Foretelling the Future of Oil

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Mr. Sealock and many other oil executives do not deny that climate change is an issue, nor that it is caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

He points to technology as the solution that will allow societies to continue burning them safely, noting efforts by the billionaire investor Bill Gates and others to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through advanced industrial-scale engineering.

Mr. Sealock and a few other oil executives see the possibility that natural gas, which frequently bubbles up with oil from the same wells, could provide the raw material for the production of hydrogen for fuel cells that would limit the exhaust of cars to drops of water.

That may all be wishful thinking on the part of Mr. Sealock, who is managing a company that is attempting to unlock billions of new barrels of oil. If he is right, that could be a convenient solution not only for the climate (unless there are unintended negative consequences to fiddling with the atmosphere as some fear), but also for a slew of countries that rely on oil for their economic well-being across much of Africa and the Middle East, as well as Russia, Mexico and emerging producers like Brazil and Guyana.

But there is another view, decidedly a minority one still, that believes the days of the fossil fuel age are numbered. One such futurist is Dieter Helm, an Oxford University energy economist and author of “Burn Out: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels,” published last year, who says he believes that the world is poised for a technological transformation that will produce new sources of power, advanced energy storage and a rise in the efficiency of the economy so less energy is needed.

“We know the supply of solar is infinite,” Mr. Helm said. And in the next 20 years, he added, “We’ll have factories that run on robots, we’ll have 3-D printing, artificial intelligence and so on that will make energy demand remarkably more flexible in factories, offices and houses too.”

Such technologies are already taking hold, and in Mr. Helm’s view they will speed up as global leaders are forced to manage the impacts of climate change, which appear to be accelerating. It’s not going to immediately happen, but he says he believes the big oil companies will eventually go the way of the horse and buggy.

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