Peak Oil News: The End of Fossil Fuels - How Long the Twilight?

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The End of Fossil Fuels - How Long the Twilight?

World crude oil production rose from negligible in 1900 to about 80 million barrels per day (mbpd) a century later. U.S. consumption of crude oil and natural gas have both risen more than 100-fold since 1900. In that period, world and U.S. populations nearly quadrupled, but the dramatic per-capita increase in petroleum use lies at the heart of "The American Century."

The age of reliance on fossil fuels has been extraordinary both for its swift rise and its prospective brevity. It has supported a remarkable growth in prosperity in the industrial world. The return to reliance on the sun's annual radiation of energy to the Earth will be a painful comedown.

Our political and business "leaders" seem generally oblivious to the unique character of the fossil fuel age. They consider growth the natural and desirable order of affairs and call for more of it - an outlook influenced more by greed than reflection. When warned of the brevity of the fossil era and the dangers it is creating, they defend the status quo or, when pressed, offer simplistic panaceas such as the hope that hydrogen or wind and solar energy will solve our problems. By themselves, they will not.

Fossil and Renewable Fuels in the U.S. In the United States, we consume 97 quads (quadrillion British Thermal Units) or 102 exajoules (quintillion joules) of commercial energy each year. Of that, petroleum furnishes 39 percent, natural gas 24 percent, and coal 23 percent. Taken together, fossil fuels contribute over 86 percent of our total energy. Nuclear power, which is a fossil fuel in the sense that it relies on ores from earlier geological times, provides another 8 percent. Renewable energy provides just 6 percent, almost entirely from hydroelectric power and biomass; wind energy provides 0.1 percent and solar electricity - which is presently much in vogue - much less than that, or 1/1500th of the total.

Fossil Fuels' Role in the Economy. The U.S. economy is built on fossil fuels. Of those 97 quads of total primary energy, 40 percent (mostly from coal, natural gas and nuclear energy) goes to produce electricity, which of course is then used throughout the economy, 27 percent (almost all of it petroleum) goes directly to transportation, and 22 percent goes to industry and agriculture (divided about equally between petroleum and natural gas). The remaining 11 percent goes to the household and commercial sectors.

Fossil fuels provide services other than energy. About 9 percent of total primary fossil fuel use is used as industrial feedstocks, not as energy: fertilizer, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plastics, textiles and artificial leathers, tires, asphalt, lubricants and waxes - many of the things we rely on. Roughly 28 percent of those feedstocks come from petroleum, 24 percent from natural gas liquids, 11 percent from natural gas itself, 9 percent from coal, and the remaining 28 percent from cellulose materials such as wood scraps, sawdust, other by-products of the lumber industry, cane sugar bagasse and paper mill pulp. No discussion of the role of fossil fuels in modern economies can afford to ignore their role as feedstocks.

The Future of Oil and Gas

What Energy Transition? The experts say that, so far, the world has consumed less than half, and perhaps less than one-third, of recoverable petroleum resources. Why are they so worried about running out of oil? The answer lies in the astonishing growth of the enterprise. The oil era really got under way only about 1940, and yet already - because of the speed at which consumption has grown - we can foresee the end of the petroleum era and of the economic system that has grown on it. For the United States, the domestic game is about over. Our crude oil production has been declining at an accelerating rate for thirty years. We now import 62 percent of our crude oil and, with less than 5 percent of the world's population, we consume one-quarter of world production. We can eke out a few decades of dependence on oil and gas only if we can import it.

Worldwide discoveries of new oil fields peaked over 40 years ago, despite intensified and increasingly sophisticated exploration efforts and extraction techniques. Non-OPEC production has probably peaked, and worldwide production is expected to peak very soon.


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