We’ve all heard of fossil fuels, “the product of dead dinosaurs” “the culprits responsible for the greenhouse effect and global warming”, but how much do we really know about its origins and how it came to have such a central role in our daily lives. In this essay, I endeavor to deepen your knowledge of the discovery and rise in population of these resources.
So, what exactly are fossil fuels? Well, according to the theory of fossil fuel formation developed by the Russian scientist, Mikhail Lomonosov, fossil fuels are products of the carboniferous age (which essentially is a period during which there were large areas of swamps, huge trees, ferns, and algae that covered land) from the remains of dead plants and animals which were subjected to extremely high temperatures and pressures. According to Lomonosov, the remains of these living organisms sank to the bottom of various waterbodies such as swamps, lakes, seas and so on millions of years ago and over time they combined with other materials such as clay, mud, and silt. This combination resulted in the formation peat layers over the course of time. This coupled with subsequent sedimentation of rocks over these layers of peat resulted in an increased pressure over these dead organisms thereby contributing to the breakdown of the organic matter into molecules of hydrocarbons and carbons, and thereby fossil fuels.
There are three main types of fossil fuels: Coal, natural gas and oil. Although they were formed under similar conditions their development isn’t exactly identical. Coal, for instance, was formed through the process of coalification which occurs in four stages. In stage one, peat layers are formed. In the second stage, the coal matures into lignite. Thirdly, it develops into sub-bituminous and bituminous coal which is the coal most commonly used today in electricity generation. Finally, the bituminous coal then develops into anthracite which basically has the highest carbon content and the fewest impurities.
Now, as for oil, oil was presumably formed about 300 million years ago from dead and decomposed diatoms (a major group of microalgae, found in various waterways and soils all over the globe). These dead diatoms were then deposited on the seabed and converted to oil under the pressure of sediments and rocks. Like oil, natural gas was formed from decomposed organic matter (more specifically marine microorganisms) that were deposited over the past 550 million years.
While fossil fuels have been around for millions of years, they are recorded to have first appeared at around 500 B.C when the Chinese began using fossil fuels for domestic purposes. They would construct bamboo “pipelines” to transport gas that seeped from the ground and use it to boil sea water to make it drinkable. In 1000 B.C., natural gas which was seeping through the earth and creating a flame was used by the Oracle at Delphi, on Mount Parnassus in Greece, to convince people that she was getting vision of the future from God. Around 5000 to 6000 years ago, the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians used oil for waterproofing their boats, lubricating their chariot wheels, as adhesives and even as an ingredient in mummification.
Today rather than waiting on these materials to surface naturally, we gain access to fossil fuels by two main methods: mining and drilling. Mining is used to extract solid fossil fuels, such as coal, by digging, scraping, and exposing the buried resources while drilling methods help in the extraction of liquid or gaseous fossil fuels that can be forced to flow to the surface, such as oil and natural gas. When it comes to extracting coal, there are two basic classes of mining: mining at the Earth’s surface and mining underground. Surface mining is the most popular, however, since it is less expensive, minimize the number of complications in terms of using electricity to aid in extracting the material and for surface mining it’s easier to get access to water for mineral processing, dust suppression etc. Surface mining, overall, is safer than mining underground since when mining underground there may be poisonous or explosive gases present in the ground that miners may be exposed to, there is the likelihood of the caves collapsing and so on. Because of its many advantages, surface mining accounts for two thirds of the world’s solid minerals.
There are 5 main types of surface mining, these mining categories are: strip mining, open-pit mining, mountaintop removal, dredging and high wall mining but overall, all these methods of surface mining are essentially for removing the waste material above the desired resource. For strip, open-pit, and mountaintop removal mining, the land above the resource being cleared of all obstructive vegetation such as trees and bushes, usually by using bulldozers. Holes are then drilled into the rocks above the coal. Explosives are then placed into these holes in order to break up the rock. The explosions result in the coal being broken up as well into chunks capable of being transported.
Dredging is essentially underwater excavation. In dredging materials are dug or scraped from the bed of waterbodies and are collected. In highwall mining, continuous mining machines are utilized. As these machines go into the coal seam along the surface mine highwall (“the unexcavated face of exposed overburden and coal in a surface mine”) they cut the coal and directs the pieces to specialized conveyor cars which transport the coal to the surface. When the maximum depth at which coal can be extracted is reached, the system is moved to another entry point somewhere “along the outcrop”. To gain access to oil and natural gas drilling has to be done on land or at sea. One method of extracting them is through hydraulic fracturing (commonly called fracking). This is a process in which a liquid is injected at high pressure into subterranean rocks, in order to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas. Unlike oil, natural gas tends to be within the rock itself, so the rock must be broken in order to extract it. Oil is usually found “in underground reservoirs; in the cracks, crevices, and pores of sedimentary rock; or in tar sands near the earth’s surface”. After the oil is extracted, it is then transported to refineries “…via supertanker, train, truck, or pipeline…” where they are converted into other fuels such as gasoline, kerosene, propane etc.
Most of these extraction process that occur, of course take place in the Middle East, as you may have guessed. Oil specifically, though it is found all over the world, almost 63% of the natural oil reserves are concentrated in the Middle East Countries. Saudi Arabia alone has more than 260 billion barrels of proven reserves, Iran has 136 billion, Iraq and Kuwait together nearly 120 billion. Combined, Middle Eastern reserves account for about forty percent of the world’s known oil. Around 100 million years ago there was an ancient ocean that girded the equator in the Cretaceous period some 100 million years ago known as the Tethys Ocean. Remnants of this ancient ocean include the Aral, Black, Caspian and Mediterranean Seas. The rivers feeding this ancient ocean saturated it with nutrients, giving rise to massive numbers of microscopic animals that were soon pressure cooked into oil. Eventually, the Tethys ocean receded giving rise to the sandy Middle East that we all know today.
Until the mid 1940s, the U.S. alone produced around 65 percent of the world’s oil until the mega oil field discoveries in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the 1930s and 1940s which laid the foundation for the dominance of the Middle East’s oil. It’s not surprising that although the Middle East is rightfully credited with having the most oil, the U.S. is credited for ushering in by the first successful oil wells drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859. In the 19th century, petroleum was used to replace whale oil, used in lamps to light people’s homes, however, it was the advent of the motor car at the beginning of the 20th century assured the success of oil. The First World War further stimulated the demand for oil as ships were modified to use oil instead of coal and production of planes and tanks fueled by oil increased. The rise of natural gas began in Paris (1801), London (1807), and Baltimore (1816) natural gas lit streets (9), but it was the invention of Bunsen burner, which fine-tuned mixing gas and air, in 1885 that allowed for gas to be used for cooking and heating, kickstarting the trend in natural gas production.
In the late 1960s with the introduction of Liquid Natural Gas cooling technologies in Algeria that gas could be shipped around the world, opening up prospects for later production in Qatar and Australia and feeding markets in Europe, China, Japan and Asia. Following these events natural gas production reached 988 billion cubic metres (bcm) in 1970 and more than tripled to 3,551 bcm in 2016,
Following these events fossil fuels were being mass produced and consumed globally. Dut it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that they really grabbed the world’s attention. Until the industrial revolution, water was the main source of power. But then in the mid 1700s when improvements were made to the steam engine by Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, the prospects for coal completely shifted since a coal powered steam engine could do the work of dozens of horses, while at the same time being cheaper to operate. Essentially, coal became a reliable source of energy used for large-scale mass production, was used to speed up travel while simultaneously reducing transport costs and boosting international trade as well. These advantages that coal brought to the table along with successive innovations paved the way for the fossil fuel boom that has been going on for almost two centuries now.
Today, fossil fuels have become an aspect of our society which we have come to heavily rely on. Fossil fuels are found in about 96 percent of the items we use each day from our deodorant to our eyeglasses. It’s evident that fossil fuels have planted their roots in our lives and have become the world’s dominant energy source, making up 82 percent of the global energy supply. These energy sources have powered, and continue to power, the industrialization of nations. They have a variety of applications, from electricity production to transport fuel. They are necessary for the production of a variety of common products, such as paints, detergents, plastics, cosmetics, medicines etc.
The major producers of coal include the Asia Pacific region, Europe, Eurasia and North America. The Asia Pacific region has seen the most growth in global coal production over the past 30 years while Europe, Eurasia and North America’s coal production has declined over the same period. Asia Pacific now produces over 70 percent of coal in contrast to 25 percent in 1981. Overall, when comparing regional coal production from 1981-2016, we see that global coal production has more than doubled with production peaking in 2013-2014. Following these years, there’s been a subsequent decline in production.
When it comes to coal consumption, there isn’t a significant difference between the statistics for coal production and consumption. Asia Pacific is the major consumer of coal, accounting for approximately 75 percent of global coal consumption. Comparing this data to that of its coal production it can be deduced that it’s a net importer of coal. Conversely, Africa consumes only 2.5 percent, less than 4 percent of its production, which implies that it’s a net exporter of coal. Together, Europe, Eurasia and North America’s coal consumption account for less than 25 percent.
When examining oil, the disparities in production aren’t as significant as seen with coal. Over the past 50 years, the numbers have remained quite constant with Europe and Eurasia and North America accounting for roughly 20 percent of total oil production, Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean producing 8-9 percent, and the Middle East dominating. In 1973-1974, there was an oil by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), in 1979 there was another decline in oil production following the Iranian Revolution and in the 1980s when there was an excess of crude oil due to low demand.
Despite this, however, oil production has more than doubled over the past 50 years. Comparatively, over the last 50 years, there’s been a decline in Europe, Eurasia, and North America’s share of global oil consumption while the other regions’ share, Asia Pacific for example, has more than more than tripled from 1965-2016. Although the Middle East produces more than 30 percent of the world’s oil, it’s a net exporter as it consumes only about 10 percent of oil. In contrast, the Asia Pacific region produces about 8-9 percent, but consumes 32 percent. Thereby making itself a net importer.
Looking at the graph for natural gas production we see that in the 1970s, North America, Europe and Eurasia dominated in natural gas production, accounting for over 95 percent collectively. Despite this, however, this region has seen a significant decline of about 55 percent while the Middle East accounts for 18 percent, Asia Pacific 16 percent, Latin America 6 percent and Africa 5 percent. Over the past 40-50, natural gas production has more than tripled. North America, Europe and Eurasia dominated in the 1960-1970s, during the industrial revolution, when natural gas consumption greatly increased all over the world. Again, we see the contrast between the Middle East and the Asia Pacific region, as the Middle East consumes less than it produces, making it a net gas exporter while the Asia Pacific region consumes a little more than it produces, making it a net gas importer.
As mentioned earlier, coal was the first fossil fuel to rise in popularity among the masses during the Industrial Revolution. Upon until the 1860s coal reigned as the fuel of choice until crude oil emerged and was very high in demand. Soon after, in the 1880-1890s, natural gas followed suit. Between 1900 and 2000, coal production decreased by approximately 66 percent. Presently, crude oil has become the primary energy source accounting for about 39 percent of fossil energy while natural gas follows closely behind with 28 percent.
The resources have undoubtedly served us well over the years, but all things have their limit. Today we are seeing the end of the fossil fuel era draw neigh. These non-renewable resources are forecasted to be depleted by the end of the century. More specifically, oil will be gone in the next 50 years, natural gas will follow about two years after, and coal is expected to become outlast them all, as it has roughly 114 years left.
These resources aren’t gone yet, however. Today they are present in large amounts over the world. For coal, the largest reserves are located across North America, Asia and Oceania. The United States has around 240 billion tonnes, making it the country with the largest coal reserves. Russia, China, Australia, India and South Africa also have a sizeable amount of coal. When we look at oil, we see that the Middle East has the most in their oil reserves, as expected. Among the countries, however, Venezuela has the most oils in reserve – about 300 billion barrels. Again, Russia, Canada, the United States, and China have an abundance of oil as well. Africa also has a comparatively high amount of oil reserves in countries like Libya, Algeria, Nigeria and Angola.
For oil, Iran has the most oil reserved, approximately 34 trillion cubic metres, followed by Russia with 32 trillion cubic metres and Turkmenistan with 17.5 trillion cubic metres. The Middle East also has a large amount of natural gas. Unsurprisingly, the United States, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia also have rich oil reserves. Overall, we see that just as seen in their projected depletion estimates, the distribution of oil and natural gas are quite similar while coal’s is noticeably different.
A lot of research and studies have been directed towards reducing the dependence on fossil fuels by developing alternative sources of renewable energy, like solar energy, biomass, wind energy, and hydropower. Fossil fuels are being used much faster than they can be generated. Moreover, environmental issues have been taken quite seriously by many countries, and so, more importance is given in developing clean and renewable energy sources.
The absence of a suitable replacement for aviation oil, combined with increasing passenger numbers and flights, demand for oil from this sector is forecast to increase despite the recent launch of quieter and more fuel-efficient engines. When drivers forsake their petrol car then, like coal, oil will meet its peak demand. However, increasing world population and industrialization in India and perhaps Africa could forestall the end of the global fossil fuel age for some decades.