If you’re currently reading this article, then fossil fuels should matter to you. The US has a heavy reliance on fossil fuels as a source of energy, and energy is something we simply can’t live without. However in order to take advantage of the energy produced from fossil fuels, we have to burn them. Over the long term, burning these fossil fuels disrupts various ecosystems, which would drastically change the way we live.
In order to understand these long-term effects, we first need to decipher how we’ve gotten to this point. You see, fossil fuels will run out one day. So, it’s no longer a matter of if fossil fuels run out, it’s a matter of when.
How fossil fuels came about.
To understand fossil fuels, it’s important to review the history behind their usage. Before we dive in, you first need to understand that the burning of fossil fuels has led to global warming. We state this fact before we dive into the history of fossil fuels, because once you see how fossil fuels came about, you’ll understand the correlation of fossil fuels to global warming.
Ancient plants and organisms that died millions of years ago were gradually buried by layers of rock and sediments, which continued to grow thicker over time. Throughout this time, an intense amount of heat and pressure transformed the organic matter into coal, oil, and natural gas. Even though these fossil fuels took millions of years to create, we are quickly using up these resources.
Coal, the oldest fossil fuel, became a primary source of energy when the Industrial Revolution began in the mid 1700s. At this time the world population began to grow at a rapid pace and, as a direct result, energy consumption grew exponentially.
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The increase in energy demand resulted in using coal at an extreme rate. On the other hand, oil and natural gas didn’t come into the picture until the late 1800s to early 1900s. The oil boom took place in the U.S. in 1859. According to The Ecology, Edwin L. Drake drilled the world’s first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, launching the modern petroleum industry.
Remember how we mentioned earlier the correlation between global warming and fossil fuels? Well, it just so happens that climate change, which is also known as global warming, began with the burning of fossil fuels in the early 1800s. According to the American Institute of Physics, the first industrial revolution of the 1800s marked the first time where greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal impacted the planet’s climate.
Some regions began to warm as early as 1830, according to a study published in Springer Nature. This same study also showed that warming first took place in the tropical oceans and the Arctic. It wasn’t until two decades later that North America, Europe, and Asia also began to experience global warming.
The massive dependence and use of fossil fuels has changed the future of our planet. Consequently, we all live in a world with a high concentration of greenhouse gases.
How the rise of fossil fuels led to an energy predicament.
Thanks in large part to fossil fuels, the annual global temperature record has been broken five times since the beginning of the twenty-first century. According to the climate division of the U.S. government, “it takes a massive amount of accumulated heat energy to raise Earth’s average yearly surface temperature even a small amount. Behind the seemingly small increase in global average surface temperature over the past century, is a significant increase in accumulated heat.”
Due to these incremental increases of the global surface temperature, we have began to experience a more extreme climate. Our environment has seen reduced snow cover, melting ice caps, and intense storms -all dramatic changes to our planet’s ecosystems.
These drastic changes have driven an increase in awareness and focus on renewable and alternative energy resources. Not only because fossil fuels have a negative impact on the environment, but also because the accessible supply of fossil fuels will eventually run out.
The future outlook of fossil fuels.
There’s no universally agreed upon answer for when we will run out of accessible fossil fuels. But in the 1950s, geologist M. King Hubbert, predicted that the world would one day find themselves with a major scarcity of fossil fuels. This idea is known as Peak Oil Theory. According to ZME Science, Peak Oil Theory means that the production of oil as a finite resource will peak and then decline and deplete. “According to some researchers, Hubbert included, Peak Oil is already behind us, and we are now living in a decline,” per ZME Science.
But even Peak Oil is difficult to pinpoint. According to Our World in Data, “If we look at trends in proven fuel reserves, we see that our reported oil reserves have not decreased, but increased by more than 50 percent, and natural gas by more than 55 percent, since 1955.” Obviously consumption has increased greatly as the population continues to grow, but this shows just how difficult it is to predict when exactly fossil fuels will run out.
Predicting when fossil fuels will run out is a difficult endeavor. But according to a 2015 World Energy Outlook study by the International Energy Agency, oil will run out in 53 years, natural gas in 54, and coal will outlast them all at a 110 years. Our World in Data reports similar numbers, with coal lasting 114 years, Natural Gas lasting 52.8, and Oil lasting 50.7.
Wherever you look, scientists will have varying data, which is understandable considering the advances in technology that allow us to mine reserves that were once unrecoverable. With the latest advances, fossil fuels might have a longer shelf life than anticipated. To see an example of this, we point you to the latest research and development that is taking place at The Ohio State University. Engineers at the university are developing technologies that may be able to convert fossil fuels into useful electricity without the emissions of carbon dioxide.
According to Science Daily, “In the first of two papers published in the Journal Energy & Environmental Science, the engineers report that they’ve devised a process that transforms shale gas into products such as methanol and gasoline – all while consuming carbon dioxide. This process can also be applied to coal and biomass to produce useful products.” Further development and experimentation will continue, but this study is just one of many that may potentially change the future of fossil fuels.
As it currently stands, oil and natural gas will likely be the first fossil fuels to go, with coal lasting longer. If oil does run out first, coal and gas will be the remaining fossil fuels left. A big problem with this scenario is that natural gas emits methane, which is at least ten times greater than standard carbon emissions. With oil no longer around, the demand for natural gas will drastically increase which will eventually lead to it running out.
This would leave us with coal as the last of the fossil fuels. As we stated before, some people believe that coal will be around for hundreds of years, while others think that it won’t last as long. Chances are that both parties are off, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. What we do know is that with oil and gas extinct, coal usage will increase at least tenfold – which means our planet will have to deal with an increase in carbon emissions. Our planet is simply not designed to sustain the amount of greenhouse emissions that would come from a global dependency on coal. Which is why renewable resources need to be at the forefront of research and development.
Renewable energy has to be the future.
Renewable energy resources must be the main energy provider of the future. Otherwise we won’t be able to power our cars, heat our food, or simply turn on the lights. In turn, wind, solar, and hydroelectric power must be developed rapidly.
Countries around the world have made a conscious effort to increase their dependence on renewable energy and decrease their reliance on fossil fuels. Similarly, major companies such as Google, Amazon, and Ikea have solar and wind farms, which are used to power their giant factories.
On a micro level, citizens are turning to electric cars and buying solar panels for their own homes. People have even joined Community Solar programs, which have significantly influenced the growth of renewable energy. Fossil fuels have an expiration date, meaning our dependence on them does too.
Because we only have one planet, we must change our dependence on fossil fuels. We should hope for the end of our dependence on fossil fuels ends before they dry out forever.