Skip to Main Content

The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Natural Resources (November 2018): Fossil Fuel Resources

By Brian Shmaefsky

Fossil Fuel Resources

A fossil fuel is defined as a natural energy source formed from the remains of ancient living organisms. Fossil fuels are typically categorized into coal, oil, and natural gas; these resources also fall into a broader category: energy sources. In order to understand our modern dependence on fossil fuels, we must also consider the history of energy sources. In Energy and Civilization, Vaclav Smil provides a detailed account of the evolution of energy sources from human power to fossil fuel power.

Today, fossil fuels allow us to produce heat, run a motor, and power a generator. In antiquity, heat production was the main purpose for harnessing energy from natural resources. Most of the ancient world relied on biomass fuels for its energy needs (e.g., wood, grass, dried animal dung). Some surface fossil fuel resources existed—ancient peat bogs, surface level soft coals, and tar pits formed by underground crude oil leaks—but humans used these resources sparingly.

Sergio Capareda’s Introduction to Biomass Energy Conversions notes that biomass sources have far lower energy capacity than fossil fuels; in fact, kilogram for kilogram, the average energy produced by biomass is about one third that of fossil fuels. But since heat and light production do not require a high energy output, biomass fuels and the few fossil fuels in use were plentiful and served the purposes of day-to-day living for most societies in ancient times.

When it came to labor or transportation in this period, humans were the only energy source capable of doing work and operating simple machines and tools. The efforts of laborers could be estimated as a cost-efficiency unit (“manpower”) similar to the energy efficiency measurements of fossil fuels. The domestication of animals for labor likely occurred around 4000 BC. Oxen were hitched to drag sledges and plows, followed a few centuries later by horses. Water power was another pre-fossil fuel source of energy. The history of water as an alternative to animal and human power is covered in Naomi McCullough’s The Technology of the Mesopotamians and Ian Morris’s Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels. Dick Teresi discusses other ancient energy technologies in Lost Discoveries. As with animal power, water remains a viable energy source for running motors and generators in spite of geographical limitations and competition from other fuel sources, as discussed in Hydroelectric Energy, by Bikash Pandey and Ajoy Karki.

The earliest uses of subsurface coal and underground crude oil occurred in China around 1500 BCE as described in Barbara Freese’s Coal: A Human History. Approximately 1,000 years later, the Chinese were the first to build high temperature coal furnaces forging alloys. However, Peter Stearns’s Industrial Revolution in World History observes that it was not until the European Industrial Revolution that fossil fuels became a valuable worldwide commodity. The European Industrial Revolution led to an urgent demand for coal. 

What was so special about the subsurface coal that supported the European Industrial Revolution? As Larry Thomas describes in Coal Geology, deeper coals are formed under higher pressures and temperatures than surface coals. These conditions, produced by the weight of the rock and soil covering the coal, cause the coal to become drier and higher in carbon content. Dry coals, such as subbituminous, bituminous, and anthracite, produce far more heat than do biomass fuels, peat, and lignite coals. Insufficient heat production was the bane of many budding industries in the seveneenth and eighteenth centuries, including the running of revolutionary new steam machinery. Experiments with drier coals solved the heat problem and made the search for the deeply located coals a worthwhile effort. Deep shaft mining techniques developed in the eighteenth century subsequently enabled the efficient extraction of deep coal reserves.

What followed was a technology explosion. The increased availability of dry coal brought about by shaft mining encouraged the development of higher power machinery. The greatest benefit of the large supply of hard coal was the advent of the steam engine, as Henry Dickinson explains in A Short History of the Steam Engine. Jan De Vries goes on to reveal, in European Urbanization: 1500–1800, that steam engines played a critical role in the industrialization and subsequent urbanization of regions near the coal reserves. In Networks of Power, Thomas Hughes describes a pivotal event for dry coal: in 1882, the Edison Electric Light Station used a coal-fire steam generator to produce the first publically available electricity. Today, the World Bank ( estimates that over 41 percent of electricity produced globally is generated by coal-fired power plants.

Steel smelting, cement, and plaster manufacturing were also improved by the use of dry coal. Higher smelting temperatures provided the means to increase the strength of steel. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel and Brooke Stoddard in Steel: From Mine to Mill, the Metal That Made America emphasize how strengthened steel made up the critical infrastructure for rapid urbanization and transportation that facilitated industrialization. But how did cement and plaster manufacturing benefit from dry coal? Cement and plaster are both made from gypsum rock; rapid urbanization caused skyrocketing demand for the gypsum that went into plaster and cement construction materials, as R. W. Stone discusses in Gypsum Products. Engineers discovered that adding coal ash waste (from burning coal) reduced the need for gypsum.

Unlike dry coal, crude oil (or petroleum) was not initially welcomed as a potential fuel for the industrial era; petroleum’s beginnings are discussed in William Brice’s Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry. In 1859, Edwin Drake built the first oil well and produced kerosene from the crude oil he extracted. The kerosene proved useful and safe for lighting, but the waste products from the distillation process, including gasoline, were considered useless.

It took the invention of the automobile in 1892 to find a lucrative use for petroleum, and the value of crude oil as a fossil fuel resource grew rapidly with the improvement of distillation products. Today, these distillation products include asphalt, diesel fuel, jet fuels, liquefied gases, motor oil, plastics, and dozens of industrial chemicals.

According to John Hrastar in Liquid Natural Gas in the United States, natural gas had an earlier start than crude oil as a valuable fossil fuel resource. The first recorded use of natural gas was in China around 500 BCE. Bamboo pipes were set in the ground to collect gas and funnel it to boilers and gas lamps. Centuries later in 1821, natural gas found a purpose in the technological age when the first fruitful natural gas well was drilled in New York. The Fredonia Gas Light Company used the well to provide a consistent and inexpensive supply of natural gas for street lighting and later for heating. Today, natural gas does not rival the utility of coal and gasoline in motors and generators. However, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (, natural gas is considered one of the primary global energy sources.

Works Cited