The Growing Abundance of Fossil Fuels

By Bradley, Robert L., Jr. | Freeman, November 1999 | Go to article overview

The Growing Abundance of Fossil Fuels


Bradley, Robert L., Jr., Freeman


Only two decades ago nearly all academics, businessmen, oilmen, and policymakers agreed that the age of energy scarcity was upon us and that the depletion of fossil fuels was imminent. While some observers still cling to that view today, the intellectual tide has turned against doom and gloom on the energy front. Nearly all resource economists believe that fossil fuels will remain affordable in any reasonably foreseeable future. Indeed, these fuels have become more abundant even in the face of record consumption. World oil reserves today are more than 15 times greater than they were when record keeping began in 1948; world gas reserves are almost four times greater than they were 30 years ago; world coal reserves have risen 75 percent in the last 20 years. Proven world reserves of oil, gas, and coal are officially estimated to be 45, 63, and 230 years of current consumption, respectively. Probable resources of oil, gas, and coal are officially forecast to be 114, 200, and 1,884 years of present usage, respectively.

Moreover, an array of unconventional fossil-fuel sources promises that, when crude oil, natural gas, and coal become scarcer (hence, more expensive) in the future, other fossil fuels may still be the best substitutes before synthetic substitutes come into play. Orimulsion The most promising unconventional fossil fuel today is orimulsion, a tarlike substance that can be burned to make electricity or refined into petroleum. Orimulsion became the "fourth fossil fuel" in the mid-1980s when technological improvements made Venezuela's reserves commercially exploitable. Venezuela's reserve equivalent of 1.2 trillion barrels of oil exceeds the world's known reserves of crude oil, and other countries' more modest supplies of the natural bitumen add to the total.

With economic and environmental (postscrubbing) characteristics superior to those of fuel oil and coal when used for electricity generation, orimulsion is an attractive conversion opportunity for facilities located near waterways with convenient access to Venezuelan shipping. While political opposition (in Florida, in particular) has slowed the introduction of orimulsion in the United States, it has already penetrated markets in Denmark and Lithuania and, to a lesser extent, Germany and Italy. India could soon join that list. Marketing issues aside, this here-and-now fuel source represents an abundant backstop fuel at worst and a significant extension of the petroleum age at best. Synthetics and More The significance of orimulsion for the electricity-generation market may be matched by technological breakthroughs commercializing the conversion of natural gas to synthetic-oil products. For remote gas fields, gas-to-liquids processing can replace the more expensive alternative of liquefaction. In mature markets with air quality concerns, such as in California, natural gas could become a key feedstock from which to distill the cleanest reformulated gasoline and reformulated diesel fuel yet.

A half dozen competing technologies have been developed, several by oil majors that are committing substantial investments relative to government support. The widespread adaptation of gas-to-oil technologies could commercialize up to 40 percent of the world's natural gas fields that hitherto have been uneconomic. In addition to orimulsion and synthesized natural gas, tar sand, shale oil, and various replenishable crops also have great promise, however uneconomic they now are, given today's technology and best practices.

Michael Lynch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that more than six trillion barrels of potentially recoverable conventional oil and another 15 trillion barrels of unconventional oil (excluding coal liquefaction) are identifiable today, an estimate that moves the day of reckoning for petroleum centuries into the future.

The gas resource base is similarly loaded with potential substitutions. Advances in coalbed methane and tight-sands gas technology show immediate potential, and synthetic substitutes from oil crops have long-run promise. …

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