How Much Fossil Fuel is Left?

September 26, 2017 by Denis Pombriant

Nothing on Earth is available in an infinite supply; not oxygen, not gold, not fossil fuels. Nothing, and that’s especially true of the fossil fuels that we use for energy. Interestingly those fuels are also a great source of carbon compounds that serve as the starting materials for all sorts of manufactured items. Plastics come from fossil fuels as do many other polymers such as nylon and polyester, fertilizers are derived from them and so are herbicides and pesticides, as are explosives and dyes, and even some pharmaceuticals. The rubber in your car’s tires is a synthetic derived from petroleum.

Almost half of the petroleum we use never gets burned, it goes into making something and while we can develop alternative energy sources to power civilization, developing alternatives for the many starting compounds derived from fossil fuels is a much harder effort. If we were to run out of fossil fuels as raw materials life would look much different. So there’s another reason to preserve our stores of fossil fuels—they’re not fuels in the sense that we’ve understood them, they’re raw materials first and foremost and they’re diminishing.

How much oil is left?

This is a fair question, it’s logical and every citizen in a democracy should want to know and has a right to the answer. Oil giant BP’s 2014 annual report stated that the Earth has a 53-year supply of oil remaining in the ground (i.e. proven reserves) if extracted at current rates. 7 That’s 1.687 trillion barrels of crude—certainly a lot, but is it enough?

The thing to keep in mind about proven reserves is that we might know that that oil exists, but there’s no guarantee we can pump it out of the ground though oil companies have gotten increasingly better at this over the last 150+ years. But go back to the first sentence of this post, nothing on this planet is available in an infinite supply. If supply is not infinite, then at some point it can be used up. More importantly as it gets used up and as demand increases we can expect normal supply and demand mechanisms to raise prices.

The BP report also said, “Nobody knows or can know how much oil exists under the earth’s surface or how much it will be possible to produce in the future.” The web page with this information doesn’t exist any more except in archives, but the points are still valid. To be more explicit, there really is a limited, though large, amount of oil on Earth but we’ve literally burned through most of it. What’s the next energy play after oil?

A 2013 article in The Guardian states, “Official data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), US Energy Information Administration (EIA), International Monetary Fund (IMF), among other sources, showed that conventional oil [production] had most likely peaked around 2008.” The article quotes Dr. Richard G. Miller, who worked for BP from 1985 until retiring in 2008, saying, “We need new production equal to a new Saudi Arabia every 3 to 4 years to maintain and grow supply. . . .New discoveries have not matched consumption since 1986. We are drawing down on our reserves, even though reserves are apparently climbing every year. Reserves are growing due to better technology in old fields, raising the amount we can recover—but production is still falling at 4.1% p.a. [per annum].”

If you combine these expert statements, it would seem prudent to begin aggressively searching for the energy that will power civilization for our descendants later in this century. It would also seem prudent to try to preserve as much of our hydrocarbon legacy as possible to ensure we have adequate supplies of raw materials for numerous industrial processes well into the future.

Finally, there’s one more reason to use much, much less petroleum and other fossil fuels and to do it as soon as possible.

Air travel.

Think about it, one of the very few places where we can’t replace fossil fuels with electricity is air travel. Sure, we have all seen little drone aircraft running with 4 or 6 propellers driven by electric motors and they are magnificent. But propellers can only turn so fast and aircraft using them can only fly so fast. Passenger jets routinely operate at over 30,000 feet and at speeds near or over 500 mph. Propeller driven aircraft don’t do this.

A jet engine is like a rocket motor; it relies on expanding combustion gasses to push an aircraft forward. The difference between a rocket and a jet is that a rocket carries its own oxidizer along with fuel so that it can operate in the vacuum of space while a jet compresses air from the environment using it to combust fuel.

You might ask why not just replace jets with rockets and there are several reasons. Rockets are all or nothing propositions, they’re either on or off and if they’re on they’re developing a lot of thrust and people inside the rocket’s payload area experience G-forces several times gravity. That’s not exactly good for granny. But also, rockets don’t do holding patterns when they need to come down, they need to come down. Lastly, rocket fuel is most often made from petroleum.

Jet fuel is, in our estimate, one of the few things that can’t be replaced by converting to electricity. So if you combine jet fuel with things like synthetic rubber, plastics, and many other man made things that start with petroleum you can better understand why preserving fossil fuels is a more urgent thing than many people realize.

Final thought, this post didn’t have to mention that burning as much fossil fuel as we do is also bad for the environment and for the climate. Carbon’s place in our civilization is far bigger than our reliance on it as a fuel source and another great reason to quit burning it.


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