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Energy Apocalypse? Is Fossil Fuel Really Ending?

Jessica Obeid's picture
Cedro Project - United Nations Development Program

Jessica is a Project Coordinator and Senior Energy Engineer at the United Nations Development Program, specialized in renewable energy deployment in developing countries and access to energy for...

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  • Nov 19, 2012 8:00 pm GMT

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“We are running out of fossil fuel”. I’ve been hearing this for a while, and it has created a sort of panic all over the world. Tendency is to believe that this is happening in the next few years… But is it true?

It is true that fossil fuel resources are finite, and according to the International Energy Agency’s – IEA – World Energy Outlook 2009, the demand for oil has been increasing at a rate of 1.6% annually.

Yet, the BP Statistical Review of World Energy in June 2012 states that the proved coal reserves at the end of 2011 were sufficient to meet 112 years of global production. While, world proved reserves of oil could cover 54.2 years equivalent to 1652.6 billion barrels. And the world reserves of natural gas were sufficient for 63.6 years. Noticing that, the R/P ratio for crude oil recorded its highest value in history.

Whether this is due to an increase in production efficiency or the discovery of new reserves and whether these new reserves are large enough, is a debatable issue.

Fact remains that reserves of oil and natural gas did not decrease in the past 50 years, but instead they have been increasing.

According to ExxonMobil, oil, gas and coal will continue to be the most widely used fuels, and have the scale needed to meet global demand, making up about 80 percent of total energy consumption in 2040.

Experts from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas –ASPO- believe that the global oil production will reach its peak by 2015.

On the other hand, it is expected that the demand for oil will peak and then gradually decline.

The new policies seeking the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, along with the renewable energy targets and incentives, and the constant decrease in investment and operation costs of renewable energy technologies, promise that energy generation from renewable energy resources will grow significantly which will reduce the demand for fossil fuel. For example, it is estimated that in 2015 the cost of electricity generated from solar energy will be equivalent to the conventional one. Other drivers for that demand reduction are the energy conservation scenarios and energy-saving technologies now dominating the market.

Therefore, the current world population of 7 billion people, growing to 8 billion in 2030, does not necessarily mean a significant increase in oil demand.

On the economy level, the trend is that demand will decrease with the increase in prices, and oil prices have been increasing drastically, and chances are, we will never see cheap gasoline again, nor cheap prices for any fossil fuel type. Plus, the energy demand is very sensitive to GDP growth, thus the recent recession has had a significant impact on energy demand.

Are we really running out of fossil fuel? It is safe to say no, at least not for the next 100 years.

Yet, I cannot wait for the era where people will calculate their carbon emissions, buy local products to avoid transportation emissions, rely more on public transportation, benefit more from daylighting, and make sure their houses are passive.

For whether fossil fuels are ending or not, that era is inevitable. As Sheikh Yamani, Oil Minister in KSA, said in 1973: “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” And if I may say, thank God for that!

Image: Fossil Fuels via Shutterstock

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John Miller's picture
John Miller on Nov 19, 2012

Jessica, Is it not amazing that so called experts continue to preach the ‘Hubbert’s peaking oil’ theory and ignore the fundamental facts concerning oil production, technology development and other factors that have almost continuously increased world oil reserves.  If we lived in a world where technology was stagnate or governments cut off access to most available oil reserves, a near future peaking of world oil supply would be reasonably feasible.  Fortunately, most world governments have not successfully suppressed creativity and innovation developments, and access to most oil reserves.  This has enabled increasing world oil supplies well beyond all past and current peaking oil predictions.

Unfortunately when it comes to high density energy supplies such as fossil fuels, the classic supply-demand economic theories are not absolutely accurate.  Yes, discretionary demand (vacations, eating out, etc.) more rapidly declines when prices increase or incomes decrease as a result of an economic recession.  However, non-discretionary demand (commuting to work, accessing required goods & services such as food, medical, etc.) does not decline proportionally to energy prices.  When commodity prices increase consumers directionally reduce consumption, but also seek available alternatives.  Today and in the near future there appear to be few alternatives to relatively inexpensive fossil fuels (compared to renewables such as biofuels, wind/solar, etc.).

In the case of solar power the probability of these renewable costs approaching natural gas power cost by 2015 or in the foreseeable future will continue to be insignificant until someone successfully develops reasonably economic commercial scale electric power storage.  Unlike oil & gas technologies development, which have invalidated all peaking oil theories to date, variable renewable solar or wind have capacity factors that are relatively low compared to coal, natural gas or nuclear (15-30% vs. 85%+).  This means that until commercial scale power storage is actually developed, renewable power will require essentially 100% fossil fuels or nuclear power backup, which is very expensive compared to state-of-art natural gas power plants only.

The end of the era of fossil fuels will come some day.  However, we have choices on how smooth and effective the transition will be and the impact on the population.  We can plan and develop a transition that creates reasonable economic and standard-of-living impacts on our citizens over time, or we can arbitrarily and immediately shut-off access to available fossil fuels and effectively force most people back into the Stone Age.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 19, 2012

Yet, I cannot wait for the era where people will calculate their carbon emissions, buy local products to avoid transportation emissions, rely more on public transportation, benefit more from daylighting, and make sure their houses are passive.

Jessica, none of us can wait, quite literally. But minus economic hardship no significant drop in oil consumption will occur while there's an abundance of it. Historically, the only decrease in available oil use occurs during a global recession (most recently 2009, before that 1982).

A signficant drop is necessary, and it's necessary right now. PriceWaterhouse on Monday warned that avoiding a global temperature increase of 6 degrees C by the year 2100 is "almost impossible", while the IPCC has already found that an increase of only 3.5 degrees C will render up to 70% of all species of life on earth extinct. This is not "doomerism", this is the reality we face. We can either own up to it or ignore it at our (and our grandkids') peril.

People who use carbon-based fuels must be forced to pay for the toll they're exacting on the climate, and that would best be accomplished domestically through a draconian fee-dividend arrangement. I find it ironic that some regard my opinion as forcing people "back to the Stone Age", when the UN estimates 25,000 people die every year as the result of global warming. No doubt that number will increase exponentially in the years ahead. For them, the Stone Age would be a considerable improvement.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 19, 2012


Everything you say is true, I will however question the moral legitimacy of asking 6 billion of our neighbors to starve to death so that we might get on with business.

Seems a bit presumptuous, especially in light of the fact that the U.S. uses 25% of the world's energy while having under 5% of the world's population.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Nov 19, 2012

1) " People who use carbon-based fuels ", I wonder who those people are,  certainly not you.....

2) " the UN estimates 25,000 people die every year as the result of global warming ". Okay, but how many lives are save/sustained each year as a result of using Carbon based sources?

Levying a fee on carbon based energy sources is pointless if there are no viable alternatives at hand, while our lives and livelihoods depend on the energy produced by those Carbon based sources.

Ironically the people most vociferous in opposition to Carbon based energy, are also most likely to reject out of hand Nuclear power which can displace carbon for electrical generation and process heat, maybe even  can be used to manufacture bio-fuels for our vehicles and airplanes.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 20, 2012

I would happily accept a 100% fee on all carbon-based fuels (I drive an electric car) as part of a fee-dividend program. I have no doubt I could survive comfortably, and would probably receive a handsome dividend each year. And I'll challenge, right off the bat, that anyone's life or livelihood depends on cheap fuel. There are plenty of viable alternatives to carbon based-energy sources, the most obvious  of which is just using less. Because some people aren't doing it, doesn't mean they can't.

I would also enthusiastically support a nuclear buildout of one plant/week (it almost happened, in the early eighties) which on a global scale could stabilize atmospheric carbon by 2050 (according to this analysis, anyway). In my opinion nuclear energy is the only way to get a handle on climate change, in time for it to do any good.

Assumptions can be dangerous.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Nov 20, 2012

Well Bob, if only we could all drive electric cars,( there would be 250,000,000 electric cars), have you thought about the feasibility of this? I know that I can't afford to replace my 1999 Buick Le Sabre, and a lot of my neighbors are even worse off than I am. But even  if we could somehow replace our cars, how would we all charge the new electric vehicles?  Currently we would need coal generated power, so even with your electric car you probably still use Carbon as the means of transportation indirrectly.

On Cheap fuel: Our lives depend on agriculture, which benefits from cheap fuel. Our grocceries depend on trucks to deliver them to our neighborhood stores, these benefit from cheap fuel. Most of us require transportation to get to work, this means cars, busses, Motorcycles,  all of which requires gas or diesle. Many many aspects of modern living depend on petroleum and petroleum products.

Not everyone is sitting pretty and comfortable to where they could shrug off a 100% tax or tarrif on Carbon based energy.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 20, 2012

Because electric cars are (usually) charged at night there's a lot of excess capacity. I've seen figures that say if half of Los Angeles bought electric cars tomorrow, the grid could handle it. It's not going to happen overnight, and infrastructure improvements will be necessary, but there's no technological leap which has to occur to charge an electric car in every driveway.

There are challenges with the cars themselves. It's a big subject but there's somewhat of a consensus that EVs with 300mi range will be affordable in under 10 years. Research proceeds at a feverish pace and progress is being made.

It's important to understand that fee and dividend is not a tax. It's completely revenue-neutral, except for the expenses of actually administering the program. Carbon is taxed at the source, raising your price, but - you get a check back at the end of the year (or the month, or whatever). If you use less than the per capita average of carbon, you actually come out ahead - you would pay less than you are right now. So while it requires upfront expense you will get it all back, if you're frugal. On a 100% F&D program you'd get the same percent you saved back, so if you used 10% less carbon than the average citizen of your area, you'd actually ending up earning 10% above what you've paid in.

It will suck to be someone who uses a lot of carbon, but it's supposed to. Those people and those businesses are destroying the environment and everyone's future. We have to provide an incentive for people to move away from using carbon - period. I guarantee you will be amazed at the number of ways people discover to stop using carbon when it hits them in their pocketbook, and people will somehow, miraculously, just deal with it.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 20, 2012

Bob, please keep in mind that a carbon tax, even one that is revenue-neutral, imposes a cost on all of society.  

The reason is that there are several carbon-free and carbon neutral ways to make fuel, but they cost more than fossil fuels.  A carbon tax will cause many users to switch to a more expensive (but cleaner) fuel.  This additional energy cost will appear as higher costs for everything we buy (because everything we grow or manufacture requires energy for production and transportation to market), and won't be offset by any sort of government administered dividend.

Nuclear energy (which is currently out of fashion in western nations) is almost as cheap as fossil fuel, but renewables like sun and wind cost much more (especially for applications like baseload electricity and fuel synthesis where the variability is a problem).

Gail Tverberg has written some interesting essays on the effects of energy cost on society, such as this one:  high-priced-fuel-syndrome 


Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Nov 20, 2012
There was a relative 'peak' in the fuss over peak oil a few years ago. But now that shale gas and tight oil have come into full hype, there is relatively less urgency, in some parts of the discourse. I think one of the biggest feats, or obstacles, depending on your viewpoint, is that the potential ability to recover hydrocarbons has increased, but the related factors of safety, ease of extraction and production, and other economic and climate impacts is made cloudy -- and very much subject to the merits of a chosen (or preferred) analytical lens. So what is left is the 'undeniable certainty', or that which is least easily disputed: that the potential for hydrocarbon fuel recovery is relatively greater than it was understood a few years ago. That relative certainty, however, does not provide much clarity for the several other, deeply linked issues related to 'fossil fuels'. Jesse Parent  via Facebook

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 20, 2012


I'm not sure why you're referring to plug-in hybrids, I was specifically addressing electric vehicles (EVs).

If you were to power an EV on electricity derived completely from coal, the global warming gases it generates would be about equivalent to those of an internal combustion car that gets 30mpg. But the point is moot, because there isn't a power network in the US that uses exclusively coal. In fact, about half of Americans live in areas where charging an EV emits less total CO2, "well-to-wheels", than even the best hybrids.

Combine this with the fact that ICE cars get dirtier as they age and start to burn oil, where EVs get cleaner as power mixes incorporate more renewable energy and less coal. We might be adding a differential of 15% efficiency or more over the life of a car based on these two facts alone.

On average EVs right now deliver a significant CO2 reduction compared to gasoline-powered cars, and it will only get better with time. Especially if nuclear power can overcome the misguided and inaccurate stigma attributed to it by organizations like Greenpeace.

I'll finish with noting that $7 billion is about a third of the damage attributed to Hurricane Sandy, which was undoubtedly amplified by an anthropogenically-heated ocean. Our effort should be more along the lines of $500 billion over 20 years if we're going to take a serious shot at averting a global catastrophe in the next century.

State of Charge: Electric Vehicles' Global Warming Emissions and Fuel-Cost Savings Across the United States


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 20, 2012


I think you misunderstand the premise behind fee and dividend.

It's not a tax, but a fee which is collected at a carbon source, whether that's a wellhead, a port-of-entry, or a coal mine. It is based on that source's anticpated contribution to atmospheric carbon. Naturally, this raises the price of carbon-based fuels.

But at the end of a designated time period (typically a year), all the collected fees are distributed evenly to every citizen of the jurisdiction in which the fees were raised (or where the carbon is used). Everyone gets the same check - and the people who used less carbon than the average actually earn money, while those who used more carbon get a rebate  (though still not enough to cover their added fuel expense).

It imposes no net cost on society. In equal measure, it penalizes carbon use while rewarding carbon non-use. The fee can start out small and be increased as people recognize the monetary value of being carbon-frugal.

James Hansen is one of its most famous proponents, but many others see this as more practical and less prone to fraud than either a straight carbon tax or cap-and-trade. And because the fee is levied at the source, petroleum can't simply be shipped to another venue where it can be burned tax-free.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Nov 20, 2012

Jesse, with your remarkable writing skills, please consider this possible analogy to perhaps weave into some future energy discussion.

The fossil energy squabbles remind me of a dog with a new batch of puppies. The puppies each start blindly seeking a teat. The competition for a teat and mother's milk intensifies as the puppies grow and fight among themselves. There comes a time when mother has to say enough and the puppies must find alternatives. Some puppies don't make that transition.

Oil and mother's milk are good things. But as the picture in the article reminds us, mama isn't going to take care of us forever. If we humans don't have the intelligence to transition to a sustainable lifestyle we won't survive. We can argue about mama's milk capacity and how to better suck and who makes the most mess, but that isn't the issue we need to debate.

Richard Wilson's picture
Richard Wilson on Nov 20, 2012

Obviously, all the commenters are concerned by the continuing use of fossil fuels but all is not so gloom and doom.  I suggest you find out about Andrea Rossi and Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR).  LENR is a nuclear process that produces no nuclear waste nor radiation outside its immediate shielding.  It is cheaper than fossil fuels and for that matter cheaper than all other forms of energy we now use including wind and solar.  We will see commercial sales emerge in 2013 with the first public installation expected in February.

Check out the presentation at: It is an outstanding summary of the field.

ben mcmahon's picture
ben mcmahon on Nov 21, 2012

I agree Jessica

The sooner reliance on fossil fuels ends, the better. In fact if one were to contemplate a little, it seems extremely archaic to be using FF at this point in time.

It appears to be all about money, as the global economy rides on oil prices. This is our failure, and must be overcome asap.

I look forward to a future with renewable energy, and an end to disgrace in gaining FF sources.

Nuclear energy comes with risks, bloody hell, it seems we cant create an energy source that doesnt endager the world we live in..........what a horrid thought!!!

Take care, and lets hope for the best

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 21, 2012


EVs don't need to be long-range to be viable. I own a Nissan Leaf and a Ford Escape Hybrid, and in the past two months I've driven the Escape exactly twice. If one is not adequate for your needs, that's fine - they're not for everyone. But your needs are not representative of mine, nor (in my opinion) at least 30 million urban and suburban drivers who live in two-car households. The bottom line is that though the chorus of naysaying continues unabated, the Leaf boasts a 99% customer approval rating - the people who are actually using them love them.

In fact the the Prius was subsidized, and not by the Japanese government but our own. In 2002 the car, which was a lemon by today's standards, was worth $2,000 off your federal AGI, and rebates of up to $750 in CA (and other states, GA if memory serves).

Re: research spending, what better research is there than putting cars on the road and getting customer feeback?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 21, 2012


It most certainly is not legitimate to excessively damage the environment and drive species to extinction.

But you and I both know - it's not the Chinese rice farmer or the Russian herder on the steppe or the fishing community in Bangladesh which bears the lion's share of responsiblility, but the people who have burning through resources and polluting 5x faster than everyone else.

It's time to roll up our shirtsleeves and start mopping up the mess we've made.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Nov 21, 2012

"Mandatory worldwide birth control" .... Willem, pardon my French but How the Hell are we going to do that?

James Van Damme's picture
James Van Damme on Nov 21, 2012

"I suggest you find out about Andrea Rossi..." if you need a good laugh.

Yes, there's plenty of oil down there. No, that doesn't mean it's cheap to get it out, any more. Or that it's a good idea to burn it.

Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Nov 21, 2012

Ha, good analogy, Rick. Keep it up.


....We've got a long way to go to stand on our own two feet, yes.

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