All the Oil in the World
Jude Wanniski
March 10, 1998


Memo To: Vice President Al Gore
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Oil to Burn

Almost 25 years ago, when I was writing editorials for The Wall Street Journal, I found myself contending against environmental propaganda that insisted the world was running out of oil. I knew this was ridiculous, but because everyone in the press corps repeated it over and over again, and politicians who believe what they read in the papers parroted the arguments, I was shoveling against the tide, as they say. One of the reasons I knew better, Mr. Vice President, is that I was a science student before I became a student of politics and communications. For my first 2 years in college, I studied geophysics, which is another word for petroleum geology. As a result, when I joined the national press corps in 1965,1 probably knew more about stuff like this than all the other political writers laid end to end. With all due respect, sir, I believe I still have a better appreciation of what goes on around the planet and under its skin than you will ever know ~ unless you resign from the political world and go back to school.

To make my point, I would like you to think of the following problem one that I posed to my staff at Polyconomics recently. I asked them to think of the total amount of petroleum produced in the history of the world. I put it this way: Suppose we would carve a hole in the surface of the earth, 50 miles by 50 miles. If we took all the petroleum produced to date and poured it into that hole, how deep would the hole have to be to contain all of it? The reason my question has relevance, I believe, is that almost all human beings think of themselves as being bigger than they are in relation to the planet. This became especially true 25 years ago, when you were a young man, and environmental activists observed the price of oil climbing from $2.50 a barrel to $12 and then to $25 and $35. The law of supply and demand suggested that mankind had sucked the earth dry and we would soon be freezing in the dark. At the time, The Wall Street Journal editorial page was the only place anyone could put such matters in perspective, owing to my diligence in getting to the bottom of things.

So my hole is 50 miles by 50 miles. The answers of my staff range from a hole 1000 miles deep, which means the hole would extend one-fourth to the core of the planet. The lowest estimate was 100 miles deep. My wife Patricia came closer, when she guessed 50 miles. I explained to her that the hole would not be that deep. There has been 812 billion barrels produced in the past 140-odd years since oil was discovered in Titusville, Pa., according to my friend Bill O'Keefe of the American Petroleum Institute. There are 42 gallons per barrel, and each s gallon measures 0.13368 cubic feet. When you do the sums, it turns out that the hole would not be 50 miles deep, my wife's guess, the best of the lot, but only 63.3 feet. Sixty-three-point-three feet, Mr. Vice President. The hole would be 50 miles wide and 50 miles long and 63.3 feet deep.

How big is that? Well, I'm sure you have been to Lake Tahoe, on the Nevada-California border. Tahoe is 193 square miles at its surface and 1,640 feet at its deepest point. My guess is that if you emptied Tahoe of water and filled it with petroleum, you would not be able to fill it. Perhaps one of my website fans has some knowledge and would be able to work the numbers down to the gallon and foot. But you get what I mean. If you go to the world map I assume you have in your office, look for Lake Tahoe, unless you have a giant map you will probably find it is only a pinpoint. That goes to show that we are not really the giants striding the planet you probably imagine, sir, when you make your impassioned speeches about saving Mother Earth from the carbon dioxide that results from the burning of liquid petroleum. I don't know if you can ever get over the belief that MAN is big and NATURE is small. Remember the memo I sent you last year about carbon dioxide? I asked you to guess how much CO2 mankind contributes annually to the ecosphere, on scale of one mile. That is, if one mile of CO2 is produced each year from all sources, how much of that does mankind produce? When I had friends guess the answer, some thought one-third of a mile, some thought a hundred yards. Everyone was surprised when I said the correct answer was three-eighths of a inch!

We are tiny, tiny little creatures on the Planet Earth, Mr. Vice President. Sometimes I think if we could examine an anthill and communicate with the ants, there would be political movement among some faction of those ants who would be led by an ant such as you desperately concerned that their CO2 emissions are causing the earth to cook, or freeze. You know what I mean?