Hundreds of millions of vehicles. The farm equipment that helps to provide food for the country. Pharmaceuticals that help elderly people manage chronic illness. All of these things are, to one degree or another, made possible by the ready availability of oil.
And yet, despite this ubiquity, the vital substance is subject to a persistent myth: that we are always on the brink of having no more.
One of the most insistent and longest running myths about oil is that we're constantly in direct danger of running out. A Pennsylvania geologist once proclaimed that it wouldn't outlive some of the youth of the day and that it was a "temporary and vanishing" phenomenon. That was in 1885. In 1939 the Department of the Interior estimated that reserves would run out by 1952. Not only did that not happen, daily production had tripled within 30 years — exactly the opposite effect they have predicted.
Those faulty prognoses shared a common underlying assumption: technology wouldn't advance. In reality, improvements in downhole jet pumps mean that geographical formations that were once inviable are now sources of production.
Geologists estimate that there are about 10 trillion barrels of oil in the world. A century ago (somewhere between the predictions in 1885 and 1939), only 10 percent of it was considered recoverable. That number is up to 35 percent now. Simply put, we're much better at drilling for oil than we've ever been, and the direction of innovation suggests that capacity will only improve.
In addition, the proliferation of alternative sources actually supports oil drilling. Consumers are becoming more aware of the ways that they can conserve, which means that oil is going to be a valuable part of our lives for a long, long time to come.