For decades, energy experts have wondered about the end of fossil fuels. They want to calculate how much remains and how that will impact the cost of the fuel itself, the development of technology, and even how people currently use energy at home. According to current prognostications, the actual amount of fossil fuels inside the Earth won’t run out in our lifetimes or even close to it. Instead, the real issue plaguing the energy industry — besides concerns of climate change caused by the burning of these fossil fuels — is that extracting those materials will no longer be cost-effective by the end of this century.
In this article, we’ll discuss the following:
- A definition of fossil fuels
- When each fossil fuel will run out
- The importance of “Peak Oil”
- What will happen as we near depletion
- Why we must have ready renewable energy solutions
Just because we have fossil fuels doesn’t mean we need to use them up entirely. Thus, understanding the current state of energy will help everyone effectively plan for a sustainable future.
What are Fossil Fuels?
You’ll find the answer in the name: fossil fuels are first created from the fossilized remains of plants and animals and then converted into usable material after being subjected to millions of years of intense pressure inside the Earth. By their very nature, coal, oil, and natural gas are non-renewable energy sources, even if we currently are in no danger of technically using them up presently.
What are the Limits of Fossil Fuels?
Each type of fossil fuel faces different challenges regarding how they are currently collected, processed, and used. The projected fossil fuel exhaustion rate depends upon a few factors:
- The cost of current extraction technology
- The potential costs of developing more efficient technologies
- Whether companies want to operate at a loss while waiting for new technology
- The “reserves-to-production” (R/P) ratio (which we explain below)
Let’s dig into the details a bit, as seen on this chart created from BP.
Even the most conservative industry insiders believe we could run out of available oil within the next 50 years. Might there be other places around the world where we could find oil? There are, but when you compare current consumption against 1) extraction levels, 2) the cost of that extraction, and 3) current technology, we hit a wall.
Admittedly, the 2020 global pandemic has changed the consumption game. The price of a barrel of oil even went into the negative in April 2020, thanks to a glut in supply caused by competition between OPEC, Russia, and the U.S., coupled with people not using fuel because they were in lockdown.
That being said, consumer consumption will most likely return to pre-COVID numbers when the time comes, so the industry must be ready.
The same basic concept applies here, even as fracking changed the game earlier this century. The technology allowed companies access to new and more significant stores of natural gas than ever before. Even so, the current R/P ratio states that we will run out of what we have within the next 60 years, and we’re running out of ways to get more at current economies of scale.
There are enough coal reserves to last the next 150 years. That’s two-plus generations of material we can burn to create the electricity we need. What’s the concern? Well, we must consider two primary factors:
- Coal is the most environmentally harmful fossil fuel — both when it comes to burning and extracting it
- That above projection is based upon current numbers
In other words, once we run out of available oil and natural gas, we’ll start using up those coal reserves at a faster rate than the projected 150 years. And doing so will hurt the environment even more than we’re doing now.
We need better solutions.
What’s the Difference Between Peak Oil & Peak Demand?
Any discussion of whether or not we are running out of fossil fuels must include the topic of Peak Oil. First devised in 1956 by M. King Hubbard, it’s the prediction of when we will run entirely out of oil at prices people will want to pay. While we have moved past Hubbard’s initial projections, adherents to the spirit of his theory now advocate a concept called Peak Demand.
In short, Peak Demand argues that people will simply stop buying oil because it’s not good for the environment and better, more cost-efficient alternatives will have arrived. As people become more aware of the environmental damages caused by the fossil fuel industry, they will make better choices based on facts and feelings. If eco-friendly solutions become as affordable as fossil fuel technology and help slow rising temperatures, people will stop demanding energy from oil, natural gas, and coal.
Thankfully, the switch is already happening.
Switching to Renewable Energy is Our Path Forward
So, when might we run out of fossil fuels? Let’s review:
- We probably have lots of available fossil fuels in the ground.
- It’s becoming harder and more expensive to get them.
- The R/P ratio says we could run out of oil and natural gas before the end of this century.
- The cost of renewable energy technology continues to drop.
- The accessibility of renewable energy continues to increase.
All of that indicates that the industry will probably change just because of the economic costs. But the planet cannot wait for Peak Demand to arrive naturally or for those available reserves to run out. At current fossil fuel consumption levels, the Earth’s global temperature will pass the 2 degrees Celsius threshold created by the IPCC by 2050, with plenty of oil, natural gas, and coal remaining.
We must begin the wholesale transition to entirely renewable energy resources as promptly as possible. The scarcity of fossil fuels cannot be our only reason for changing our behaviors. Even if renewable energy were more expensive — which it’s not — it’s the ethical thing to do for the planet’s future.
You can do your part to change the world today. We’ll talk to you about using 100% solar energy created in Texas for your home instead of the fossil fuels currently powering the electricity grid. Help us build a brighter future for everyone.