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When will fossil fuels run out?

The prospect of fossil fuel supplies running out is one that is often given media coverage, yet even scientists find to it hard to make an accurate prediction regarding when this might occur. Will it happen, and if so, when is this likely? Is all the fuss about nothing and is there no real prospect of oil, coal and natural gas actually running out in the foreseeable future?

Will the oil run out?

According to Science News for Students, an online resource that provides science news to students, teachers and parents, there is not any way of find out precisely how much oil, coal and gas are contained within the Earth. Further, the publication argue that a figure would not have any real use, due to the fact that some of the fossil fuels might not be in locations that can be accessed; thus they might not be extracted anyway. As geological shifts occur all the time, the position and accessibility of oil reservoirs, gas reserves and coal seams could also change at any point.

In fact, around two decades ago scientists perfected a method of accessing what are known as “unconventional resources.” The term refers to supplies of natural gas or oil that could not be extracted via the usual drilling methods. Oil and energy companies then worked out modern and cost-effective techniques for extracting the Earth’s resources.

New extraction technology

One example of such a technique is known as “fracking”, which is short for hydraulic fracturing. Fracking involves drilling deep into the ground to inject a mixture of water, chemicals and sand. This pushes out any natural gas or oil that is present, although it is a controversial process.

Azra Tutuncu, a a geoscientist who is based at the Colorado School of Mines, says she does not predict the supply of fossil fuels running dry, as new technologies will exist to make extracting them both more simple and more affordable.

The advantages of fossil fuels

Fossil fuels are not only useful in the production of energy, but also in the lubrication of vehicles and equipment, which is another reason why the population of planet Earth might find it difficult to manage without them.

Many uses

All kinds of products, including anything made from plastic, make use of fossil fuels. If the world did want to become less reliant on fossil fuels, then it would be up to the engineers and scientists among us to devise replacements that were kind to the environment and created less of a carbon footprint.

A source of solar energy?

Using fossil fuels could be argued to be an ancient form of harnessing solar power.

Plants are at the bottom of the food chain, followed by tiny organisms such as algae or plankton. Such organisms, as well as small seaweed, fell to the ocean bed and over a very long time went through various processes, involving extreme heat and pressure, to be transformed into natural gas, oil or coal. As the sea life either photosynthesised itself or consumed plants that had done so, the energy contained in fossil fuels originally came from the sun.

The formation of fossil fuels is therefore very much a natural process, that occurred over many millions of years. Gas, oil and coal are therefore natural products, and are continuously being created deep inside the earth. The question is whether we can access and thus extract all of them. Another question concerns the rate at which they are being used.

The disadvantages of fossil fuels

No one can deny that burning fossil fuels results in increased carbon dioxide as well as other greenhouse gases that have an impact on global warming and climate change. Some scientists therefore prefer to take the view that humans should curb their use of fossil fuels.

Alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels do already exist, and over time more are likely to emerge. Examples include solar and wind power. Such methods of generating energy do not produce carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases, so their carbon footprint is lower.

Wind power

However, there are also issues with “green” methods of energy production. Wind farms, for example, involve erecting giant turbines that tend to end up being placed in countryside and coastal locations, impacting on the natural beauty of these areas.

Wind farms that are positioned on land also take up a lot of space; space that might otherwise be used for food production, manufacturing or housing – all things that humans need.

Solar power

Solar energy is another alternative, and this is perhaps more popular with the public. All over Britain, there are people who have installed solar panels on the roofs of their homes, harnessing the sun’s rays to create energy that they can then use for heating, cooking, lighting and more.

The panels are fairly unobtrusive in comparison to massive wind turbines, but some people do think they are unsightly. There are other problems with solar panel installation too. A lot of people do not have the option of solar panels, because they are renting their property, or because of its tenure. A landlord might not agree to solar panels being fitted when it has no benefit to him or her, and they might anticipate potential problems. Owners of leasehold properties would find it almost impossible to get permission from the land owner for solar panels for the same reason.

Even for those who own their house or flat there are issues. Mortgage companies are not always keen on solar panels, as the solar panel installation company can demand rights over the property’s roof. For that reason, homes with solar panels can prove difficult to sell, even though the prospect of free energy might initially seem attractive to purchasers.

Will the supply of fossil fuels run dry?

We cannot know for certain, and in any case new methods of extraction are constantly being developed. If that time does come, the cutting-edge technology likely to exist by then should ensure we can extract whatever resources the Earth still has, as well as providing realistic, efficient and more attractive alternatives.

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