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The Deluge

Rapidly advancing technologies are opening up astonishing sources of oil and gas all over the world. We are entering a new era of fossil fuels that is reshaping global economics and politics—and the planet.


OIL SEEPING TO THE SURFACE of the lazy Kern River, just north of Bakersfield, California, first caught James Elwood’s attention in 1899. The state was in the midst of an oil boom, and Elwood wanted in on the action. He rounded up a few relatives, got some picks and shovels, chose a patch of sun-baked earth near the river seep, and started digging.

Forty-odd feet down, they switched to an auger, and punched down another couple of dozen feet. Oil—trapped in the stone’s pores for millions of years—began oozing into the crude well.

The strike made the front page of the local newspaper, and brought other prospectors rushing to the Kern River. Within a year, 130 wells had been dug. Drillers pumped the black muck to the surface and hauled it away in barrels borne on mule carts. By 1904, more than 47,000 barrels per day were flowing forth, nearly matching the production of the entire state of Texas.

Kern River oil is particularly thick and viscous, with a consistency like molasses, which means it doesn’t flow easily. Analysts at the time predicted that the difficulty in extracting it meant they could get at only about 10 percent of the total that lay underground. By the early 1940s, oilmen had hauled 278 million barrels out of the field, but production was in steep decline; the most accessible oil was gone. Kern River seemed close to being effectively tapped out.

Pumpjacks in the Kern River oil field, where fossil fuels have been continuously extracted for over a century. (PHOTO: CHRISTOPH MORLINGHAUS)


In the 1950s, however, several major oil companies active in the field tried some new ideas. They started dropping “bottom-hole heaters” into the wells, devices that use hot water or electricity to warm the oil, making it flow more easily. A few years later, engineers figured out how to inject steam into the underground crude. The results were spectacular. Within a few years, Kern River was producing more oil than ever. By 2007 the field had yielded some two billion barrels, making it one of the biggest in American history.

The story of Kern River reflects our entire history with oil: every time we think we’re starting to run out of it, new technologies arise that find us more. The widely circulated fears of a few years ago that we were approaching “peak oil” have turned out to be completely wrong. From the Arctic to Africa, nanoengineered materials, underwater robots, side-scanning 3-D sonar, specially engineered lubricants, and myriad other advances are opening up titanic new supplies of fossil fuels, many of them in unexpected places—Brazil, Australia, and, perhaps most significantly, North America. “Contrary to what most people believe,” declares a recent study from the Harvard Kennedy School, “oil supply capacity is growing worldwide at such an unprecedented level that it might outpace consumption.”

FOR CENTURIES, THE EVER-SHIFTING MAP of where energy comes from has defined much of the character of our world. When people used whale oil for indoor lighting, Nantucket was a bustling center of commerce. Coal drove the rise of places like Newcastle upon Tyne in England and Centralia in Pennsylvania—and then powered the industrial and geographic expansion of the United States. Oil helped fund the creation of Texas and California. Since then, fossil fuels have shaped the development of countries around the world, especially in the Middle East.

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Right now, the map of who sells and who buys oil and natural gas is being radically redrawn. Just a few years ago, imported oil made up nearly two-thirds of the United States’ annual consumption; now it’s less than half. Within a decade, the U.S. is expected to overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to regain its title as the world’s top energy producer. Countries that have never had an energy industry worth mentioning are on the brink of becoming major players, while established fossil fuel powerhouses are facing challenges to their dominance. We are witnessing a shift that heralds major new opportunities—and dangers—for individual nations, international politics and economics, and the planet.

Oil is perhaps the only commodity used, in one way or another, by almost everyone on earth. We depend on it for much more than just gasoline. Oil and natural gas provide the raw materials for asphalt, plastics, and chemicals and fertilizers without which modern agriculture would collapse. To say that we’re “addicted” to oil, as though it were a bad habit we could kick through force of will, is to drastically understate the degree of our dependence. In short: no petroleum, no modern civilization.

Little surprise, then, that practically since we started using the stuff, we have fretted that we were running out of it. In 1922, a federal commission predicted that “production of oil cannot long maintain its present rate.” In 1977, President Jimmy Carter declared that world oil production would peak by 1985.

It turns out, though, that the problem has never been exactly about supply; it’s always been about our ability to profitably tap that supply. We human beings have consumed, over our entire history, about a trillion barrels of oil. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there is still seven to eight times that much left in the ground. The oil that’s left is just more difficult, and therefore more expensive, to get to. But that sets the invisible hand of the market into motion. Every time known reserves start looking tight, the price goes up, which incentivizes investment in research and development, which yields more sophisticated technologies, which unearth new supplies—often in places we’d scarcely even thought to look before.

ON THE VAST CONCRETE PLAIN OF THE SHIPYARD at Angra dos Reis, Brazil, workers on bicycles scurry among warehouses, cranes, and machine shops. A bright yellow gantry 18 stories tall, luminous against a leaden gray sky, grinds along steel tracks. The hills surrounding the port are swathed in green jungle foliage. But down here by the water, it’s a purely industrial scene, machines working on an incomprehensibly vast scale.

From a slipway jutting into the Atlantic, Amit Tomar climbs six flights of scaffolding to the deck of the Cidade de São Paulo, a red and black ship measuring 1,000 feet in length—the size of a keeled-over skyscraper. On this June day, it is ascramble with workers tightening bolts and welding pipes. Tomar, a trim native of India with a bright smile and brisk manner, is the São Paulo’s second-in-command. The workers are readying the ship for what will likely be its final mission.

The São Paulo took to the water in 1992 as an oil tanker—basically just a gigantic bucket with a motor attached—ferrying crude from port to port. Now Petrobras, Brazil’s national oil company, is just about finished converting the ship to a floating industrial plant. Soon, the $1.2 billion craft will be towed out and anchored at a spot nearly 200 miles from shore. A battery of pipes along the ship’s sides will pull 120,000 barrels of crude per day from beneath more than three miles of ocean, rock, and solid salt.

The floating fossil-fuel factory Cidade de São Paolo headed for deepwater (PHOTO: PETROBRAS NEWS AGENCY)


Once anchored, the São Paulo will take two days to reach by supply ship. Between shifts, the 60-odd crew members will have little to do besides hang around their Spartan dorms and a windowless recreation room equipped with some dark vinyl couches, a few board games, a TV, and a PlayStation 3.

Tomar has spent as long as 11 months at sea in such conditions. This job should be easy by comparison—six weeks at a stretch on the ship and then six weeks off. “That way we get a business-class ticket to go home,” he says. That’s a nice perk, but it’s still a pretty brutal commute. Why travel all the way from India to Brazil for a job? Tomar’s answer is straightforward: “Because of money.”

There is a lot of that to be made here these days. Long a marginal player in the world energy market, Brazil is on track to become one of the world’s top fossil fuel producers. There are billions of barrels of oil deep beneath its seas—oil that couldn’t even be found, let alone accessed, until recently. There’s so much down there that when the first major field was tapped, then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared it proved that “God is Brazilian.”

If fossil fuel strikes are a way to judge God’s citizenship, the Good Lord must carry several passports. Huge subsea gas fields have been discovered in recent years off the coasts of Tanzania, Mozambique, and other impoverished countries in Africa and South America. Oil companies are sniffing around for more from Cuba to the U.S. Atlantic coast to the South China Sea, which is believed to hold as much as 200 billion barrels of oil.

Oil companies have been drilling in shallow waters for decades, but only in recent years have they been able to get to serious depths. In 1992 there was just one well in the Gulf of Mexico deeper than 5,000 feet; by 2008 there were 465. Just three years after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, drilling in the gulf is back in full swing, supplying nearly a quarter of all U.S. oil and still growing. Around the world, deepwater oil production has quadrupled in the last decade, bringing millions of barrels a day to the market.

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is happy to get his hands dirty with the nation’s new petroleum (PHOTO: FELIPE DANA/AP/CORBIS)


You can see the impact of all this in many parts of Brazil, but perhaps nowhere more than in Rio de Janeiro. As we crest an overpass over downtown, my taxi driver points out a palatial hotel undergoing renovations. “Eike!” he says with a grin. That would be speedboat-racing, Playboy model–marrying Eike Batista, who has in the last few years gone from being a merely wealthy mining entrepreneur to the seventh spot on Forbes’s list of the world’s wealthiest people, thanks mainly to his OGX Petróleo e Gás, Brazil’s biggest private oil company. Even after a spate of recent business reversals, he’s still worth an estimated $13 billion. Renovating Rio’s historic Hotel Gloria is one of his hobby projects.

The northern end of Rio, far from the famous beaches of Copacabana, is all factories and shipyards, thrumming with men and machines servicing the oil industry. Drilling platforms in for repairs hulk along the shoreline. A little ways inland is a sprawling airport-sized building that, with its curvilinear lines, tubular corridors, and off-white palette, looks like a cross between a Dubai shopping mall and a set from Logan’s Run. This is the new $700 million headquarters of CENPES, the research arm of Petrobras. The center officially opened in 2010, but still isn’t quite finished on this day last summer. The top floor, open on all sides to allow in breezes and a view of the bay, is meant for relaxed meetings and thinking, but it still lacks furniture. Once complete, the complex will house more than 100 labs and some 4,000 employees.

Brazil has operated shallow offshore wells since the 1970s. But it was only in 2006 that exploratory drills first hit the massive “presalt” reservoirs—so named because they lie underneath a thick band of salt left behind by an evaporated prehistoric ocean.

Petrobras found the hydrocarbons beneath the presalt thanks to a series of breakthroughs in seismic sensing. That process involves sending ships out to sea towing miles-long sensor-equipped cables and air guns that blast out sound pulses. Those pulses reverberate through the seabed and bounce back to the cables’ sensors, providing images of the various layers of rock down below. For years this technique yielded only a two-dimensional picture. But in the 1990s, geophysicists figured out how to send the outbound signals from different angles at the same time and reassemble the results into a three-dimensional picture. In the subsequent decades computer power and software got good enough to understand all that data.

But salt adds extra complications. It distorts the signals that bounce back, forcing Petrobras’ engineers to develop new algorithms to compensate. It took Petrobras more than two years to analyze the information from their first 3-D seismic surveys of the presalt fields to figure out what was down there.

Now, the company estimates there are over 15 billion barrels of oil just in the fields discovered so far. The total amount under the salt could be three times that much, a reserve rivaling Libya’s.

Improving those seismic-sensing techniques is one of CENPES’ core tasks. But finding oil is only the first challenge. Bringing it up is also a fantastically complex process. Each step requires intensive research and custom-built hardware. When you drive a drill deep into the earth, for instance, the earth resists. The drill’s path has to be lubricated. Cuttings have to be pushed back up the borehole to the surface. To do all that, the drills shoot out viscous fluids called “mud.” Most muds are water based, but that can be a problem when dealing with the presalt: water could dissolve the surrounding salt and collapse the wellbore. So CENPES has a 20-person team working on custom mud. “We’re always trying to find ways to drill faster,” says Rosana Lomba, the cheery chemical engineer who heads the team. “Time is money—much money.” The steel countertops of her white-walled lab are covered with blenderlike machines that test and measure various fluids. Her staff spend their days tweaking formulas—a little barium sulfate to increase density here, a little xanthan gum to boost viscosity there—to find the optimum combinations for each oil field’s particular geology.

The presalt is too complicated and expensive for any outfit to handle alone. Most fields are being tapped by consortia of companies. Accordingly, Brazil is rolling out the red carpet to encourage private companies to partner up with Petrobras. Not far from the cenpes facility, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro oversees a huge new technology park devoted mainly to energy research. In one corner is the LabOceano, an 82-foot-deep indoor pool—the world’s deepest ocean simulator. Why so deep? “Because Brazil’s oil is so deep,” says executive director Paulo de Tarso Themistocles Esperança. The $30 million pool’s wave and wind generators test how boats will cope with storms and currents, and make sure they’ll stay connected to equipment on the seafloor. In fact, a six-foot model of a São Paulo–style production ship floats on the pool’s surface. But apparently there are no storms forecast for today; instead, a hard-hatted worker paddles by in a rubber dinghy, dwarfing the model like something from a Monty Python cartoon.

Elsewhere around the park are a scattering of construction sites. The world’s biggest oil services companies—Halliburton, Schlumberger, Baker Hughes—are building their own research centers. These are the outfits the major oil companies—including Petrobras—hire to build and operate the drilling and production machinery. One of the biggest is U.S.–based FMC Technologies, which has a factory on the outskirts of Rio where 1,600 workers crank out control modules and multivalved wellheads. FMC plans to expand this factory into a neighboring lot, doubling its size.

FMC also has a facility in the technology park, so new that you can count the oil stains on the parking lot’s white bricks. Inside one of the angular, modernist buildings is a photo that stretches from floor to ceiling. It shows nothing but a sunlit, open sea. Across the bottom are the words Our Vision. “The current scheme of operations is 50 years old,” says Paulo Couto, a vice president of technology. “You put a floating city in the middle of the ocean, and then you pump out the oil just like you do on land. You have to provide power, housing, sewerage, food, helicopters, and equipment. It’s expensive and difficult. Helicopters crash. Boats sink. There are hurricanes and accidents.” It’s also inefficient. The crude has to be pulled up all the way to the surface, and the intermingled natural gas, water, and sand have to be separated out and disposed of. FMC wants to do all of that on the seafloor instead. “Our task is to put the city on the bottom of the ocean,” Couto says. Divers wouldn’t survive a minute at such depths, so everything will have to be run remotely, using undersea robots to position and repair equipment. It sounds audacious. Then again, just last year FMC installed a 500-ton underwater oil and gas separator, the first of its kind, atop one of Brazil’s subsea fields. “We are not far from this vision,” says Couto, “maybe 15 years.”

Drawing oil from under the ocean, of course, is staggeringly expensive. Drilling a single well can cost as much as $100 million. It only makes sense to do that in a world where oil fetches at least $50 a barrel. As recently as 2002, it was only $20 a barrel.

But prices have risen dramatically in the last decade. They have been averaging well above $80 a barrel for the last couple of years. That’s partly due to ever-increasing demand from developing nations and partly due to political factors (such as fears that Iran’s nuclear ambitions could cause serious turmoil in the Persian Gulf). But the price rise is also partly due to another kind of technology: computer algorithms that enable quantitative hedge funds to place thousands of ultrafast buy and sell orders, a practice known as high-frequency trading, which came into widespread use with oil futures in the middle of the last decade. No less an authority than Rex Tillerson, head of ExxonMobil, told Congress in 2011 that such speculation is a key reason why the price of a barrel of oil has stayed so high.

SUSPENDED FROM A PLATFORM several stories above the North Dakota prairie, a roaring, mud-stained, 1,500-horsepower motor spins a steel rod as thick as a softball bat in an endless pirouette. The rod continues down through about 30 feet of metal housing and then into the ground. Below the earth, the drill extends for a distance almost twice as long as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Inside an adjoining control room, a fleshy operator whose hard hat identifies him as Chuck reclines in a chair surrounded by seven swing-mounted monitors, looking like the king of all video gamers as he tracks the drill’s progress. It goes about two miles straight down, then turns sideways for another mile. It’s now chewing its way, at 110 feet per hour, through a second horizontal mile of solid rock. The purpose: preparing all that rock to be hydraulically fractured—a process better known as fracking.

Fracking is about as popular with the general public as puppy kicking, but it’s very big business. It’s producing so much natural gas from shale fields in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere that the commodity’s price has cratered, dropping from over $10 per thousand cubic feet five years ago to about $3.25 today.

Fracking can also produce oil, which is the main target in North Dakota. As many as 200 new wells are being drilled every month in the state to exploit the Bakken formation, a 25,000-square-mile subterranean swath extending into Montana and Canada that may contain hundreds of billions of barrels.

Energy companies have known for decades that shale rock formations, such as the Bakken, hold huge amounts of hydrocarbons. The problem was getting them out. In conventional oil- or gas-bearing rock, the hydrocarbon molecules flow through pores in the stone into a well like seawater seeping into a hole dug on a sandy beach. But shale formations are so dense that the oil and gas can’t flow through them.

Rock’s permeability is measured in a unit called the darcy. Lance Langford, a thickset Texan who heads the Bakken operations of Statoil, Norway’s national energy company, tells me that the typical rock the company deals with in its home country is around one darcy. Statoil now owns hundreds of wells in North Dakota. Here, the “perm” of the Bakken’s oil-bearing dolomite ranges down into the nanodarcies—literally millions of times less permeable. “It’s like cement,” says Langford. He shows me a sample, a cylinder of deep gray stone the size of my forearm. It’s heavy as a cinder block. When I put my nose up to it, I can smell the sharp meaty tang of hydrocarbons.

A Statoil rig drives a drill into the earth for a distance almost twice as long as the Golden Gate Bridge. (PHOTO: CHRISTOPH MORLINGHAUS)


Halliburton pioneered the use of fracking—pumping pressurized mud into wells to shatter the surrounding rock and release its hydrocarbons—back in 1947. But it was only of limited use in the conventional vertical wells of the day. In 2000, George Mitchell, a Texas energy entrepreneur, refined the technique by using a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand to crack the shale. The sand is used as a “proppant” to keep the cracks open—the pressure of the surrounding rock wants to seal them back up. Today Statoil uses perfectly round, poppy-seed-size gray balls of a man-made, aluminum-based ceramic—2.5 million pounds of it per well, supplied from 40-foot-high silos that stud the wind-scoured prairie. The artificial proppant costs three times as much as sand, but keeps the fractures open longer.

Mitchell’s key innovation, though, was marrying fracking to the rapidly developing technology of horizontal drilling. Now, rather than punching just a single hole through a layer of shale formation, drillers could dig a well horizontally along the length of it and expose more of the gas or oil to the well.

The rest of the industry soon copied the system.

EOG Resources—a company you may remember by its former name, Enron—started fracking the Bakken in 2006. Since then, North Dakota’s annual oil production has nearly quintupled to over half a million barrels a day. Last year, it overtook Alaska to become America’s second biggest oil-producing state. There’s more shale oil already coming online in Texas, and a potential mother lode in California, where—for now—environmental concerns have limited drilling. “The shale/tight oil boom in the United States is not a temporary bubble, but the most important revolution in the oil sector in decades,” says the Kennedy School study.

Fracking is creating an even bigger boom in the natural gas industry. American shale gas production totaled 320 billion cubic feet in 2000; in 2011, the number was 7.8 trillion. Domestically produced natural gas now provides 95 percent of all U.S. needs.

All of this amounts to an economic bonanza, generating hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide (though the areas where the drilling is actually taking place don’t always get the benefits they expect, as Lisa Margonelli explains in "The Energy Debate We Aren't Having"). Moreover, it might bring the U.S. closer to the long-held dream of energy independence. The federal Energy Information Administration predicts imports of oil and other energy supplies will drop to 13 percent of total U.S. energy use by 2035, down from 29 percent in 2007.

And the fracking boom is only just beginning. There are believed to be oceans of yet-untapped shale gas and oil in Argentina, China, and several countries in Europe.

OUTSIDE HOUSTON'S RELIANT CENTER, a chorus line of 40-foot-tall oil drilling rigs salutes the 80,000 attendees of the 2012 Offshore Technology Conference. Bedecked in primary colors and flags of many nations, the rigs look like a queue of single-minded amusement park rides. The corridors of the convention center, meanwhile, are a mosh pit of engineers in polo shirts pushed up against Nigerians in dashikis, corporate types in power suits, and Arabs in floor-length galabias. The vast exhibit halls are filled with gear from the high tech to the medieval: sophisticated electronic sensors, state-of-the-art data-processing software, and chains with links the size of my head. The male-to-female ratio looks to be about a hundred to one.

At a lectern in a spacious conference room, Uzi Landau is clearly enjoying himself. The sprightly 69-year-old—a former paratrooper, Israel’s minister of internal security during the second intifada, and presently minister in charge of Israel’s infrastructure—has come to Houston to invite the world’s energy corporations to help Israel become a fossil fuel powerhouse. “We’re an open economy, with an independent legal system,” Landau pitches the crowd. “We approach women with respect. We don’t hang homosexuals. We run things as you run them here in Houston.”

The fact that Landau is one of the speakers at this conference is a good indicator of the upheaval in the fossil fuel industry, and the impact it is having on geopolitics. An old joke: Moses must have taken a wrong turn by leading his people to the only place in the Middle East without oil. But it turns out the old prophet knew what he was doing after all. Since 2009, two colossal natural gas fields have been discovered under Israeli waters. Combined, they hold trillions of cubic feet of gas worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Production is slated to begin this year. And there is certainly more down there, perhaps much more. “Ladies, gentlemen, this is a revolution as far as Israel is concerned,” Landau says.

That seems a fair assessment. The balance of petro-power is shifting in the world’s most petro-rich—and politically volatile—region. And that could change all kinds of things in all kinds of ways.

Israel’s natural gas bounty means the country will not only get richer but also will likely become largely energy independent. Imagine what that could mean. Cheaper electricity could make it easier for Israel to build more desalination plants, easing its chronic water shortages. That increased self-sufficiency could mean Israel would have one less incentive to keep up good relations with its neighbors, especially balky frenemy Egypt, which until recently supplied a good chunk of Israel’s natural gas. Israel’s gas is already winning the country new friends elsewhere: Russia has signed agreements to get in on Israel’s offshore finds. All of this could reduce Israel’s dependence on the U.S., and therefore our political leverage over them.

“Being energy independent would mean Israel could pay even less attention than it already does to international opinion,” says University of California, Los Angeles political scientist Michael Ross, an expert on the impacts of oil on nations’ political cultures. “There is strong evidence that the more oil and gas wealth a country has, the less likely it is to abide by international treaties and play by international rules.”

Landau, of course, is selling the best-case scenario, in which Israeli gas promotes peace. Israel could export gas to the Palestinian territories and to Jordan and other nearby countries, which are already looking to switch to cheaper, cleaner natural gas for power generation. That could boost regional cooperation and acceptance of Israel. But the new gas fields could as easily make existing conflicts worse. Palestinians could resent having to buy Israeli gas, especially since there is also a gas field off the Gaza coast that they cannot develop. Lebanon is already shouting that some of the Mediterranean gas fields are theirs, and Hezbollah has threatened to attack Israeli offshore facilities.

The new world oil economy could bring dramatic changes to the entire Middle East. The Persian Gulf States still have unmatched resources—Saudi Arabia alone holds one-fifth of all the world’s known oil reserves—but we don’t need them like we used to. American imports from the gulf have plummeted in recent years; our top two fossil fuel providers are now Canada and Mexico. That’s partly because of increased U.S. production, and also because of a surge in imports of another recently unlocked resource—the oil sands of northern Alberta. Meanwhile, all the new oil and gas coming online worldwide will likely bring prices down. That could mean a serious cash crunch for the kings and emirs who have long depended on government handouts to keep their citizens from demanding greater freedoms, Arab Spring–style.

In fact, the new world of fossil fuels poses an uncertain future for all the major nations that dominate the current market—including Russia, Venezuela, and Iran. “There are big challenges ahead for any country that is dependent on oil,” says Citigroup managing director Ed Morse, who recently coauthored a major report on the implications of North America’s fossil fuel boom subtitled North America, the New Middle East? (pdf) “They could lead to all kinds of internal upheavals.”

The handful of new players entering the global fossil fuel scene—Mozambique, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea—are wild cards. The new wealth could lift their people out of poverty—or they could succumb to the famous “oil curse” and see the money siphoned off by corrupt elites and sparking internal conflict.

OR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT could happen. “In this industry people are consistently wrong with their predictions,” says Ross. “In the 1970s, everyone thought prices would be high forever and OPEC would be the world’s power broker. That all fell apart. Then in the 1990s, prices fell and everyone thought they would stay low.” So much for that.

The energy industry is affected by so many complex, interconnected factors that it’s as impossible to predict long term as the weather. Tensions in any number of places in the Middle East could explode. China could slip into a recession and see its energy consumption plummet. Another major accident in the Gulf of Mexico could shut down deepwater production in the U.S.

But one thing we do know: there are plenty of fossil fuels left. And sooner or later we’ll get to them. Human beings are not going to stop driving or using plastic. The mushrooming middle classes in China, India, and elsewhere want their cars and air conditioners, too. Petroleum consumption in China alone has doubled in the past decade, making it the world’s second largest consumer behind the U.S. In the next 20 years, barring unforeseen economic calamity, world energy demand is expected to increase by anywhere from a third to a half—and most of the increase will be met with oil and natural gas. Wind, solar, and other renewable sources have miles to go before they make up a major part of the world’s energy mix, and they are having a harder time than ever competing now that natural gas is dirt cheap.

What’s more, the earth holds other fossil fuels we haven’t even begun to tap. Governments and corporations are researching a number of long-shot energy sources, from a not-fully cooked type of oil called kerogen to methane hydrates in the ice of Alaska.

Which brings us to the biggest unknown of all: what this new era means for our rapidly warming planet. More hydrocarbons burned on the ground means more carbon in the atmosphere, which means nastier storms, a melted Arctic, rising seas, emerging diseases, and the rest of the dismal, all-too-familiar litany.

Even industry execs acknowledge that. “There’s enough oil and gas out there to last us right through to the end of the next century, without much doubt,” says David Eyton, head of research and technology at BP. The real problem, Eyton says, is that “we are running out of the carbon-carrying capacity of the atmosphere.”

So are we doomed to a future of ever-rising temperatures? Maybe. But maybe not. It’s not all bad news: in the developed world, greenhouse gas emissions may be on track to stabilize, thanks to growing efficiency and a shift toward cleaner fuels. In the U.S., energy-related carbon emissions have fallen from a peak in 2005, and are projected to rise only slightly over the next ten years. And cleaner-burning natural gas is starting to replace oil and gasoline in some industries and vehicle fleets.

“We live in a world where things happen more quickly than we expect,” points out Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director of energy and sustainability at the University of California, Davis. Maybe we’ll figure out a means to innovate our way out of climate change, or at least slow its progress enough that we can adapt to its impacts. If there’s one thing our history with fossil fuels shows, it’s that we are unbelievably good at adapting, at finding new ways to overcome problems once thought impossible to solve.

TODAY, PRETTY MUCH THE ENTIRE KERN RIVER oil field has been taken over by Chevron. It’s an eerie, postapocalyptic-looking place, 16 square miles that looks like it was scorched to the ground and then occupied by a mindless army of horsehead pumpjacks. They’re a motley horde, different sizes and colors and vintages, some standing still, others dipping their heads toward the earth, drawing up some 80,000 barrels of oil every day.

Beneath the ground, natural gas–powered generators pump steam through a lattice of pipes into wells fitted with sensors that wirelessly transmit data on pressure, flow rates, and other crucial information to a control center, where technicians monitor it all with the help of 3-D seismic models. All of this makes it far more expensive to pull oil out of Kern River; the amount of energy that must be expended to bring up a barrel of oil has increased dramatically since the introduction of underground heating methods, according to a recent Stanford University study. But today the demand is there, and so is the supply. Chevron geologists estimate there are still 627 million barrels of oil underground.

On a small shoulder of land overlooking the actual river—the banks of which are the only swatch of green anywhere in sight—stands a whitewashed monument marking the spot where James Elwood first struck oil over a century ago. That well was plugged in 1995. But on either side of it, not 20 feet away, two yellow-headed pumpjacks are pulling up oil from deep below the ground, bobbing steadily up and down like they’re never going to stop.