Fossil fuels—coal, natural gas, and petroleum— provide an invaluable and still readily available source of energy. Application of these fuels is wide ranging, from heating homes to powering jet aircraft. The fuels are found beneath the earth’s surface, and were formed from plant and animal remains dating back 300 million years. To obtain energy from this raw form, the fuels must be burned to release the chemical energy present within the resource.
Given the vast time necessary for biological remains to accumulate and create this sort of fuel, they are not practically renewable, as it would take millions of years to resupply the world’s constantly depleting reserves. Most of these reserves can be found in the Middle East (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq), and also in Canada and Russia. Because the fuels are so vital to present-day society, it has become necessary for able nations either to stake a physical claim in these parts of the world, or to engage in diplomatic and strategic alliances so as to ensure continued access to this necessary commodity.
Only recently has humankind begun to harness the power of fossil fuels to any appreciable extent. Although coal was used by ancient humans, there was no concerted search for it; instead, early humans stumbled upon it by chance. During the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s, coal became the main source of energy, displacing wood charcoal. Currently, it is estimated that there are approximately 240 years of coal remaining if consumption rates remain the same as today.
The oil industry is less than 150 years old, yet based on present consumption rates there are only 42 years of proven reserves remaining worldwide. Drilling for oil originated in 1859 when the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company became interested in drilling for natural oil so as to eliminate dependency on expensive whale oil used for heating and illumination. At present, the oil industry is the largest industry in the world, generating around $100 billion annually.
Unlike oil and coal, natural gas (in its original state) cannot be stored and transported in containers. Instead, it must be piped from producing fields directly to the end user. At present usage rates, there are approximately 60 years remaining of proven natural gas reserves. Of the three fossil fuels, gas is by far the cleanest burning, as it emits mostly water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2), although significantly less CO2 than both coal and oil. It is CO2 that is widely credited with trapping heat beneath the earth’s ozone layer, thus leading to what is commonly referred to as global warming.
Ironic as it may seem, the existence of present- day civilization is heavily dependent on these products that are millions of years old. If fossil fuels were to disappear overnight, modernity would be crippled. As such, the current era must recognize that its progression has been possible only by a strong linkage to the ancient past through this invaluable source of energy. Given its apparently short-term viability, alternative means of energy— such as geothermal, nuclear, and solar—are aggressively being developed, eventually to provide for a gradual and, it is hoped, relatively calm switch as humanity weans itself from fossil fuels.
Daniel J. Michalek
See also Fossil Record; Geological Column; Geologic Timescale; Geology; Paleontology
Bartok, W., & Sarofim, A. F. (1991). Fossil fuel combustion: A source book. New York: Wiley.
Gore, A. (2006). Earth in the balance: Ecology and the human spirit. Emmaus, PA: RoDalíe.
Seidel, S. (1983). Can we delay a greenhouse warming?
Washington, DC: Office of Policy Analysis, Strategic Studies Staff.