17/07/2008 2:08 pmFossil fuel is a kind of energy derived from hydrocarbons, formed by the decomposition of living organisms over the course of geological time, by exposure to heat, pressure and certain bacteria. These hydrocarbons are oil, gas and coal whose exploitation allowed the development of the industrial world. Massively exploited since the middle of the XXth century, the reserves are now becoming depleted.
83.6 millions barrels of oil are consumed daily (mb/d), an increase of 25% since 1990. According to the United Nations, oil consumption could reach 116 mb/d in 2030, 70% of it consumed by developing countries, 30% by China. According to experts, the peak of production was either reached in 2007 or will be reached in 5 to 25 years. The expected scarcity of black gold is reflected in its price hike, a barrel of oil reached the 100 dollar mark at the beginning of 2008. Gas consumption increased by 41% in 15 years and coal consumption by 92% compared to 1980. In 1996, China consumed its own production of hydrocarbons; in 2006, it imported 50% of its hydrocarbon consumption. As a result, in 200 years man will have burned a resource which took 400 million years to “come about.”
Producers and consumers
The Middle Eastern countries that are members of OPEC possess 81% of global oil reserves, and produce 43% of them. Saudi-Arabia alone, with 266.8 billion barrels, possesses close to a quarter of global reserves. The United States, with less than 5% of the world population, uses a quarter of the oil produced each year. Consumption has increased there by 22% since 1990. China’s consumption has almost doubled in 15 years (+193 %) and consumption in the Asian-Pacific zone has increased by 73%, passing that of North America. Per inhabitant, the Chinese consume 1.9 barrels per year, Americans 25.2 barrels, and the French 12 barrels. Daily volume, respectively, is 6.7 mb/day, 20.8 mb/day, and 2 mb/day.
More than 250 toxic products have been identified in the vicinity of oil fields. Among them, benzene, carbon bisulfite, carbonyl sulfide, metals such as mercury, arsenic and chrome, and acid gases such as H2S and SO2. These gases lead to respiratory diseases, headaches, vomiting, dermatological, renal, nervous system and cardiovascular problems, lung cancer, lung damage, endocrine dysfunction or sterility. They act through direct inhalation, but also by acid rainfall. Polluted water becomes unsafe for consumption, causing humanitarian catastrophes in numerous African countries. According to the 2006 report by the International Energy Agency, 1.3 million people (mostly women and children) die prematurely each year due to exposure to air pollution linked to the production and combustion of hydrocarbons.
Estimated gas reserves range between 175,000 and 181,000 billion m3, which is approximately 60 years at the 2006 rate of consumption which was 2,850 billion m3. The Middle East produces 31% of the world’s gas and has around 42% of the world’s reserves. North American deposits will be depleted in 11 years.
Coal is mainly consumed by the countries that produce it. Coal consumption reached 5,339 Mt in 2006, 8.8% higher than in 2005. 65% of coal is consumed in the Asian-Pacific region, 18% in North America and 7% in Europe. China extracted 2,430 Mt of coal, the United States 1,131 Mt, India 473 Mt, Australia 414 Mt and Russia 331 Mt. World coal reserves were estimated at 847.5 billion tons (2006), which means that reserves would last for 150 years. Because coal is a large producer of greenhouse gases, its increasing combustion poses serious problems for climate evolution.
Main contributors to the greenhouse effect
Hydrocarbons derived from biomass are an important natural carbon reserve buried in the ground. Their extraction and combustion account for 80% of GHG emissions into the atmosphere, 42% for oil alone. The production of one kWh of electricity from coal emits 107 g of CO2 equivalent, 78 g from oil and 62 g from gas. Likewise, the production, the treatment, the transmission and the distribution of oil and natural gas represent the second largest anthropogenic source of methane emissions (CH4). Each year, 88 billion cubic metres of CH4 are released. Since October 2007, the European Union joined the Methane to markets partnership, which aims to reduce leakage and emissions.
Gas flaring and emissions associated with crude oil production represent a volume of 150 billion cubic metres each year, which is approximately 30% of EU consumption, or 75% of Russian gas exports. They lead to the emission of 350 million tons of CO2 each year. Based on the satellite images studied between 1995 and 2006 by the World Bank, in partnership with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in 60 countries or regions the quantity of gas flaring emitted has remained stable overall while hydrocarbon production increased. However, notable discrepancies appeared between the countries’ official statistics and the results of satellite images. In 2004, official Russian statistics noted 14.9 million cubic metres of flared gas while the images found 50.7. As part of a partnership for the global reduction of flared gas (GGFR), the World Bank brought together 14 oil-producing nations and 10 oil companies, with the goal of eliminating 32 million tons of greenhouse gas by 2012.
Tensions related to oil
Industrialized countries have created such a dependency on fossil fuels and particularly oil, that the announced depletion of reserves exacerbates tensions. These tensions are tied to the control of deposits and to securing the supply, which explains in part the conflicts of the Middle East. U.S. naval forces in the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf have the mission of securing the sea and land lanes dedicated to transporting combustibles. The supplies for Japan and China pass through the Strait of Malacca, where the sea lanes have proven to be unsafe due to pirates and local land conflicts. China is currently trying to make a contract with Thailand to transport its oil by land and avoid the strait.