The World Has 53.3 Years of Oil Left - USA Today, 6/28/2014
UK to ‘Run Out of Oil, Gas and Coal’ in 5 Years - The Independent, 5/16/2014
Headlines like these capture our attention. From a young age, we are taught that fossil fuels are finite resources and at one point the world will run out. According to some sources, the endpoint could be as early as 2088 (Ecotricity):
Energy Reserves over Time
Such doomsday warnings are contradicted by reports on how much reserves are left in the world.
“…as of Jan. 1, 2010, proved world oil reserves as reported by the Oil & Gas Journal, were estimated at 1,354 billion barrels – 12 billion barrels (about 1 percent) higher than the estimate for 2009 (Discovery, 2010).”
Estimating worldwide reserves is a difficult task that treats the known reserves as static figures - a practical amount of what is easily extracted and financially feasible through current conventional methods. However, these estimates are neglecting the amazing capability of human ingenuity. We are a species of inventors and problem solvers. New technologies are continually being developed to access and retrieve resources from the Earth that were previously either financially, or geologically, difficult to obtain.
“We don’t believe that proven reserves alone are an appropriate measure for judging total resource availability in the long run. For example, despite continued production, global reserves haven’t declined historically (because of) exploration, discovery and reserve replacement,” stated Linda Doman, an international forecasting expert with EIA (Discovery, 2010).
Technological advances in how we extract fossil fuels have made significant impacts in the industry. These advances are most notable in natural gas production and exploration. Advances in horizontal drilling techniques are increasing production at an astonishing rate. Before the horizontal drilling boom around 2009, natural gas exploration and development in Pennsylvania was steady with operators drilling a few thousand vertical wells. Before 2009, wells in Pennsylvania produced around 500 million cubic feet per day. As drilling shifted from vertical to horizontal methods, gas production quadrupled with wells in the same region now averaging 3.5 billion cubic feet per day in 2011 (EIA).
The same technological advances used for natural gas are also having an impact on the coal industry. In March, 2014, British scientists announced a discovery of massive coal deposit find under the North Sea. Seismic tests show the seabed contains up to 20 layers of coal with an estimate of up to 23 trillion tonnes of reserves. Energy companies knew onshore deposits extended offshore, but were uncertain to what scale and deemed inaccessible. Using technologies now in place for oil and gas drilling, these previously inaccessible deposits are being moved to accessible status, and therefore providing enough resources to power the UK for years to come (UK Daily Mail, 2014).
Not only are we getting better at accessing these resources, we’re also more efficient using them. Great strides have been made in the automotive sector with regards to fuel consumption. Vehicle fuel consumption in 1975 averaged less than 15 miles per gallon (mpg). Fast-forward to 2010 and vehicles now average around 27 mpg. (Pewtrusts, 2011)
Even more fascinating is what lies ahead for the coal industry. A lot of media focus has been on clean coal technologies (CCT) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) to increase oil production via enhanced oil recovery (EOR). As these technologies prove to become more reliable and financially feasible, there is more research under way for even more viable solutions. Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) may prove to be another key solution for future sustainability. UCG is applied to in situ coal seams, particularly deep deposits that are uneconomic to extract via traditional methods. Using the same chemical reactions as surface gasifiers, these seams can be converted to syngas to fuel electric generators. Combining UCG with CCS could very well be the key to extending the life of reserves worldwide (SME, 2015)
We must continue to make technological and engineering advancements in accessing and using fossil fuels. This philosophy is best expressed in a Report of the Department of the Interior from 1919, which discussed the future of our nation’s natural resources. Nearly a hundred years later, we are still discussing these same issues and coming up with the same conclusions.
“To know what we have and what we can do with it – and what we should not do with it, also! – is a policy of wisdom, a policy of lasting progress. And in furtherance of such a policy the first step is to know our resources – our national wealth in things and in their possibilities; the second step is to know their availability for immediate use; the third step is to guard them against waste either through ignorance or wantonness; and the fourth step is to prolong their life by invention and discovery.” (Department of the Interior, 1920)
Technological advancements provide a winning scenario for fossil fuels: they have led to increases in amount of estimated recoverable reserves, increases in production, and increases in usage efficiency.
For decades, the media has been reporting the world is running out of fossil fuels. Yet, as our technology and ability improves, more reserves are being discovered across the globe. We can now access reserves previously deemed technically or economically unminable. We can drill deeper and mine further than ever before. We have improved recovery and are tremendously efficient in using natural resources. Most importantly, we are more creative in coming up with methods of keeping our resources sustainable. What once sounded like science fiction – horizontal drilling, carbon capture, and underground coal gasification – is now becoming a reality. Thanks to technology, instead of running out, we are adding decades to the lifespan of fossil fuels.
The process of enhanced oil recovery is described on the Office of Fossil Energy, U.S. Department of Energy’s website - http://energy.gov/fe/science-innovation/oil-gas-research/enhanced-oil-recovery