The energy derived from fossil fuels has been the most significant factor in the rise of our industrial technology-based civilization in the last three centuries. Fossil fuels include coal in all its many forms, oil, and natural gas. When experts are asked to estimate the energy we derive from fossil fuels today, the answer varies from 75% to 90% of the total energy generated by our species. The 18th and 19th centuries were dominated by coal. When our industrial society moved from the steam engine to the internal combustion engine, oil moved to dominance becoming the principal energy source of the 20th century. Throughout the 20th century control of oil resources drove national agendas. World War II was a war over oil as much as it was one fought over competing racial ideologies. The post-war period of Cold War and the Israel-Arab confrontation also featured oil as a political weapon driving up the cost of energy, and contributing to worldwide hyperinflation and currency volatility. In the first decade of the 21st century we have witnessed oil prices rise and fall dramatically, as much a function of the changing view that the worldwide supply is either stable or in decline, as well as a strategy driven by stock market futures speculators.
There is a lot of misinformation about fossil fuels circulating if not in the popular press in the minds of people these days. Are we running out of fossil fuels as a resource? The truth is we are not even close to exhausting fossil fuel sources that we can extract from the planet. There’s lots of coal around, whether lignite, bituminous or anthracite. According to the World Coal Institute, at the current rate of consumption and assumed future demand, our coal reserves will last us well into the 22nd century.
What about oil? More than any other energy source, the amount of recoverable oil is directly correlated to the price per barrel of oil. When one talks to industry experts today, recoverable oil numbers at $85 US per barrel are much higher than when that number drops to $70 or less. That’s because we are beginning to see an end to the easy-to-find oil sources. In 2009 the biggest oil field discoveries were in what a few years ago would have been deemed inaccessible – deep seabeds. These include finds in the Gulf of Mexico, in the South Atlantic off Brazil and Angola, and in the Indian Ocean off Australia’s west coast and the east coast of Mozambique.
Unconventional oil sources like the bitumen deposits in Western Canada and Venezuela, and the oil shales in the Western United States represent both proven and yet to be counted barrels of oil.
New technology is being used to exploit old oil reservoirs. Traditional extraction techniques often leave up to 80% of the oil in the ground. Through enhanced recovery techniques operators can increase extraction from these exhausted sources by as much as 60%. Techniques include pumping sequestered carbon dioxide into existing oil reservoirs, injecting steam, horizontal drilling to find previously inaccessible pockets of oil, or introducing natural or genetically engineered microbes to feed on the oil generating gas as a byproduct and concentrating oil into recoverable pools.
With proven oil reserves today amounting to over 1.34 trillion barrels, an increase of 200 billion from 2007 statistics, we can conclude that we are not running out of oil, not by a long shot.
This source of energy is often found in association with oil although many natural gas finds are autonomous. The chief component in natural gas is methane. Other natural gases include ethane, ethylene and propane. Like its counterpart, oil, easily found natural gas has been displaced by exploration and discovery in areas previously considered climatically or physically challenging. For example, one of the major natural gas finds lies in the Mackenzie River delta in the Northwest Territories in Canada. Extraction and transhipment challenges remain the biggest impediment to exploiting this find. Similarly, Siberia, another area where natural gas has been found, provides similar challenges. One solution to transhipment challenges is the creation of liquefied natural gas production and storage facilities. From these locations the gas can be transhipped by rail, trucks or ocean going ships.
Proven natural gas reserves in 2009 exceeded 6.25 quadrillion cubic feet. That number has not significantly changed from previous estimates so current exploration is continuing to find new sources to keep up with worldwide demand. Consumption rates today are in excess of 100 trillion cubic feet per year and projections forecast worldwide demand to reach 150 trillion cubic feet by 2030. Even at this rate of consumption and without new finds we will not run out of natural gas in the 21st or even 22nd century.
So What is the Problem?
Fossil fuels continue to be inexpensive when compared with other energy sources. It costs more for a liter bottle of spring water than it does for a liter of gasoline in Canada and the United States. So what is the disincentive to use gasoline and oil as a source of relatively cheap energy?
Fossil fuels are a finite resource. We don’t just burn them. We also use them to create products. Why burn something of such value if we can find other energy sources to use that are comparatively infinite?
Fossil fuels by their nature when burned produce byproducts that have created environmental challenges that have become compelling issues for all of us on this planet. Coal is inherently a dirty fuel and “clean coal” technologies are unproven.
The burning of oil contributes to greenhouse gases whether it’s coming out of geothermal plants or the tailpipes of automobiles and trucks.
Oil extraction and transhipment is a source of potential pollution, particularly when that oil is being extracted from deep seabeds and being shipped along ecologically fragile coastlines.
Natural gas is the least polluting of the fossil fuels but the one that offers great challenges during transhipment. Liquefied natural gas is a highly volatile commodity.