Energy in the 21st Century: Part 2- Fossil Fuels

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.

Natural Gas

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.



Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...


  • Len Rosen

    The recent deep water drilling accident off the Louisiana coast brings the potential risks of reliance on oil obtained from offshore sites into stark reality. Here are some interesting facts:
    – Deep water drilling is the main driver for expanding levels of activity in the field of conventional oil exploration. This is where the world’s oil companies are putting massive investment.
    – Nearly 18,000 offshore wells were drilled around the world in the last five years.
    – There are currently 30 deep water rigs drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
    – There are 47 deep water production facilities operating today in the Gulf of Mexico.
    – The U.S. Minerals and Management Service documented 1,443 offshore oil drilling accidents between 2001 and 2007.
    – Recent history of offshore oil drilling accidents includes:
    1977, Ocean Master II capsized and sank off of West Africa;
    1977, Ekofisk suffered a blowout off Norway leading to an oil spill of over 202,000 barrels;
    1979, Bohai 2 rig capsized and sank off the coast of China;
    1979, Sedco 135F suffered a blowout off Mexico leading to an oil spill of 3,500,000 barrels that took 9 months to cap;
    1980, Funiwa 5 rig blowout off Nigeria led to an oil spill of 200,000 barrels;
    1980, Hasbah rig blowout in the Persian Gulf led to an oil spill of 100,000 barrels;
    1983, Key Biscayne rig capsized and sank off of Western Australia;
    1988, Occidental Petroleum North Sea platform exploded;
    1988, Rowan Gorilla I sank in the North Atlantic;
    1989, Interocean II capsized and sank in the North Sea;
    1990, West Gamma rig sank in the North Sea;
    1998, Mr. Bice oil rig sank off the coast of Louisiana;
    2001, Petrobras 36 Oil Platform exploded and sank after five days off Brazil;
    2002, Arab Drill 19 had a blowout and fire in the Persian Gulf;
    2004, Adriatic IV had a blowout and fire off the Egyptian coast;
    2007, Usumacinta oil platform erupted in flames in the Gulf of Mexico;
    2010, Deepwater Horizon rig blowout and sinking is leaking between 5,000 and 25,000 barrels of oil per day. It has been leaking since April 20 with no foreseeable solution in place. It took 9 months to cap the Sedco disaster of 1979 when 3,500,000 barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. Deepwater is leaking at a higher rate.

  • More information on deep water oil extraction:

    In 1968 the US developed its first deep water discovery at 305 meters depth in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1968 Pardner field was discovered at 347 meters depth. In 1975 Cognac was discovered at 312 meters.

    In 1999 the Brazilian government committed to becoming an energy exporter within a decade and auctioned off exploration rights in deep water off its continental shelf in the South Atlantic.

    In Africa Angola has become the largest deep water oil producer, producing over double that of Nigeria. In 2001, the Girassol field was discovered at a depth of 1,400 meters.

    By 2003 Chevron and Transocean set a record for deep water drilling discoveries reaching a depth in excess of 3,000 meters.

    Today deep water is defined as greater than 500 meters in depth and ultra-deep water is depths greater than 1,500 meters.

    From 2004 to 2008, 177 deep and ultra-deep water oil and natural gas fields prospects were identified.

    The explosion in April 2010 off the Louisiana coast may prove to slow down the exploration and exploitation of deep water oil and natural gas sources in favor of land-based oil extraction projects such as oil shale and bitumen although the environmental impact of both forms of extraction indicates that they are equally problematic.

  • Some additional insights on coal as a 21st century energy source:

    Coal today fuels almost 40% of all electricity generation worldwide. It remains the dirtiest energy source releasing mercury, sulfur, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Some of these pollutants are harmful to breathe. Others are major contributors to global warming.

    CCT or clean coal technology is focused on finding a way to make coal environmental acceptable. CCT focuses on reducing emissions and waste, and increasing the amount of energy produced per unit of coal. CCT aims at the entire coal cycle from mining to electrical generation, reducing greenhouse emissions throughout.

    CCT focuses on intensification, that is trying to increase thermal efficiency when burning coal to generate electricity. A one percent improvement in thermal efficiency can mean a two to three percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately intensification is a smokescreen for greenhouse gas reductions because of growing demand for coal-generated electricity.

    CCT also focuses on capturing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions during the coal burning process. Capture and storage is called sequestration and involves coal gasification technology. Coal gasification’s end product is the creation of “clean” CO2 for sequestration underground.

    CCT developers are actively pursuing R&D and have introduced a number of lower-cost, more efficient and environmentally compatible technologies intro electric utilities, steel mills, cement plants and other industries.

    The consequences of sequestration as a proven means of carbon capture remains undetermined. A single event in which captured CO2 escapes could be an environmental catastrophe equal to if not greater than the current Deepwater Horizon rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. CO2 release could cause massive damage to existing life in the area of the accident as well as negate any benefit gained from the initial greenhouse gas reduction.

  • the oil spill in mexico really affected the eco system around that area, it would take years to clean those mess ~

  • oil spills can really mess up the environment, i hope we can find a very good solution to control oil spills *`;