One Finite Planet

We can’t run out of fossil fuels.

Current Update: April 10th, 2021

First Published:

Table of Contents

In the 1970s, there were the 'Oil Crises'. Then, and at other times it has been suggested that one key reason for moving to renewables, is that as there is only a finite supply of fossil fuels which will come to an end one day. But when?

There is also a mistaken belief that 'peak oil' projections are a result of supplies of fossil fuels becoming exhausted.

Whether you are worried oil supplies will run out, or are hoping oil supplies will run out, although prices may rise, they won’t run out. In fact, we can’t possibly use all fossil fuel.

Carbon Capture and Storage: The origin of fossil fuel.

Planets undergo changes. Mars once had liquid water on the surface, but is now around -63°C at the equator, and too cold for liquid water. The temperature on Venus was once like a spring day on Earth, but now the surface is 467°C ( 872°F). The Earth once had an atmosphere with no Oxygen, and 500x more Carbon Dioxide (CO2) than now. More CO2 than it now has Oxygen.

All that 500x more CO2, was extracted from the air by plant live over billions of year, in a huge, and really long process of carbon capture and storage.

As explained in Earth, The Sun and CO2, when the Earth was very young, the sun was cooler, and we had an atmosphere rich in CO2 (around 80% initially), was which as once needed as a second heater , in order for the Earth to be warm enough for life to exist.

But over billions of years, plants converted almost all of the CO2 into O2 through photosynthesis.

CO2 + water + sunlight ->  O2 + Sugar/Carbohydrate/Oil/Fat

Now there is less than 0.05% CO2 left, and almost 20% of the atmosphere is Oxygen. At first it may seem that putting some of the CO2 back in the air sounds like a good idea, as it would help plants. But, as the Sun now outputs 45% more heat than it did originally, and we can no longer stand the heat if the ‘second heater‘ back, was back at the original levels.

Oxygen in the air and fossil fuel under the ground, result from natures own ‘carbon capture and storage’ program, that has so far managed to keep the Earth at an almost constant temperature, unlike our neighbours Venus and Mars.

Now that the Sun is much hotter, we would fry if the atmosphere was still as rich with CO2 as it was billions or even millions of years ago.

The origin of fossil fuel, is the same process that put the oxygen into the atmosphere, and kept the temperature stable in the face of ever increasing heat from the Sun: photosynthesis.

O2: How do we know how much fossil fuel exists?

The answer is in the oxygen in the air.

The evidence of fossil fuel is oxygen in the air. Nature produce fossil fuel through a process that produced oxygen which went into the the air, and fossil fuel buried under ground. The fossil fuel is in the ground, and can be hard to detect, but the oxygen (O2) is in the air and is easy to detect.

Since there was no oxygen in the air before cyanobacteria and more recently evolved plants started photosynthesis, all the oxygen was produced in parallel with fossil fuels. The amount of oxygen tells us how much plant material has been buried, and is now in the form of fossil fuels. Note that all buried plant material works as fossil fuel, because all material based on Carbon, is from CO2 that has had the Oxygen extracted, will all burn, in air to join back with Oxygen, and produce energy as a result. Taking Oxygen out requires energy which is stored, putting the oxygen back, releases that stored energy. While there is Oxygen in the air, there is the stuff the oxygen was removed from somewhere. Either in current living, burnable plants, or as burnable fossil fuel.

Nasa Climate Data: CO2 levels

One measure of how much fossil fuel we have used, is to calculate the amount of CO2 that has been put back into the air, by burning fossil fuel. Looking at the data from Nasa, it seems clear that we have added 100 parts per million to CO2 levels.

100 parts per million? That is 0.01%!

On that evidence, we have barely scraped the surface on the fossil fuel that has to be down there somewhere.

At this rate of burning fossil fuel, we could continue burning fuel at that average rate since 1950 (70 years), for 100x longer before producing just 1% of CO2. 100x 70 years is 7,000 years.

But perhaps not all the fossil fuel extracted has been converted into CO2?

What to we do with fossil fuel? Mostly, we burn it. Some goes into plastic, but in 2012 that was around 4%, so it is safe to say it is still less than 10% even if the percentage has skyrocketed since that data. All ‘fuels’ also have other uses, natural gas can be used in fertilizers, coal as coking coal .

I did some further hunting and found data such as this graph for coal, and at the moment, the best available data I have is that 75% or more of all fossil fuel is used as, ‘fuel’. ‘Fuel’ by definition is for fossil type fuels, for generation of heat or power by burning.

Given there was originally around 25% more CO2 than there now is O2, if we could extract all the carbon naturally sequestrated as fossil fuel, we could come close to getting rid of all that pesky Oxygen. While there is still free Oxygen, there is still more fossil fuel.

Why it is not possible to ‘run out’ of fossil fuel.

All three of the following apply:

  1. There is so much fossil fuel under the ground it would take many centuries.
  2. After the ‘low hanging fruit’, the easiest to find and mine, pricing will be uncompetitive.
  3. The environment would collapse well before we can try to use all fossil fuel.

There is so much fossil fuel under the ground it would take many centuries to use it all.

Bad news for those hoping we will use it all, and good news for those fearing we will run out, we have the Oxygen as evidence there is so much down there somewhere, the supply can easily last for over 1,000 years. Even the specific type of fossil fuel it is most often suggested will run out, oil, can last at least 100s of years. It is not like I am alone in coming to this conclusion, see here, here, here and here.

After the ‘low hanging fruit’, the easiest to find and mine, pricing will be uncompetitive.

A more realistic scenario than running out, is that as the lost cost to find and extract fossil fuels become exhausted, fossil fuels could just become expensive. I expected this to be a realistic possibility, but when I checked the data, there is no evidence to suggest this ‘becomes too expensive’ is a realistic prospect. Certainly prices have multiplied by a factor of over 6x since the 1920s, but for comparison, prices for beer have increased at double that rate over the same period from 57c in the 1930s to $6.30 by the year 2000. On that basis, it seems more realistic to believe were are about to exhaust our supply of beer, than our supply of fossil fuels. Certainly there have been wild fluctuations in pricing, but these are more related to pricing by cartels and problems with supply due to conflicts than any inherent increase in price. Not only will the supply not run out, it will not become radically expensive either.

The environment would collapse well before we can try to use all fossil fuel.

Graph of reconstructed temperature (blue), CO2 (green), and dust (red) from the Vostok Station ice core for the past 420,000 years: Wikipedia. Note the correlation between CO2 and temperature.

Another key reason we cannot exhaust the supply, is that the appetite to continue using fossil fuels will become limited by the impact of using those fuels. The graphs of CO2 levels tell a key story, and the link between CO2 levels and temperature has been established and proven to correlate over billions of year, not just the 800,000 years of the graph to the left.

Consider the data from the Nasa record of CO2 levels, and what would happen if the trend after 1950, were to continue.

Nasa Climate Data: CO2 levels

While there can be debate about the consequences in the trend continuing for 10, 20, 30 or even 50 years, it seems inevitable for even the most ‘pro-fossil fuel estimates’ that the consequences within 100 years would bring an end to our current society.

So What is/was Peak Oil?

There are actually three meanings of the term ‘peak oil’.

  1. Global Peal Oil production: Peak oil in global terms referring to peak production of oil as expanded demand for energy is countered by alternative energy sources.
  2. Local Peak Oil: Production for a specific Oil Field or area of Oil Production.
  3. Debunked ‘Peak Oil’: The suggestion that all supply of oil will run out.

Global Peal Oil production: Decline in Production due to fall in demand.

This is the peak oil as described in full on the Wikipedia page ‘Peak Oil‘. In quick summary, it is predicted that increased global demands for energy, will at some point be more than offset by a move from oil to alternative energy sources, resulting in the start of a decline in oil production. Forecasts for the date of this occurring range from 2019, with production level not recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, through to at the latest 2050.

Note this a peak predicted as a decline in demand, not a decline in supply.

Local Peak Oil: Production for a specific Oil Field or area of Oil Production.

While globally there will be more oil for centuries, individual oil fields can ‘run dry’. This means ‘peak oil’ for an individual oil field or area of several oil fields could have already occurred. Prior to searching, I suspected the USA may have already reached peak oil, and it turns out that if I checked in the year 2000, the graph at that time would have suggested the USA reached peak Oil around 1970, and it would seem that some oil fields had reached peak oil at that time, but then around 2008 things started to increase again, accelerating significantly in 2012. The data from the US seems to confirm: there is more down there than we know at any one point of time.

Debunked ‘Peak Oil’: The suggestion that all supply of oil will run out.

Many people are under the impression we are in danger of running out of oil globally, but every prediction so far has been debunked, and generally geologists and fossil fuel experts, even those who once made predictions, no longer see this as realistic. Now it is the more the uninformed public who have been left with a false impression.

Certainly there have been time supply has be threatened that can make the risk of running out at least temporarily very real, and the USA, the largest consumer of oil, has does feel vulnerable due to reliance on imported oil, even though that dependence is now decreasing.

Years earlier, in 1956, geologist M. King Hubbert at Shell Oil Company (and later at the U.S. Geological Survey) predicted that oil production in the lower 48 U.S. states would peak sometime around 1970.

Though his comments generated much controversy, he was later vindicated when institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences and the Energy Information Agency (EIA) confirmed that his now-famous bell curve predicting the 1970 peak was correct, despite much rosier predictions made by industry and government analysts.

‘Hubbert got a lot of notoriety in his lifetime for correctly predicting U.S. oil would peak in 1970,” said Alan Carroll, a geologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “Geofuels: Energy and Earth” (Cambridge University Press, 2015). “That same logic was extended to world oil production, and there have been many predictions that global production will reach a peak, none of which have happened yet,” Carroll said.

Peak Oil: Theory or Myth?

Note Hubbert’s original prediction, which originally appeared correct, has now been proven wrong with US oil production back above 1970s levels.

Fossil fuels will not ‘run out’, but they are likely to become obsolete.

The final word on peak oil may belong to Campbell, who was among the first to foresee its arrival: “The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone, but because bronze and iron proved to be better substitutes,” he wrote in 2001. “Firewood gave way to coal; and coal to oil and gas, not because they ran out or went into short supply but because the substitutes were cheaper and more efficient. But now, oil production does reach a peak without sight of a preferred substitute.”

Peak Oil: Theory or Myth?

Peak Oil will happen, but the idea it will happen due to running out of oil is a myth.

Carbon Capture and Storage: An Alternative Carbon Source.

Almost all Carbon Capture and storage focuses on storage of Carbon as CO2, which is storing twice the amount of Oxygen as Carbon. There are three problems with capturing Carbon as CO2 :

There is an alternative to storing Carbon as CO2, and that is storing the Carbon and releasing the O2. The catch is that separating the Oxygen from the Carbon requires energy. However, it is possible to set up a plant that does exactly this in a remote location that has solar energy. To extracts CO2 from the air and using solar energy, all that is needed is literally ‘a plant’. It can even be done in the Ocean using kelp. The process is reliable, the storage has been proven to last of billions of years, and the CO2 cannot simply escape the storage.

Plus, such plants produce carbon for use in steel and other requirements, as a by-product at no extra cost.

The Continuing & Essential Role of ‘Fossil Fuels’.

Recall the chart on the uses of coal. Certainly the biggest use was electricity generation, but there is also cement and steel.

Oil is used for lubrication, plastics, asphalt, petrochemicals etc.

Just as we no longer associate horses with transport, we will stop thinking of coal, oil and gas as fuel, so the term fossil fuel will become obsolete, because coal, oil and fossil fuel based gases will stop being considered fuels. The use that will stop, is as ‘fuel’, because that is the use that disrupts the Earths thermostat. We need a new name…”fossil substances?”, as we have not run out of uses, and we do we need to run out of uses, we just need to stop burning them.

Conclusion: an end to coal, oil and gas as fuel, but not quite yet.

We are in the process of moving on from the fossil fuel age, but we are not there yet.

When we moved on from the age of the horse as transport, it did not mean the end of the horse, and the end of their use as fuel, when it does come, will not mean the end of coal/oil/gas for other uses. However, as with horses, there the change will mean they become less significant. This reduction of importance will, as is generally predicted, bring about ‘peak oil’, but it will not be as a result of us running out of fossil fuels.

Just as we no longer associate horses with transport, we will stop thinking of coal, oil and gas as fuel, so the term fossil fuel will become obsolete.

This conclusion very much builds on the words from petroleum geologist Colin Campbell, a founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), once estimated that peak oil had occurred around 2010, but his views have shifted somewhat, as new data have become available (and as was already quoted above):

“The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone, but because bronze and iron proved to be better substitutes,” he wrote in 2001. “Firewood gave way to coal; and coal to oil and gas, not because they ran out or went into short supply but because the substitutes were cheaper and more efficient. But now, oil production does reach a peak without sight of a preferred substitute.”

Peak Oil: Theory or Myth?

That quote was 2001, and what must now be added, is that for oil, is there are two preferred partial substitutes are now well established for the use of oil as fuel.

However, Solar and Wind are energy supplies, but not stored energy supplies like coal, oil and gas. To fully replace oil, coal and gas as fuel, you need stored energy, and that is an exploration to be posted within the next few days.

Updates.

  • 2021 April 10: Spelling, typos.

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