oil produces as much as 80% more CO2 than conventional refining.

gas-to-liquid synfuel
How it’s produced: Natural gas is mixed with oxygen, purified, and processed into transportation fuels.
Where it’s found: Russia, Iran, Qatar
Average production cost per barrel: $26
ghg emissions from production: 66% more than conventional oil
Potential output: 3,597 billion barrels
Dirty secret: South Africa perfected the technology in response to apartheid-era trade embargoes.

liquefied coal
How it’s produced: Coal is heated and pressurized to create a gas, which is converted to fuel using the gas-to-liquid technique.
Where it’s found: The largest coal reserves are in the United States, Russia, China, India, and South Africa.
Average production cost per barrel: $35
ghg emissions from production: 393% more than conventional oil
Potential output: 8,892 billion barrels
Dirty secret: Mercury is a byproduct. Last year, Senator Barack Obama cosponsored a bill that would have provided the industry with federal loans for as much as $20 million. Enviros accused him of pandering to Illinois coal interests.

oil shale
How it’s produced: Oil-containing rock is mined, crushed, cooked, and injected with hydrogen.
Where it’s found: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming
Average production cost per barrel: $57
ghg emissions from production: 530% more than conventional oil
Potential output: 1,451 billion barrels
Dirty secret: In 2007, former secretary of the interior Gale Norton joined Shell’s oil shale team.


SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate