A Free-Market Energy Blog

“The Color of Oil” (Michael Economides remembered)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- October 19, 2021

“Using moralistic yet blatantly dishonest slogans and pseudo-science, the environmental movement has digressed dangerously…. One of the most fundamental truths rarely surfaces among the movement: there is no credible alternative to hydrocarbons in both the near and far foreseeable futures.” (Michael Economides, below)

He was irascible in person but a rare energy realist in thought and action. Michael Economides (1949–2013) was many things, including leading oil consultant and Lecturer in Petroleum Engineering at the Cullen College of Engineering at the University of Houston. [1]

With Ronald Oligney, he authored an important book, The Color of Oil: The History, the Money and the Politics of the World’s Biggest Business (2000). Some quotations follow:

“… energy is the world’s biggest business, and it continues to move unstoppably forward.” (p. 17)

“We predict that the world will not run out of oil for the next three centuries, at least.” (p. 168)

“Gas shortages will cause power shortages. Brownouts are not just likely; they are certain.” (p. 169)

“We are not running out of oil. We are not running out of gas. We do not need to voluntarily reduce our consumption of energy and natural resources.” (p. 171)

“The petroleum industry … has had and will continue to have an invisible but firm grip on billions of lives.” (p. 171)

“Energy and its appropriate deployment are … the most important modern indicators of the wealth and poverty of nations. Society and energy will merge in an unbreakable bond for the entire future of humankind.” (p. 171)

The abstract of a lecture given before the Houston Geological Bulletin by Michael Economides on the subject of the book follows:

Oil is not just black … it affects all shades of life and industry. In fact it colors everything.

The first color of oil is green. The greenback, both literally and figuratively, has defined the value of oil. Today the petroleum industry is the world’s biggest business, and hydrocarbons (including coal) account for over 90 percent of all energy needs. The Energy Wealth and Poverty of Nations is the prevailing indicator at the turn of the millennium. Oil is black, and this, in contrast to the crystalline transparency of water, contributes to the great mystery often associated with finding and producing oil.

Oil is red, white and blue with roots in northwest Pennsylvania and with the giant ghost and modern manifestations of John D. Rockefeller, no industry better exemplifies certain traits that define the American character. Red is also the color of oil-as red as the blood of the millions who died in two great world wars and many other conflicts in this century. Central to the causes and prosecution of the wars was access to oil.

The primary colors of oil today are money (lots of it), technology (basic but demanding) and people (special ones). The colors of the rainbow can be seen in the 100+ oil producing countries. There are a dozen large petroleum producing and exporting countries. Yet most have little in their history that links them to wealth, technology and management. Corruption among the elite and governments, mismanagement and the squandering of the petroleum wealth are endemic. Culture is everything, and no other human endeavor makes this as pointedly obvious as the world of petroleum.

Government, willingly, by default or unwittingly, can turn oil from some of its more constructive colors to a tawdry yellow. Governments have infringed by regulation, neglected critical research needs and failed to take strategic and enabling actions. Environmentalism and the new green, couched in difficult-to-combat superficial imagery has taken a sinister turn, highly politicized and with gross disregard for the impact that the energy industry has on the world economy.

Using moralistic yet blatantly dishonest slogans and pseudo-science, the environmental movement has digressed dangerously and has replaced some of the most radical movements for social experimentation of the century. One of the most fundamental truths rarely surfaces among the movement: there is no credible alternative to hydrocarbons in both the near and far foreseeable futures.

The petroleum industry is here to stay and prosper in the third millennium. Energy demand will increase, and the use of petroleum will be emphasized and expanded. This is the color purple.


[1] His university description follows:

Michael Economides, one of Houston’s leading energy experts, made many contributions, particularly in the technology development of hydraulic fracturing and his perspectives in geopolitics.

Economides served as an adviser for numerous companies globally, including China National Offshore Oil Corporation, Italy’s multinational oil and gas company ENI and other major global players in Russia and Venezuela. A prolific writer in the petroleum and natural gas fields, Economides published more than a dozen books and hundreds of journal papers. One of his books, “The Color of Oil,” is valued by many. He frequently spoke on CNBC and CNN and was quoted extensively by academic and news publications. He was the founder and editor-in-chief of Energy Tribune, an online publication, and offered commentary on global energy politics for FuelFix, the energy website at the Houston Chronicle.

As an insightful energy columnist and author with a captivating personality, he was also a very approachable educator. He spent much of his time traveling and collaborating globally- but still had time to devote as an educator. Economides served as a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department from 1999 to 2005; then teaching master’s classes and advising graduate students as an adjunct faculty member in the Petroleum Engineering Department until his death in 2013.
Economides moved to the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar at the age of 19 from Cyprus. He received his BS and M.S in Chemical Engineering from the University of Kansas and then his doctorate in Petroleum Engineering from Stanford University in 1984.

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