The Energy in a Barrel of Oil

In grasping the challenge of peak oil, it took us a while to come to grips with what a bonanza our treasure of oil has provided for us humans. Hey, let’s be honest: we still don’t get it, and if you’re a typical human, we understand it a lot better than you. So let’s think about how much energy there is in a barrel of oil.

A barrel of oil contains 42 gallons. The quality of oil varies. The purest and easiest to refine is labeled “sweet,” and the more sulfur-laden and more challenging to refine is labeled “sour.” We humans have already used up most of the sweet oil and we’re mostly down to sour oil, by the way, but that’s not the focus of this page. The focus of this page is how much energy there is in an average barrel of oil.

A barrel of oil contains about six gigajoules of energy. That’s six billion joules or 1667 kilowatt-hours. No, we don’t have any idea how much that is, either, so let’s think about the equivalent. Sit a reasonably healthy male adult – let’s call him Jim – on an exercise bike wired to an efficient generator, and he can produce 100 watts for you. So after Jim has pedaled an hour he’s produced 100 watt hours of energy, or 1/10 of a kw-hour.

To produce the same energy as that in a gallon of gasoline, 33 kilowatt-hours, Jim would need to pedal 33 X 10 = 330 hours. We need to be legal, of course, so Jim only pedals 40 hours per week. Jim’s desperate, so let’s assume he agrees to take no breaks and never stops working to chat at the water cooler or to check in with his friends on Facebook. He pedals straight through for 40 hours per week. He will have pedaled enough to equal the energy in a gallon of gasoline in a little more than eight weeks. Because Jim’s desperate, he gladly works for minimum wage, so your energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline is a bargain at $6.55 X 330 = $2,194. How’s the price of gasoline lookin’?

Jim likes working for you, so let’s ask him to pedal long enough to produce the same energy as that in a barrel of oil, 1667 kw-hours. Easy to figure. 1667 divided by 1/10, or to say it another way, 1,667 X 10, or 16,667 hours of pedaling. That’s 417 weeks. Jim must love pedaling that bike, because he never takes a vacation. Jim will have pedaled enough to produce the energy in a barrel of oil in 417 divided by 52 = 8.01 years. Congress has cooperated with you during this entire adventure and kept the minimum wage stable at $6.55 per hour, so your energy equivalent from Jim will cost you only $6.55 X 16,667 = $109,169.

You’ll never remember $2,194 or $109,169. We sure don’t. Cheat down. Remember $2,000 per gallon of gas and $100,000 per barrel of oil. Those you can remember.