What are fossil fuels and when will they run out?

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INNER MONGOLIA, CHINA – NOVEMBER 04: Smoke billows from a large steel plant as a Chinese labourer works at an unauthorized steel factory, foreground, on November 4, 2016 in Inner Mongolia, China. To meet China’s targets to slash emissions of carbon dioxide, authorities are pushing to shut down privately owned steel, coal, and other high-polluting […]

(WETM) – As the COP26 Climate Summit nears its last day, activists and UN officials alike continue to push world leaders to commit to drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

In any talks about climate change, fossil fuels are almost always at the center. The big three we always hear about are oil, coal and natural gas. But how much do fossil fuels permeate our daily lives, how are they formed and how long will they last?

How fossil fuels are formed

Fossil fuels are all made from decomposed living material, i.e. – plants and animals. The plants and animals build up carbon and hydrogen in their bodies, and these become stored energy when they die.

Over millions of years, this dead material gets buried deeper and deeper in the Earth’s crust, experiencing extremely intense amounts of heat and pressure.

The Smithsonian explains that the heat begins to break down the molecules of the material. At first, this becomes “partially-changed material” like peat. Peat, which comes from plants, can still be used as a fuel source, but it doesn’t have as much energy as full-blown fossil fuels coal, for example.

So over millions of more years, plants eventually transform into coal and animal material, especially plankton, becomes natural gas and oil.

The Department of Energy says that coal got its start from dead plants around 300 million years ago, and oil and natural gas are almost 200 million years old, according to Southeastern Louisiana University.

Where do we get fossil fuels

Humans have to dig deep into the ground to pull out fossil fuels.

Coal is usually found in sedimentary rocks (rocks made of layers of compacted material) where the decomposed material has been layered up for millions of years.

Similarly, oil is also found in sedimentary rocks, originally as a solid between layers. It’s then heated up, making it able to be extracted.

And natural gas—mostly made up of methane—is normally found in pockets of rock above oil deposits. The dead material requires even higher temperatures than oil in order to turn into natural gas.

Are there other fossil fuels?

You might be wondering if things like kerosene or propane are also considered fossil fuels.

The short answer: yes.

Kerosene and propane are both created by refining crude oil and natural gas. So yes, they are also non-renewable resources.

This means that fuels like gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel are also fossil fuels, derived from oil.

Oil is ubiquitous in modern daily life; any petroleum-based product is derived from crude oil. It’s used in everything from combustible fuels (like the examples above) to paint, makeup, fabrics, Vaseline, and of course—plastic.

And just think about everything that we use every day that contains some form of plastic. These include the obvious products like toys, food wrappers and electronics, but things like heart valves and tires are also derived from oil.

How long will fossil fuels last?

As we commonly hear, coal, natural gas and oil are nonrenewable resources. Even though living material is dying all the time and getting buried, it obviously isn’t feasible to wait millions of years for more fossil fuel stock to build up.

So the question remains: when will fossil fuels run out? The answer isn’t an exact number.

In a 2008 article in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy, it was predicted that coal, oil and gas would run out in 107, 35, and 37 years, respectively. That prediction means that after the year 2042, coal would be the only fossil fuel remaining until 2117.

A 2019 publication from the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere at Stanford University paints a similar picture. According to the MAHB, the world’s oil reserves will run out by 2052, natural gas by 2060 and coal by 2090.

The U.S. Energy Information Association said in 2019 that the United States has enough natural gas to last 84 years. However, this could change depending on how much is actually produced and changes in estimated amounts of “technically recoverable resources”. TRR includes the amount of natural gas estimated to be produced as well as estimates of the amount that’s ‘technically recoverable’ based on current technology, “without consideration of economics or operating conditions”.

In the meantime, world leaders are agreeing to double down on efforts to slow the effects of climate change at COP26. But there are undoubtedly a myriad of factors at play that will all help determine the course of the earth’s climate in the coming decades.

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