Are we really running out of fossil fuels?

  1. Just wondering if it's true when people say we will be out of oil in 50 years. If so are there plans to what's gonna happen?
    Any answers are appreciated, thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Simon Bridge

    Simon Bridge 15,474
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    Welcome to PF;
    It is true that fossil fuels are running out.
    50 years may be a bit soon.

    So far there are no cohesive plans for what is going to happen - but there are a lot of ideas.
    It's what all those "alternative fuel" things are about, but basically nobody can agree on what to do.

    Probably the clearest articulation of the problem is here:

    ... see all eight.

    The long historical perspective is useful:
    ... look through the timeline to see how far back governments started regulating resources due to pollution and scarcity concerns.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  4. This is really cool, I'll be sure to give this a read and watch the video.
    And thanks of the welcoming.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  5. mheslep

    mheslep 3,404
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    The phase "running out" is ambiguous, covering multiple topics of supply, consumption, rate of production, alternatives, etc, so try breaking down the ambiguous question into many specific ones. Are fossil fuels finite? Yes, of course. How much of each type? Again, ambiguous. There are multiple figures covering known, explored deposits and also "technically" recoverable deposits which don't count all the fossil fuel molecules in the ground but only those likely to be removable with the economics of existing technology. On and on, giving answers of 20 to 250 years depending on the estimated size of the deposits, the type of fuel and rate of consumption. Is the world likely to actually to completely deplete all stores of fossil fuels? If history is any guide, no. Alternatives arise, and consumption does not always stay on trend. In the US at least, oil consumption is generally on the decline since 2005, though global consumption still increases.

    See the alternatives, which seems to be the main lesson from history. Bronze replaced stone tools, coal replaced wood, fossil oil replaced whale oil, glass fiber supplanted copper. Neither wood nor whales nor copper are depleted. In the US, corn ethanol now supplies roughly one million barrels per day of US liquid fuels by volume, or more than 10% of US domestic crude oil production, even though corn is a relatively poor energy crop.
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2014
  6. My favorite story about projecting technology trends into the future is the prediction made sometime around the end of the 1800's which said that given the increasing population growth and the slow but inexorable growth of individual wealth, the rate of ownership of horses and horse-drawn carriages would inevitably result in all large cities being covered to a depth of a couple of feet in horse manure.
  7. mheslep

    mheslep 3,404
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    The so called Horseshit Parable. Times of London, 1894, '“In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”
  8. Saved by the automobile!
  9. Well, unless we get nuclear fusion down right quick, which doesn't seem likely, what do you think the "alternative" is going to be this time? I'm no expert, but I don't see one. Although I'd like to see it, I don't think wind farms, solar farms, and the like are going to pick up the slack, and from a geological time-frame perspective, nature isn't isn't making any more fossil fuels.

    Looks to me like technology vs human greed is in a race against time as far as the world's energy needs...
  10. AlephZero

    AlephZero 7,248
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    That seems a strange comment to make in a history lesson.

    Some species of whale have not recovered from pre-20th-century exploitation.

    Deforestation was an ssue in Europe, extending back to the Neolithic era.

    Admittedly the global situation with copper is not quite so clear, but for example the current UK electrical wiring system was designed to deal with copper shortages at the end of WWII.
  11. As an additional note, I remember hearing somewhere that the new craze of hydraulic fracking may well keep the planet rolling in fossil fuels for the next century just from USA deposits alone. Again, there's plenty of controversy over this as well, and even if it were true, what are the costs to the environment and are they worth it?

    At some point it's going to be game over as far as fossil fuels, 50 or 100 years makes little difference if there's not a viable and sustainable replacement. Remember, too, that some estimates have the population more than doubling over the next 100 years to upwards of 14 billion:

    Of course, this figure is going to be tempered directly proportional to the energy availability planetwide. I think over the next century we are going to get a first hand lesson in "Malthusianism." :

    Stay tuned.

  12. jim hardy

    jim hardy 5,460
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    We're running out of the oil that's easy to get at. Prior to WW2 California pumped enough to supply the whole country. I remember buying gasoline in the 1960's for 14.9 cents per gallon.

    Now we drill for it 6,000 feet under the ocean and way up in the tundra.
    And we get better at squeezing the last drops out of existing wells.
    That all costs.

    There's a lively debate over your question - search on "Peak Oil"

    My answer - we've run out of the cheap oil.

    To best of my memory, when i was in high school a gallon of gas cost about 1/3 as much as a gallon of milk. Now it's about the same.

    Interesting chart here

    Economics is simple - you can consume what you produce.
    Upper 95% of our economy runs on that bottom 5% which is the production of food, energy and raw materials.
    Memo to the Politicians: Tinker with energy supply at your own peril.

    I like my automobile and my water heater.
    Oil and coal industries have done a remarkable job of meeting demand. I don't regard them as "evil corporations".

    old jim
  13. SteamKing

    SteamKing 10,972
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    The numbers of whales may be down, but they're still around.

    Europe is a rather small place. There are plenty of forests in places besides Europe. This, too, is a natural resource which can be renewed.

    While the forested area of the US declined during the period when the land was settled, as timber was cleared to make farmland, the amount of area which is forested has remained largely constant over the last century or so:

    Like all natural resources, copper has suffered from periods of price instability, where the price would peak and then suffer a tremendous crash.

    As with petroleum, the amount of copper ore reserves which are economically recoverable depends on the price the finished product will fetch. Unlike petroleum, copper can be recycled, which recycling is a major source of the world copper supply, reducing the need to mine new copper ore.
  14. Simon Bridge

    Simon Bridge 15,474
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    No worries - as you can see there are a lot of sub-issues surrounding the topic.
    When you use any resource faster than it is being made, you are going to run out ... the only question is "when".

    The videos will fill you in on some of the troubles with estimates for "when"... they all require some sort of assumptions and, it seems, everyone has some strong opinion about what sort of assumptions are valid for different purposes.
    It's a little old but the maths is correct.
    I'd just want to add the following:
    ... its ostensibly about religeon and babies, but I want to emphasize the population projection side of it to you.
    The speaker is a bit more optimistic than the unrestrained population-explosion model used in the other videos.

    Bear in mind that it is possible to argue with anything and part of the job of a scientist is to find fault with the statements of other scientists - hence the discussion above.

    The topic is also highly politicized - and easy to oversimplify.
    The main concern I have is to provide you with some tools to help you figure out what people are talking about rather than to tell you what to think. Enjoy ;)
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2014
  15. I find it amusing. :)

    And thank you to everyone for replying to my question. I have read some of the links and watched some the videos and it's more complicated than I thought it would be.
  16. mheslep

    mheslep 3,404
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    Why? The observation is that as a resource becomes scarce or expensive alternatives are often found. The fact that many forests were felled or whales were killed for oil in centuries past does not counter that observation. There are many other examples. I intended "depleted" in its "exhausted" definition, not simply "diminished".

    Apparently so for three or four species or subspecies, and other species have thrived (eastern North Pacific Grey). But the failure to recover can't have much to do with hunting for fuel oil, and the causes must lie elsewhere (pollution?, marine construction projects? subsistence hunting?)

    Exactly so, making the point about the early use of wood for fuel (and construction). Logging was also an issue in colonial America, when wide swaths of the country were denuded of trees. Pre-colonial Maine had a forest cover estimate of 92%, by 1872 it had fallen to a low of 53% forest land (Table 2), and today is back over 90%. That is, carbon for the like of blast furnaces no longer comes from trees. In general, forest cover has been increasing in the US by about 1% a year for at least the last thirty years. Europe today sees a similar increase, reversing the trend of centuries past.

    By glass fiber I'm referring to the telecommunications switch from copper to fiber optic cable in the last 20-30 years, with the rate of installation of FO now 19 million miles per year in the US alone.
  17. micromass

    micromass 20,053
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    Some species of whale are extinct, others are critically endangered. This hardly proves the point that humans don't deplete your resources.

    We have been using whales as a resource, whether that is for fuel oil or for food is not really relevant. The issue is that whales are a resource and we have made many of them extinct by hunting them. Others are endangered.

    Not all species were so lucky:
  18. mheslep

    mheslep 3,404
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    Last edited: Jul 14, 2014
  19. mheslep

    mheslep 3,404
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    The point: humans tend to not exhaust global resources. Humans have a record of damaging localized ecology in the pursuit of resources (forests for instance).

    If the concern is to maintain whale populations and the like in the natural world, then of course any large scale use as a fuel is relevant.

    I think you mean endangered.

  20. micromass

    micromass 20,053
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    I think I just gave two counterexamples in my previous post?

    Sure, no species has yet been made extinct. But various populations in different areas of the world has been made extinct:

    I think this should certainly count as a counterexample to your case.
  21. Simon Bridge

    Simon Bridge 15,474
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    Guys, this is not actually that controversial:

    Humans do severely deplete and in some cases completely use up resources.
    Large scale exploitation for any use matters, the exact use is not relevant to the point.

    There exist economic pressures that can, sometimes, prevent humans from completely using up a resource ... put simply: the resource becomes so scarce (and expensive) that some other resource is more attractive.
    The impact depends on the resource and the extent of the depletion.

    It is possible for the depleted resource to recover if humans stop exploiting it in time.
    (It is even possible to have a sustainable exploitation if we are very careful.)

    The key to understanding the process though, is the exponential function.
    Most of what has been written above has been addressed in part 5 for the vid in post #2.
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