Fossil Fuel Reserves


When we talk about fossil fuels, we are talking about crude oil, coal and natural gas. They are called fossil fuels as they are the compressed remains of once-living organisms. Over the past few centuries, humans have learnt how to harness the energy contained within these fuels, and more recently we have been able to use them in chemical processes.

The form of fossil fuels that most of us think about first is crude oil. This is a horrible black sticky goo that is absolutely no use on its own, but can be quite useful when some refining is done to it (see trail 9.2.1 for more information).

When dealing with crude oil and the science and politics surrounding it, you are bound to come across the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This is a powerful grouping of oil producing countries which has received a lot of criticism for the way in which it seeks to influence world oil prices. The current member nations are: Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.

Volumes of crude oil are measured in barrels. When crude oil first came into large-scale commercial use in the United States in the 19th century, it was stored in wooden barrels. One barrel equals 42 US gallons, or 159 litres.

World crude oil reserves are estimated to be more than 1012 barrels, of which the 11 OPEC Member Countries hold more than 75 per cent. OPEC's Members currently produce around 28 million barrels of oil per day. This is around 40 per cent of the world total output, which stands at about 75 million barrels per day. It is estimated that as world economic growth continues, crude oil demand will also rise to 90 million barrels/day in 2010 and 103 million barrels/day by 2020.

Oil is a limited resource, so we will eventually run out. Oil producers claim that this will not happen for many years to come, while others claim that this will happen within the next 20 years. Some people have been saying that there is only 20 years' supply of oil since the early 1970's. OPEC claims that it's oil reserves are sufficient to last another 80 years at the current rate of production, while non-OPEC oil producers' reserves might last less than 20 years. The worldwide demand for oil is rising and OPEC is expected to be an increasingly important source of that oil. It is further claimed by OPEC that if we manage our resources well, use the oil efficiently and develop new fields, then our oil reserves should last for many more generations to come.

[Source: OPEC website Answers to frequently asked questions about the petroleum industry. Accessed 13/2/2001. Last Modified 2000.]

Using fossil fuels does, however, have a price. Most atmospheric scientists are now in agreement that the burning of fossil fuels has lead to an increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere which is in turn leading to global warming. Changing the composition of our atmosphere may lead to drastic changes in the climate, sustainability of agriculture and the survival of many species of plants and animals. This process pf climate change is often referred to as the Greenhouse Effect.

The biggest problem with fossil fuels (from this perspective) is that they take carbon that has been buried underground for millions of years and release it into the atmosphere. As we don't have a way of reversing this process, we are doing something that will make a permanent change to our environment.