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Dutchess_III's avatar

Can you guys help me find a valid link that can tell us about how long we have until fossil fuels run out?

Asked by Dutchess_III (28002 points ) February 22nd, 2014

I can’t seem to find anything decent.

Thanks.

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13 Answers

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I think fossil fuel energy models will go the way of the dinosaur far faster than the supply of such does (did).

CWOTUS's avatar

There are no such references- none of any value, anyway – because fossil fuels will never “run out”. They will become more expensive to find and recover. Petroleum deposits will be found and recovered from deeper oceans or in arctic / antarctic regions where extreme cold and icebergs will make the recovery far more expensive; shale oil recovery will always be expensive because it takes large amounts of energy to recover the fuels available, and as the world price for oil climbs, more and more marginal deposits (including from “depleted” oil fields which are now un-economic) will be more and more attractive, etc.

In addition, coal exists in vast quantities in the USA now, but less and less of it is mined because US coal-fired boilers are being shut down or converted to natural gas. That’s happening because natural gas is far more abundant (and therefore cheaper) due to fracking technology. On the other hand, coal is used with abandon in China and India. As those economies become richer, then it should be expected that their citizens will demand better air quality and pollution controls, too, which may lead to more impetus to improve the techology for “gasifying” coal – when natural gas becomes more expensive again.

So no matter how widely those deposits are used for now, we will never take “the last drop of oil” or “the last ton of coal” out of any current deposit. As energy prices increase due to increasing utilization of energy around the world, then deposits that were once given up as “worthless” will suddenly become valuable again. This could happen for centuries. Literally, centuries.

For this reason so-called “peak” graphs (which some believe attempt to predict “when the resource runs out”) are worthless, because they do not, in fact, show “depletion” of the resource so much as “when a better / cheaper / more convenient alternative was discovered”.

When better energy sources than fossil fuels are developed, then the “peak oil” and “peak coal” graphs will show drastic declines, which will not indicate that “we ran out”, but “we decided to use this other thing”. I expect that will be some form of fusion energy, and some form of methanol production from “worthless” plant stocks (not ethanol from high-value corn, sugar cane and other sugar crops) to produce always valuable liquid fuels for transport and remote locations, and fuel cells.

Dutchess_III's avatar

When you say “will never run out” you mean we will find alternative energy methods so we’ll quit mining for it.

I didn’t think to qualify my question with “If we continue to use fossil fuels at the rate we are TODAY, how long until we run out, or unable to access what is left.”

CWOTUS's avatar

Let’s assume that we didn’t have any knowledge of nuclear technology, and didn’t have the possibility of building nuclear power plants to generate electricity. That is, that we couldn’t use the current fission technology, and couldn’t look forward to developing fusion energy. We’ll assume that the best methods of large scale electric power generation were the “conventional” technologies that we have today: coal-, oil- or gas-fired boilers, gas turbine generators, diesel generators and the like, and hydro-electric generators.

In that case, we would be scrambling harder than we are to develop viable solar, wind, tidal and other forms of power production. Those things do work, after all, and can generate power. But let’s assume that even with our absent nuclear power options that development of those technologies had not improved beyond their present-day development and cost-per-kilowatt.

There would come a point where the incremental cost to obtain, refine and use the dregs of “exhausted” oil fields, deeper wells, farther offshore or in worse terrain would be higher than the cost of using the alternative technologies: wind, solar, tidal and more hydro. (We would certainly be damming a lot more rivers than we are!) At that point we would abandon the recovery effort to obtain that oil, coal and natural gas, and there would still be some in the ground.

I’m not going to make any specious claims about “magical new technology” that doesn’t yet exist, but the fact is that every second of every day the Sun puts out more energy than we even want to deal with. I’ve seen research on thunderstorms that show that every minute of every day there are some 1500 lightning strikes around the world and in the atmosphere. That’s a lot of untapped energy, too. As costs continue to rise to obtain the energy that we now use to maintain the status quo – and we never seem to be satisfied for long with the status quo, so our energy usage continues to increase – then more and more bright people are going to seek ways to tap some of the excess / unused energy that exists around us. The energy is demonstrably “there”; we just don’t know how to use it. (It’s even more plainly “there” than radiation is, since we can’t sense radiation except with instrumentation or by observing its secondary effects. Lightning strikes and heat from the Sun are plain to any observer.)

So, yes, I do think that we will discover and develop new sources of energy. The research these days into methanol production is particularly exciting. (Methanol can theoretically be generated from “any organic feedstock”, not necessarily the valuable crops such as corn, but perhaps corn stalks, grass clippings, leaves and tree bark, etc. – and coal itself.) If we don’t, then we’ll start damming those rivers, utilizing more solar and wind power – and being far more conservation-minded than we are, even to the point of living underground, perhaps. And having to be satisfied with the status quo, or shrinking our output of goods – and children.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, I agree with everything you said, but….it didn’t really answer my question!

But thanks.

CWOTUS's avatar

Sure I did: Either we will find new sources or we will start to live (and starve) underground, with small families and reduced output. Either way, there will still be oil in the ground that – at that point – is too remote, too deep or requires too much added energy to obtain and refine. There will always be oil in the ground, but if we don’t know how to get it out, or if it’s too expensive to “get”, then we won’t use it, no matter how much we need it.

I expect that normal human inventiveness – and free markets that reward such inventiveness – will avoid that, but there are no certainties.

Dutchess_III's avatar

No, the question was ”(If we were to continue at the current rate) how long until we run out of (usable) fossil fuels?” That requires a number.

CWOTUS's avatar

As I tried to explain in the first response, there are so many variables that there is no way to say “a number” that has any value. Because for one thing we won’t “run out” as long as someone finds it economical to get what appears to be “the last” oil, coal or gas out of the ground. Two decades. Two centuries. Two millennia. What value is there in “a number” that can’t be supported?

Every time the relative values of these fuels change, the mix at which we use them also changes. Right now the perceived cost of coal is so high, for example (in the USA) that we use relatively little of it, compared to what is available and compared to the other two fuels. At some point, assuming no new oil or gas fields are found and assuming no new recovery methods are developed (and it’s not wise to bet against either of those things!), then their costs will increase to the point where we decide that “cost of coal” is relatively equivalent, and we’ll build coal boilers at the rate that they’re being built in China and India. Note that I’ve deliberately kept nuclear out of the mix, but that’s a technology that is proven, even if unpalatable to many (especially to those who don’t understand it).

You can get some ideas about sources and uses of energy from Sankey diagrams such as these.

Again, you’ve posited that we use energy sources “at the same rate”, but that’s just not realistic, is it? If gasoline climbs to $10.00 per gallon (or an inflation-adjusted equivalent), don’t you think that we’d make accommodations – be forced into them, anyway – to adjust? Wouldn’t your driving habits change? That’s just one of the uncounted variables. I would imagine at that point that we’d be looking at things we don’t even imagine today: pedal-powered buses, anyone?

Dutchess_III's avatar

You’re thinking too much @CWOTUS! Let’s use our imagination here. Let’s say all the fossil fuel in and on the planet is in one place and accessible. Let’s say prices will never change and let’s say they never develop alternate technology. Let’s say we keep consuming it at the same rate we are today. How long?

I understand no one can really answer the question definitively, but we can take a stab at it!

Dutchess_III's avatar

Nice diagram btw. Thanks for posting it.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Hey, on that link there is a notation of “rejected energy.” What is that?

CWOTUS's avatar

Feel your car’s exhaust pipe after you’ve been running it for more than a few minutes, and you’ll find out what “rejected energy” is. It’s also the heat in the steam that rises from electric power station cooling towers and stacks. (Most of what you see coming out of the “smokestack” at a power plant is also steam, by the way, since coal, gas and oil all have some “moisture content” that won’t burn but steams out in the furnace and goes up the stack.)

Dutchess_III's avatar

Got cha. Thanks.

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