World over, the conversation around energy transition from fossil fuel is fraught and supercharged with anxiety. For many, the major driver of the anxiety is the acceptance that the global depletion and eventual extinction of fossil fuels are inevitable, the aftermath of which is surrounded by seemingly daunting uncertainties.
But then, why should the extinction of fossil fuel constitute such a quandary? It is simply because of the world’s heavy dependency on fossil fuel as the chief source of energy upon which global industries and economies are currently driven.
In 2018, Maarten Wetselaar, Shell’s Director of Integrated Gas and New Energies, made the headlines when he boldly stated, “If we stopped producing oil and gas tomorrow, we would have an economic crisis. We would have famine and we would have a world war.” Wetselaar’s assertion echoes the sentiment of major world oil-producing giant corporations and economies, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada and China.
A number of pertinent questions stand to be answered. How did we get to this point of huge dependency on fossil fuel? What is it about fossil fuel that gave it such a prime spot as the principal source of energy? What about the world’s deposits of fossil fuel? Are they in actual fact approaching extinction? Asides from the possibility of depletion/extinction, what other reasons exist for the need for alternative energy sources? What will the future of fossil fuel most likely be? Will fossil fuel come to be completely replaced? Are there real reasons to be anxious about fossil fuel’s extinction? And, how are leading world economies responding to the entire dynamics?
In exploring these questions, it is first necessary to establish clear meanings and a historical context. The term “fuel” refers to a substance used in producing energy. Essentially, fuel implies an energy source. Fossil fuel happens to be a type of fuel that man has harnessed in providing energy. Other sources of energy man has relied on (and still relies on) include food, water, wind, sunlight, heat, electricity and nuclear sources.
Over the course of history, energy has been central to man in driving his activities and industries. The earliest source of energy known is energy from the sun (solar energy), which has been with man from the dawn of time. Energy from the sun provided light and heat which man utilized in various forms. The discovery of fire also provided more heat and light and also helped in cooking food, which constituted a form of fuel for man. Subsequent to the use of solar energy, man discovered wind as a viable source of energy.
Wind was harnessed for transportation across oceans via sails. Wind also proved useful in agriculture, used specifically in windmills, a contraption that uses wind to turn wheels for grinding. It was not until the late 1600s that the steam engine was invented. The steam engine used coal (a fossil fuel) in heating water to create the steam that drove the engine. Coal became the primary fuel in use throughout the next 300 years till the first half of the twentieth century (1900s). Coal proved useful in transportation (steam locomotive), light and heat production as well as industrial manufacturing. In the 1900s, oil and natural gas emerged as primary fuel sources. Electricity and nuclear sources subsequently emerged with more recent alternative energy sources such as geothermal and biomass rising in step.
Worthy of note is the fact that production and manufacturing, the hallmarks of industry, ride on energy. Revolutions in industry over the ages have been powered by shifts in energy sources. For instance, the first industrial revolution was driven by new energy sources such as coal, the steam engine, electricity, petroleum and the internal combustion engine. Subsequent industrial revolutions have consistently been driven by newer discoveries, inventions and technologies, part of which include explorations in new energy sources.
Closely related to this is transitions in energy sources. Over the course of history, man has transited from one energy source to another, with a more amenable, efficient and profitable energy source forming the mainstay of industry.
Since its emergence, fossil fuel, particularly the oil and gas elements, has gained preponderance over and above all other energy sources. A number of factors are responsible for this. First, its relative ubiquitousness; oil and natural gas are found underground in different regions of the world. Second, its diversity; crude oil contains diverse sub-elements that are extractible and can be refined into a diverse range of energy sources, a sharp contrast to its natural counterparts which are mostly only usable in their natural forms.
Third, its wider applicability and convertibility; oil and natural gas are more convertible to various energy forms, unlike some of their natural counterparts like wind energy which are limited in applicability. Fourth, technological advancement; developments in technology increasingly channelled into oil and gas production have opened up new vistas and pathways that keep improving efficiency and optimization of production. One of such technology is fracking, a procedure that contributes immensely to improving efficiency in extraction.
A fifth reason is power plays; oil portends economic benefits of quantum proportions and has been known to lift up whole economies into wealth and prosperity. Knowing this fact, leading world economies have mastered the use of “oil power” within the global economic landscape.
As earlier mentioned, energy transition is not anything new in man’s history. Understanding this very fact forms the beginning of the demystifications of the uncertainties and anxieties deeply associated with the rising calls for a shift from fossil fuel. If we understand that a transition is inevitable, we will think a bit more differently and strategize accordingly (more on this later).
Moreover, the drive to transition from fossil fuel is occasioned by series of concerns. One of these concerns the level of reserve of crude oil available for global access and exploration. In contrast to other natural forms of energy, oil is finite and non-renewable. Oil production giant, Total, estimates that at the world’s current level of consumption, fossil fuels present underground can last another 90 years of oil production and 140 years of gas production. While arguably ample, 90 – 140 years is glaringly a finite number of years. Related to the finiteness of oil is increasing demand occasioned by population explosion world over.
Advances in medical technology, the entrenchment of the democratic systems of government and developments in the global economy all continue to be accompanied by increasing population worldwide, the creation of prosperity and the growth of the upper-middle class. The result of this is that demand for energy is rising astronomically as more people are able to afford energy supply, whereas, the finiteness of fossil fuels makes them incapable of sustaining the rising demand.
The need for alternative sources, therefore, becomes unavoidable. Another concern is the negative environmental impact associated with fossil fuel combustion. Climate change, global warming, oil spillage and environmental degradation are closely tied to fossil fuel extraction and use, leading to calls from various quarters for a transition to newer energy sources considered more ecofriendly. With all these concerns, a paradoxical situation is observable with respect to fossil fuel – while bringing forth huge gains, it also appears to carry within itself the very seeds for its inevitable demise.
But the story does not end there. Efforts are continually being ploughed into identifying ways of extracting and producing oil and gas in a manner more amiable to the environment. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for example, in addition to being more efficient in extraction, is also known to be friendlier to the environment.
Major steps are also being taken towards developing alternative energy sources. The production of electric cars for example is a major move in this direction. Solar energy is also receiving renewed attention with the development of new technologies in solar panel production and the rise in its purchase, both for industrial, city and domestic use. Nuclear and biothermal energies are also being increasingly deployed.
It must be stated that some of the current world leaders in oil production are also at the forefront of the search and development of alternative energy sources with the renewable and ecofriendly bent. This is another challenge to developing ountries to be careful not to get left behind by subjecting themselves to the myopia of the limited scope of oil production; but to begin to open themselves up to the deliberate pursuit, exploration and development of alternative energy sources.
With the foregoing in mind, the attitude of the world towards the possible extinction or replacement of fossil fuels should not be one of fear but one of understanding, acceptance and proactive action. We understand that energy transition is not new and is inevitable; this should enable us manoeuvre it and spur us to intelligently prepare for it. It is very likely that fossil fuels will not completely be extinct (Coal for example remains in abundant supply despite its replacement as the mainstream source of energy. Moreover, its replacement was not warranted by depletion but by the discovery of a more efficient alternative, oil). In addition, there is a high chance that oil and natural gas will not be completely replaced in the near future, considering their proven efficiency, economic gains and the massive investments tied to them. What seems more plausible is a complementary arrangement where the shortcomings of fossil fuels will be complemented for and compensated by renewable and cleaner sources of energy.
We all should put fear in the back seat and let visionary leadership drive us to preparing for and mastering the inevitable changes and dynamism that the world presents to the human race. This is how we are able to march forward and take significant strides towards further world development.