PowerPedia:Fossil fuel

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Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons formed from the remains of dead plants and animals. The theory that hydrocarbons were formed from these remains was first introduced by Mikhail Lomonosov in 1757. In common dialogue, the term fossil fuel also includes hydrocarbon-containing natural resources that are not derived from animal or plant sources. These are sometimes known instead as mineral fuels. The utilization of fossil fuels has enabled large-scale industrial development and largely supplanted water-driven mills, as well as the combustion of wood or peat for heat. Fossil fuel is a general term for buried combustible geologic deposits of organic materials, formed from decayed plants and animals that have been converted to crude oil, coal, natural gas, or heavy oils by exposure to heat and pressure in the earth's crust over hundreds of millions of years.

When generating electricity, energy from the combustion of fossil fuels is often used to power a turbine. Older generators often used steam generated by the burning of the fuel to turn the turbine, but in newer power plants the gases produced by burning of the fuel turn a gas turbine directly. With global modernization in the 20th and 21st centuries, the thirst for energy from fossil fuels, especially gasoline derived from oil, is one of the causes of major regional and global conflicts. A global movement toward the generation of renewable energy is therefore underway to help meet the increased global energy needs. The burning of fossil fuels by humans is the largest source of emissions of carbon dioxide, which is one of the greenhouse gases that allows radiative forcing and contributes to global warming. A small portion of hydrocarbon-based fuels are biofuels derived from atmospheric carbon dioxide, and thus do not increase the net amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A limited resource

While the development of renewable energy such as hydroelectricity, of nonrenewable energy such as nuclear power, and scientific advances have reduced the dependency on fossil fuels, demand has increased nonetheless. Petroleum is also a source of petrochemicals, for which demand has also increased.

The principle of supply and demand suggests that as hydrocarbon supplies diminish, prices will rise. Therefore higher prices will lead to increased alternative, renewable energy supplies as previously uneconomic sources become sufficiently economical to exploit. Artificial gasolines and other renewable energy sources currently require more expensive production and processing technologies than conventional petroleum reserves, but may become economically viable in the near future.

The Hubbert Peak theory posits that for any given geographical area, from an individual oil field to the planet as a whole, the rate of oil production tends to follow a bell-shaped curve. Early in the curve (pre-peak), production increases due to the addition of infrastructure. Late in the curve (post-peak), production declines due to resource depletion.

"Peak Oil" as a proper noun, also known as Hubbert's peak, refers to a singular event in history: the peak of the entire planet's oil production. After Peak Oil, according to the Hubbert Peak Theory, the rate of oil production on Earth will enter a terminal decline. The theory is named after American geophysicist Marion King Hubbert, who created a model of known oil reserves, and proposed, in a paper he presented to the American Petroleum Institute in 1956, that production of oil from conventional sources would peak in the continental United States between 1965 and 1970, and worldwide within "about half a century" from publication.

When the global peak will occur is a controversial issue. Production peaks are difficult to predict, and generally the only reliable way to identify the timing of any production peak, including the global peak, is in retrospect. United States oil production peaked in 1971. The peak of world oilfield discoveries occurred in 1962 . Some estimates for the date of worldwide peak in oil production, made by Hubbert and others, have already passed. Estimates for the date of Peak Oil range from 2005 to dates after 2025.

Some industrialized countries are currently highly dependent on oil. Opinions on the effects of Hubbert's peak, and the subsequent terminal decline of global oil production, range from predictions that the market economy will develop alternatives to oil and decrease oil dependence in modern economies, to doomsday scenarios of global economic meltdown and societal collapse.

Levels and flows

Levels of primary energy sources are the reserves in the ground. Flows are production. The most important part of primary energy sources are the carbon based fossil energy sources. Oil, coal, and gas stood for 79.6% of primary energy production during 2002 (in million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe)) (34.9+23.5+21.2).

Levels (reserves): EIA oil, gas, coal estimates, EIA oil, gas estimates

Oil: 1,050,691 to 1,277,702 million barrels (167 to 203 km³) 2003-2005

Gas: 6,040,208 - 6,805,830 billion cubic feet (171,040 to 192,720 km³) 6,805.8300.182= 1,239 BBOE 2003-2005

Coal: 1,081,279 million short tons (1,081,2790.9071864.879= 4,786 BBOE) (2004)

Flows (daily production) during 2002 (7.9 is a ratio to convert tonnes of oil equivalent to barrels of oil equivalent)

Oil: (10,2300.349)7.9/365= 77 MBD

Gas: (10,2300.212)7.9/365= 47 MBOED

Coal: (10,2300.235)7.9/365= 52 MBOED

Years of production left in the ground with the most optimistic reserve estimates (Oil & Gas Journal, World Oil)

Oil: 1,277,702/77/365= 32 years

Gas: 1,239,000/47/365= 72 years

Coal: 4,786,000/52/365= 252 years

Note that this calculation assumes that the product could be produced at a constant level for that number of years and that all of the reserves could be recovered. In reality, consumption of all three resources have been increasing. While this suggests that the resource will be used up more quickly, in reality, the production curve is much more akin to a bell curve. At some point in time, the production of each resource within an area, country, or globally will reach a maximum value, after which, the production will decline until it reaches a point where is no longer economically feasible or physically possible to produce. See Hubbert peak theory for detail on this decline curve with regard to petroleum.

The above discussion emphasizes worldwide energy balance. It is also valuable to understand the ratio of reserves to annual consumption (R/C) by region or country. For example, energy policy of the United Kingdom recognizes that Europe's R/C value is 3.0, very low by world standards, and exposes that region to energy vulnerability, since the United Kingdom, by instance, relies on fossil fuels as its primary source.

Fossil fuel subsidies and taxes

In economic terms, pollution from fossil fuels is regarded as a negative [externality] and should be taxed. This 'internalizes' the cost of pollution and makes fossil fuels more expensive, thereby reducing their use and the amount of pollution associated with them. Although European nations do impose some pollution taxes, they also give billions of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, offseting the taxes. Although taxation may be one opinon on reducing their use its not conclusive

by any measure.

Fossil Fuel Subsidies in Europe

US Fossil Fuel Subsidies

2003 Congressional briefing on fossil fuel subsidies

Image:Oil well dark-clouds 95x95.jpg
Directory:Trends / Directory:Oil / Directory:U.S. Government and Energy > Directory:U.S. Government and Energy > Worldwide, Fossil Fuels Get 12 Times the Subsidies as Clean Energy - In the US, the government still gives tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to oil companies every year. And elsewhere, there's much heavier state support. In 2009, Exxon alone spent more money lobbying US Congress than the entire clean energy sector combined. (TreeHugger December 1, 2010)

Environmental effects

In the United States, more than 90% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the combustion of fossil fuels. In addition other air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, VOCs, and heavy metals are produced. Environmental regulation uses a variety of approaches to limit these emissions, such as command-and-control (which mandates the amount of pollution or the technology used), economic incentives, or voluntary programs.

External articles and references

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EPA defines fossil fuel

The Coming Energy Crisis? - essay by James L. Williams of WTRG Economics and A. F. Alhajji of Ohio Northern University

Powering the Future - Michael Parfit (National Geographic)

Will We Run Out of Energy ? - article by Mark Bradley

Federal Fossil Fuel Subsidies and Greenhouse Gas Emissions


Peak Oil - A visual directory of websites about resource depletion and the theory of peak oil. (