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

By Brian Shmaefsky

Exploitation of Fossil Fuel Resources

As discussed earlier, human use of fossil fuels began around 4000 BC and gradually increased as new technologies heightened demand. Fossil fuel use has skyrocketed since the 1950s despite efforts to develop alternative energy sources; fossil fuels currently generate 75 percent of the world’s energy. In Gusher of Lies, Robert Bryce is not surprised by this continued reliance on nonrenewable fuels, arguing for the impracticality of moving away from fossil fuels as a primary global energy source.

Energy analysts are well aware that fossil fuel resources are not evenly distributed across the globe. The US, China, and Russia contain about 40 percent of the world’s fossil fuels. According to Alex Epstein in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, access to abundant and affordable fossil fuels raises the standard of living and wealth of a nation. Fossil fuel depletions will disproportionately harm regions that have to import this resource in a supply and demand market.

Consideration of coal exploitation must start with peat. Coal and Peat Fires, edited by Glenn Stracher, Anupma Prakash, and Ellina Sokol, claims that peat—from which coal forms—was the first form of coal to be used as fuel. Peat forms in ancient swamps, which are found in specific climates; the USGS estimates that Finland, Ireland, Sweden, Germany, and Belarus contain most of the world’s peat reserves. Peat usage is currently low, but rising costs of other fuels are driving up peat usage for low-heat applications. Environmental regulations protecting the habitats where peat is harvested are a major factor impacting peat reserves. It is likely that unregulated peat reserves could be depleted by 2050.

Soft, low-density lignite coal played a major role in the development of early steam engines and generators. China and Germany lead the world on lignite formations. Australia, Russia, and the US also have large reserves. Because of its low energy output, it is not cost effective to import or export lignite over long distances, but it is still used in steam-electric power plants. Electricity generation makes up about 80 percent of lignite’s use. Lignite harvesting has hovered at low levels since 1985. According to many energy speculators, lignite coal use may decline after 2040; depletion is unlikely to occur before 2200.

Hotter-burning subbituminous and bituminous coals represent the most commonly used forms of coal, according to Philip Parker’s Bituminous Coal. The largest reserves of bituminous coals are presently found in the US, Russia, China, Australia, and India. The US has nearly 30 percent of the world’s reserves. Most bituminous coals are used to produce electricity. Bituminous coals are the primary source of electricity production in the US and are responsible for 37 percent of global electricity supplies. The World Coal Association (https://www.worldcoal.org/) predicts an 8.6 percent increase in global bituminous coal consumption in the next twenty years. The United States Energy Information Administration (https://www.eia.gov/) estimates that bituminous coals will last approximately 350 years.

Anthracite coal is hailed as a resource that shaped a nation in Gerald McKerns’ The Black Rock That Built America. The high energy output of anthracite coal makes it valuable for the smelting and fabrication industries, as well as for heating large buildings. The eastern US, China, India, Russia, and Australia have large anthracite reserves. The supply of anthracite, which was first used in the 1800s, is beginning to decline in several regions. Anthracite coal reserves are expected to become scarce starting in 2040.

The supply of crude oil is difficult to calculate because there are four types of reserves: oil shale, conventional oil, heavy oil, and extra heavy oil. Oil shale, which constitutes 30 percent of all crude oil, is most common in the US, China, Russia, and Brazil. Conventional oil, comprising another 30 percent of crude oil, is collected through traditional drilling methods and is most common in the Middle East, Russia, Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela. Heavy oil, which makes up 25 percent of crude oil, is abundant in South America and requires special drilling strategies to extract. Only 15 percent of the total oil reserves contain extra heavy oil, found in tar sands. This thick oil must be mined and is primarily found in Canada and Venezuela.

Due to their global importance, conventional oil reserves are under intense scrutiny. As discussed earlier, conventional oil provides the bulk of the petroleum, plastics, and many other products. Energy resource speculators already noticed a shift towards oil depletion in 2015. It is currently estimated that by 2030 the conventional oil reserves may reach a crisis level that will significantly impact every economy, as discussed in Peter Maass’s Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil. Based on current conventional oil extraction habits, the cost effective reserves may be depleted by 2100.

Oil shale, heavy oil, and extra heavy oil are called unconventional oils. Unconventional oils traditionally supplement the supplies of conventional oil. Oil companies and governments are investing in these oil supplies to compensate for the projected depletion of conventional oil reserves. The extraction rate of unconventional oils has grown exponentially since 2008. The future of unconventional oils is hotly debated. The US Department of Energy (https://www.energy.gov/) and many energy analysts estimate that unconventional oils will extend ample oil supplies past 2100. They predict that oil shale will be the major source of oil after 2050.

In The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas, Agnia Grigas observes that since the 1960s, natural gas has been increasingly utilized as a substitute for other fossil fuels. Natural gas is actually a mixture of methane, ethane, propane, butane, and contaminant gases as Saeid Mokhatab et al. explain in Handbook of Natural Gas Transmission and Processing. The US, Russia, China, Iran, Japan, and Canada are the greatest consumers of natural gas. In these countries, most natural gas is used for electricity generation, industrial operations, and residential energy. The transportation sector is gaining a greater share of natural gas consumption, particularly in commercial vehicles and mass transportation. Most natural gas a byproduct of coal and oil formation. Consequently, many reserves are associated with reserves of other fossil fuel. The largest natural gas reserves are present in North America, Asia, and Europe. Global supplies of natural gas are expected to dramatically decline around 2040 and approach depletion around 2200. 

Works Cited