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Oh, no! We’re down to our last ten million years of fossil fuels

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THE materials often disparagingly called ‘fossil fuels’ – coal, oil and gas – are, by orders of magnitude, the most energy-rich and easily utilised forms of fuel on the planet. Their ability to produce heat, motion and electricity quickly, controllably and efficiently is unparalleled in nature, and our ability to store them cheaply and easily is also without parallel. Their utilisation from the end of the 18th century until now has caused an explosion of wealth and general comfort for the world’s growing population.

Today, however, our scientifically illiterate politicians and their cronies think they can phase them out and replace them with ‘green’ renewable energy. As we know, they base this decision on their belief that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a dangerous ‘greenhouse gas’. This is pseudo-science of course: there is no such thing in nature. CO2 is essential plant food and by extension a requirement for all living things; you and I are mostly made from what began as CO2. It is a totally benign gas and we are rather short of it on the planet at this time. Farmers know this because they pump CO2 into polytunnels to increase yields.

Just to remind you, CO2 is just 0.04 per cent of the atmosphere. Any increase in CO2 is ‘blamed’ on emissions from fossil fuel use. There is a problem with this suggestion, however. When CO2 rises, so also does a gas called methane (CH4); they are always in lockstep. Such a connection is the clear signature of natural biological decay. Only if burning fossil fuels causes increased flatulence could you conclude that a CO2 increase is due to fossil fuel use!

It is impossible to replace this form of concentrated energy with anything else: wind, solar or hydro. The only other energy source that gets anywhere near is nuclear fission. But this is not very portable. It can drive ships (submarines for example) and generate electricity (best use is for base load – like coal), but it cannot be used on a small scale as petrol or diesel can. In addition it has hazards which make it unsuitable domestically.

However the one real major worry about fossil fuel use is that we might run out soon; ‘peak oil’ is often quoted as just 40 years away. Interestingly, our Victorian ancestors worried that coal would run out in about 1860. So are we going to run out soon? The simple answer is no. There are enough fossil fuels available in the earth’s crust to last up to ten million years at present rates of consumption.

The basis for this conclusion is as follows. When the earth formed some four billion years ago, it had an atmosphere very like Venus has today; nearly 100 per cent CO2 and at huge pressure – one hundred times our present-day atmospheric pressure. Then life appeared, converting CO2 into organic ‘carbon’ and oxygen (CO2 => C+O2) by photosynthesis. At first that oxygen reacted with all the iron in the earth’s crust to form iron ore, before, a billion or so years later, seeping into the atmosphere. In a simple piece of chemical accounting, there must be free ‘carbon’ equivalent to the oxygen converted into iron ore. We know roughly how much iron there is – it’s about 5 per cent of the earth’s crust. There must therefore be free carbon available (somewhere in the crust) as the equivalent quantity of fossil fuel (coal, oil or gas). Without showing the working (there’ll be a test next time!)* this comes out as about 1,000,000,000 gigatonne. Current known oil reserves are around 100 gigatonne. Therefore there remains to find some ten million times current known reserves.  It’ll see us all out for many millennia – for sure!

*Details available on request.

Worth reading: Mark P Mills, The New Energy Economy: an exercise in magical thinking. 

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Philip Foster
Revd Philip Foster is the author of While the Earth Endures: creation, cosmology and climate change.

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