Is The World Really Running Out of Fossil Fuels?

Since M. King Hubbert’s Oil Peak Theory emerged onto the Worlds list of things to worry about in 1956 many researchers, scientists, politicians, economists, and governments have all tried to examine and predict the rise and fall of fossil fuel consumption; specifically concerning humanity’s most beloved fuel of all: crude oil.

In the last decade many mainstream news articles and pressure groups have been highlighting and alerting the supposed seriousness of Peak Oil, and how quickly it could bring about an economic and political apocalypse. Firstly, one must establish what is meant by Oil Peak –- with regards to Hubbert’s original theory –- and how if said theory becomes fact it will affect countries and individuals.

According to an Ex-Total S.A leading petroleum engineer of 37 years, active member of  Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, and researcher into Oil Peak Theory Jean H. Laherrère the: “Hubbert peak theory is based on the observation that the amount of oil under the ground in any region is finite, therefore the rate of discovery which initially increases quickly must reach a maximum and decline.”

Most people would agree that fossil fuels, concerning predominately oil, coal, and gas, are indeed finite. However, disagreement arises when attempting to determine how much of the stuff the Earth really holds. My article will evaluate: (a) how many tonnes of fossil fuels do the known reserves contain and (b) how easily can they be extracted, concerning the prices and technologies known today.

Many scientific papers and studies have been published and commented on by the mainstream media in the past decade, with nearly all of them coming to the same conclusions, that is: Oil Peak is near and if we don’t do something now it will be too late. One such study was reported by CNN in early October of 2003. The article references the Swedish University of Uppsala’s research on the issue, stating: “The world’s oil reserves are up to 80 percent less than predicted…Oil production levels will hit their maximum soon after 2010 with gas supplies peaking not long afterwards, the Swedish geologists say… Alekett said that his team had examined data on oil and gas reserves from all over the world and we were ‘facing a very critical situation globally’.”

This article is supported by others in the mainstream, such as Anna Mudeva’s Reuters report in August of 2005, which highlights that humanity: “need[s] to use fossil fuels in a more efficient way to have some more time to develop these alternatives up to a level where the robustness is guaranteed and their price has come down… This could take decades for some technologies.” As well as the Independent’s rather alarming article in June 2007 which again, in a very similar manner to the other reports, states: “scientists led by the London-based Oil Depletion Analysis Centre, say that global production of oil is set to peak in the next four years before entering a steepening decline which will have massive consequences for the world economy and the way that we live our lives…Even when you factor in the more difficult to extract heavy oil, deep-sea reserves, polar regions and liquid taken from gas, the peak will come as soon as 2011.”

Now Oil Peak has once again come into the public mindset, as a leaked document from the WikiLeaks trove reveals that Washington was urged to: “take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom’s crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.“ Of course such reports are quite worrying and all seem to point towards the fact that: (a) Oil Peak (as of 2011) is here and (b) there are virtually no ready alternatives to fossil fuels –- specifically crude oil.

In relation to the other fossil fuels the article from the Independent actually highlighted rather well, that the mainstream rates of decline, concerning coal and natural gas extraction, are in fact not as worrying as oil levels, as it states: “There are still an estimated 909 billion tonnes of proven coal reserves worldwide, enough to last at least 155 years… natural gas fields in Siberia, Alaska and the Middle East should last 20 years longer than the world’s oil reserves.” However, what many of the mainstream media outlets fail to comment on is: (a) the different types of oil. I.e. other than crude (b) the other methods of extraction of fossil fuels in general and (c) the amount of ‘unconventional’ fossil fuel levels and extraction abilities of said ‘unconventional’ fossil fuels.

Firstly, I will for the benefit of the argument, accept that: (a) crude oil and crude oil reserves are running out worldwide I.e. Peak Oil has occurred, and (b) that the levels postulated by the scientists in the Independent article, are correct in their estimate of other fossil fuel levels. I.e. 155 years more coal reserves than oil and 20 years more gas reserves than oil. Taken these acceptances, of highly conservative and alarmist rates of fossil fuel decline, I shall now make the case that the majority of the consumed fossil fuels, (oil, coal and gas) are in fact nowhere near levels worth worrying about; especially in terms of over consumption and decline. This is predominately due to the different ways in which the main three fossil fuels of oil, coal and gas can be extracted.

As I previously noted not as many reports and articles comment on the multiple ‘types’ and ‘ways’ of fossil fuel extraction, for if they surely looked into such ‘types’ and ‘ways’ available to governments and businesses alike, then they would have to quite quickly conclude that the world is indeed not running out of fossil fuels — by any stretch of the imagination.

I will immediately eliminate coal as a fossil fuel that is: ‘running out at a rapid rate’ or is anywhere near ‘coal peak’ – mainly because all estimates, even the most severely conservative of proven reserves world-wide, indicate that at current rates of consumption, coal reserves would last for another 119 years. However, natural gas according to many scientists only a few years ago would follow ‘oil peak’ by only 20 years. Fortunately for us, new research and further discoveries have massively increased the Earth’s proven natural gas reserves. The good news came in 2009 and was reported by Daily Telegraph: “proven natural gas reserves around the world have risen to 1.2 trillion barrels of oil equivalent, enough for 60 years supply – and rising fast… This is almost unknown to the public, despite the efforts of Nick Grealy at “No Hot Air” who has been arguing for some time that Britain’s shale reserves could replace declining North Sea output… Rune Bjornson from Norway’s StatoilHydro said exploitable reserves are much greater than supposed just three years ago and may meet global gas needs for generations.”

This research was supported by a recent report by the International Energy Agency on world gas reserves earlier this year, which stated: “As technology has developed for extracting “unconventional gas” from the ground new estimates have been made about the how many years of gas usage remains at present usage levels. It is estimated at 250 years but may be revised upwards.” This was also supported by a report by Helen Knight published in the New Scientist magazine, which stated in June 2010 that: “It is estimated that there are also about 900 trillion cubic meters of “unconventional” gas such as shale gas, of which 180 trillion may be recoverable.” Even more recent estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s research of world-wide shale gas reserves states that adding the identified shale gas resources to other gas resources increases total world technically recoverable gas resources by over 40 percent to 22,600 trillion cubic feet. All of this evidence suggests that in the cases of coal and natural gas the worldwide proven reserves won’t ‘peak’ any time in the near future. In fact, they will be able to supply ample amounts of much-needed fossil fuels to quench predicted future energy growth for decades to come.

Finally (and most importantly) the argument for oil. Even if we accept that crude oil as of 2011 (or 2010) has already peaked, then there is still no need to panic. Many Oil Peak Theorists forget to mention, or even take note of, the other important ‘type’ of oil, the S that is: Shale. World oil shale deposits and recoverable barrels there of, have exploded in recent years. Interestingly, the planets leading consumer and importer of crude oil, the United States, leads the world in proven oil shale deposit, which is thought to have 1.5–2.6 trillion barrels. As of 2005 world resources of oil shale were put at 411 gigatons — enough to yield 2.8 to 3.3 trillion barrels (520 km3) of shale oil. This means that just the United State’s shale deposits constitute 62% of world resources; together, the United States, Russia and Brazil account for 86% of the world’s resources in terms of shale-oil content. Which means the United States in terms of oil shale, as of 2007 proven crude oil estimates exceed the world’s proven conventional oil reserves. It should be noted that oil shale can be used for producing middle-distillates such as kerosene, jet fuel, and diesel fuel. As well as a fuel for thermal power-plants, burning it (like coal) to drive steam turbines; some of these plants employ the resulting heat for district heating of homes and businesses. It is also worth noting that current oil shale estimates are still very conservative with exploration or analysis of several deposits still outstanding. Not to mention, that Professor Alan R. Carroll of University of Wisconsin–Madison regards the Upper Permian lacustrine oil-shale deposits of northwest China, absent from previous global oil shale assessments, as comparable in size to the U.S. Green River Formation at around 1.5 trillion barrels of recoverable shale oil.

So if we take the (very conservative) estimate of world oil shale deposits and recoverable oil there of. (Around 2.8 trillion barrels, see above sources^) Then combine this with current and predicted world oil consumption of (a rounded up) 31.3 billion barrels of current annual world consumption — 85 million per day. Add this to the International Energy Agency’s predicted future consumption rate of “113 million barrels [per day]“, or 41.25 billion barrels annually. Then combine these to achieve the average (85 million plus 113 million divided by two) over the next 20 years then you get a consumption rate average of: 99 million barrels per day or 36.14 billion barrels annually. Which means that conservative estimates of world oil shale deposits alone, could be recovered and consumed for at least 77.5 years before oil shale was anywhere near running out (2.8 trillion divided by 36.14 billion).

Thankfully, current technology extraction and development of oil shale has progressed swiftly in the last two decades, with many countries looking to further gain from oil shale production. As of 2008, industry uses oil shale in Brazil, China, Estonia and to some extent in Germany, Israel, and Russia. Oil shale serves for oil production in Estonia, Brazil, and China; for power generation in Estonia, China, Israel, and Germany; for cement production in Estonia, Germany, and China; and for use in chemical industries in China, Estonia, and Russia. This is especially true for Estonia, where Oil shale serves as the main fuel for power generation the oil-shale-fired Narva Power Plants accounted for 95% of electrical generation in 2005. (Estonian Energy in Figures 2005. Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications)

This is also not taking account of the data surrounding proven crude oil reserves, in relation to world average yearly consumption. Even if we ignore the CIA’s estimate of 1.392 trillion recoverable barrels of oil and instead accept BP’s conservative 2009 estimate of 1.33 trillion barrels of proven reserves and then add this to the recent WikiLeaks cable, which claims Saudi Arabian oil reserves have been overstated by 300 billion barrels (meaning conservative crude oil reserves could be at 1.03 trillion barrels) and then compare this with current and predicted world oil consumption in recent years of 31.3 billion barrels (See previous paragraph for sources^) of current annual consumption, and accept the estimate of the International Energy Agency that by 2030 oil consumption: “will rise to 113 million barrels [per day]“, (See previous paragraph for source^) meaning the average consumption, over the next 20 years, would be somewhere around 36.14 billion barrels annually (99 million barrels daily) then crude oil would will still last for at least another 28.5 years. (1.03 trillion divided by 36.14 billion) Even when taking into account further unknown growths in oil demand and consumption I.e a large scale war consuming or destroying say 18 billion barrels. It would still be unforeseeable that crude oil would run out before the year 2039.

All of this evidence shows that even if  ‘peak oil’  has already occurred, current fossil fuel extraction technology and fossil fuel reserves –- of unconventional means –- can quite comfortably supply the Worlds demand for many more decades to come. What is needed now is for businesses, governments and international organisations, to highlight and invest in the well known unconventional means of oil, coal, and gas production and extraction –- before reserves become so depleted, that they push the price of fuel and energy generation above tolerable levels, for individuals and governments alike.

Until then, one should sleep easy at night knowing that crude oil alone, even if the most severely conservative estimates are followed and no new reserves are ever discovered, will still comfortably power our world for at least another 28 years and then oil shale there after, will power further energy needs, for at least another 68 years. (2.8 trillion barrels divided by the 2030 estimated annual consumption of 41.25 billion) I hope until that time (around 2107 AD) the ‘Peak Oil Theorists’ will examine fully all the methods, ways, and types of oil extraction and production, before such alarmist and unfounded views are injected into the public domain.

Post Script:

For further research into the Peak Oil debate, I suggest reading up on one of my favourite leading commentators in the field of challenging Oil Peak Theory: Dr.Leonardo Maugeri. Some of his exceedingly interesting articles can be read herehere, and here.