Just how finite are fossil fuels?
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[APRIL 22, 2005]
URBANA -- Illinois is sitting on a stockpile of
Finley, senior geologist and director of the Energy and Earth
Resources Center at the Illinois State Geological Survey says that
as a state, Illinois has the largest supply of bituminous coal --
that is, a good grade of coal -- 211 billion tons of it. "And that
only includes what we can access," said Finley. "It doesn't include
coal under cities and towns that cannot be mined easily.
"We have already mined much of the shallow coal along the edge of
the Illinois Basin, but Illinois still has enough coal to last us
300 to 400 years and not run out," he said. The Illinois Basin is
comprised of two-thirds of Illinois and adjacent parts of western
Indiana and western Kentucky. The problem is that we need better
ways to utilize the coal in environmentally friendly ways, and along
with that new technology comes a high price tag. "But, Illinois is
progressive," Finley said. "We have one of the best state programs
looking at coal development."
Coal gasification is one new
technology being explored. Finley said that it's a cleaner process
than coal combustion -- the method associated with many conventional
emissions. Researchers are using gasification to remove mercury and
sulfur dioxide pre-combustion. Coal is converted to a synthetic
natural gas that can be used to run turbines to generate electricity
or as a source of hydrogen to use in fuel cells for cars. With coal
gasification, the sulfur is taken out before it is burned. Even the
byproduct can be used. The leftover slag is a glassy substance that
is used for roadbed construction.
But, because coal cannot be used in many transportation
applications, oil is still our fuel of choice. And although gasoline
prices seem expensive when filling up the tank, as fuel goes, oil is
still cheap. As long as that's true, Finley said there's little
incentive to develop alternatives like coal gasification. "And
alternative fuels can't be produced right now in large enough
quantities to be economical and make a major dent in oil imports,"
he said. "If we could produce 2 million barrels per day of biodiesel
fuel, the cost to produce would go down. If we should have sustained
high oil prices, that opens the door for alternative fuels."
In 2030 to 2040, Finley predicts that the world will be at peak
oil production -- that is, of conventional oil. Globally, we now use
80 million barrels of oil a day. In 2040 the prediction is that
we'll be at 120 million barrels a day.
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An equivalent barrel of oil is 18½ inches in diameter and holds
42 gallons of oil. Currently, the United States uses 20 million
barrels of oil per day, or about 25 percent of the world's oil
usage. For comparison, 19 million barrels placed side by side would
stretch all the way from Boston to several hundred miles past
Honolulu -- over 5,400 miles.
Another thing to factor into the world-usage number is the
tremendous growth in industrialization in countries like China. "As
those economies increase, their demand for energy will be enormous
and begin to pass us up," Finley said.
He said part of the problem is that we talk about the world's
reserves of oil as opposed to what we actually have. "Reserves are
what we have in the bank," he said. "We'll be making withdrawals,
but we'll also be making new discoveries and putting more in the
bank." In terms of oil, he says we have 43 years of reserve on a
global basis, "and those are proven resources in the bank. Defining
what total resources are out there is harder, because we haven't
found it all yet."
Finley's message is that the sky is not falling. "We are not four
or five years from the day of reckoning," he said. "But because
fossil fuel is finite, it will be used up eventually. It will take
hundreds of years to deplete the world supply of coal, and by then,
the technical aspects of producing alternative fuels will improve
and the economics will go down. We'll be able to rely more on energy
from other resources -- perhaps agriculturally derived renewable
of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental
Sciences news release]