by Chip Haynes
August,2001--"Ghawar is dying." Could those three simple words signal the beginning of the end for the industrialized human civilization on Planet Earth? No one in a position of knowledge or authority has uttered them publicly yet, nor are they likely to for a few years to come. So we do have some time--but not much. Then again, they may have been said quietly two years ago and we would never know. Life's funny that way. Too bad this isn't a laughing matter.
Some two hundred kilometers east of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is a stretch of uninhabited and unremarkable desert in the Empty Quarter. This hot, desolate landscape sits above the largest oil field in the world: the Ghawar. It's a big chunk of nothing one hundred and fifty miles long and twenty-five miles wide, but thousands of meters below its surface lie seventy billion barrels of oil patiently waiting to be pumped out. They've waited for millions of years. A few more won't matter. And after that? After that, Ghawar will no longer be dying. It will be dead. Nothing left but sand and sinkholes.
Before you sit back, all smug and comfy with that seventy billion barrel figure, let me do a bit of quick math for you: that's only an 875 day supply of oil for the world at the current rate of use. (And that rate rises every year, just as the Ghawar's not unlimited oil reserves get lower.) Admittedly, the Ghawar is not our only source of oil. (And unless you happen to be Saudi, its not even your oil at all, now is it?) Still, the Ghawar is The Big One, and when it goes, things will change--forever. The only questions are: When will it happen, and how will we know?
The when is easy, if vague: it could happen at any time from two years ago to twenty years from now. But how will we know? That's a far more difficult question to answer.
I can picture a Mercedes Unimog lumbering alongside pipelines in the desert, stopping at each well head. At each stop, a man climbs down from the machine and walks over to the well. He looks and records a number from the gauge, then returns to the truck. This scene plays out over and over. It would take days to record all the numbers from the wells in the Ghawar. Still, it must be done. Those hand-written numbers are given to a field technician who dutifully records them, one well at a time, in a computer database. All that data gets sent to the Saudi government, where the numbers are studied, analyzed, and agonized over. If the figures are the same as or higher than the last figures, life is good. If not, then what?
What if the Ghawar IS dying? It would be easy enough to play with the numbers for a year or two--until the decline rate starts to speed up and the loss can't be hidden. After that? Plan B might call for a declared "voluntary reduction" in oil production to "stabilize the market at the optimum level." Yeah, right. How in the world would you ever know exactly how much oil is being pumped or shipped from a country half way around the world to other countries you've never seen? The answer is obvious: You wouldn't. You never will. C'est la vie.
Somewhere in Los Angeles, on quite literally the other side of the world, an SUV pulls into a gas station and the driver gets out. The pump is turned on and a gas tank is filled. Sure, it cost more here at this big, fancy franchise than it did over at that little independent station, but the indy was closed today. Matter of fact, hasn't it been closed for about a week now? What's up with that? Ah, well. At least it's not that much more. What's an extra buck or two to fill the tank? No big deal. Unless Ghawar is dying, in which case it is a very big deal indeed--and will get considerably bigger before it's all over. Maybe this was a sign of a weakening pulse?
You're Invited to the FuneralMeasured up against the big scheme of things, the death of Ghawar and our oil-powered industrial civilization will fall somewhere between the Black Plague of 14th Century Europe and the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. Unlike the plague, this will effect humans world-wide, but unlike the meteor, it will effect only humans. Chickens may some day cross the road with impunity. Animals both large and small will prosper (Hey, you try whaling in a row boat!) And the earth will undoubtedly cool off a bit. Too bad we all won't be here to enjoy it.
With the death of Ghawar will undoubtedly come the deaths of humans. Many humans, it would seem, the result of probably unavoidable wars for the last remaining oil to the much-predicted pandemics and mass starvation. Estimates on the sustainable limit to humans on this planet have ranged from an utterly dismal 1/70th of the current population (about 100 million) to an almost cheerful (by comparison) two billion. Keep in mind there's six billion of us here right now, so some of you will have to leave. You'll stay for the funeral, though, won't you? I mean, after all, Ghawar is dying.
I don't expect to be told. Politics and the global economy being what they are these days, I really can't picture anyone standing up in front of a row of television cameras and announcing to the world that the largest field of crude oil known to man is, in fact, drying up. What's Arabic for, "Ghawar is dying"? It doesn't matter. It's a phrase we'll never need to know--or hear. If it is the biggest, it will also be the last. By the time Ghawar begins to die--and by the time we hear about it--hundreds of other oil fields all over the world will also be dead and gone. Ghawar will still be pumping crude oil at an impressive rate as the industrial world of man comes to a creaking, painful halt. That's the irony of it, you see: by the time the Ghawar starts to run dry, we will have either found another way to get things done or simply stopped doing them. There's a very good chance that the last of the oil in the Ghawar will remain in the ground, untouched and unneeded, forever.
So is the Ghawar dying? Does it matter? There may come a time when all the SUVs in Los Angeles will roll to a tank-dry halt. After the riots and the wars, after the yelling and screaming and dying, what's left of humanity (if we have any humanity left) will stand up, dust itself off and get on with Life. The Ghawar, virtually unknown today, will be all but forgotten by then. The troubles of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East will cease to be a common feature of the nightly news, as they would no longer have anything to offer the West--nothing left to fight over. Just footnotes in a history book.
Cries and WhispersMaybe what's called for here, as Blutto Blutowski so eloquently put it, is a stupid and futile gesture that could serve as a mind-bite for the masses--some bit of mysterious innuedno that could spread like backfence gossip or a clever teaser ad. Tell people the world is running out of oil and they glaze like a donut. We know the direct approach doesn't work. We have to be subtle. Devious. Underhanded. But without any actual outright lying. (The truth is, after all, so much more annoying!) So how about bumper stickers? Everybody reads them when they're stuck in traffic or stopped at a light. You do. I do. And if you read it on a bumper sticker, it must be true, right? All we need now is a whole pile of "Ghawar is Dying" bumper stickers. It need not say any more than that. The truth is always mysterious and seldom obvious. Let 'em figure it out for themselves. Of course, the ultimate irony would be to see that bumper sticker on a big SUV--the very thing that's draining the Ghawar to death. That's right up there with "Honk if you hate noise pollution"! HA!
Ghawar is dying. If you whisper it quietly, maybe people will listen. If not, the approaching silence will get their attention soon enough.