How Much Matter Died to Fill Your Tank?

There are losses all along the way as the organic material is trapped in a geological formation where it will remain for millions of years while it decays into fossil fuels. The amount of loss at each step in the process is known fairly well because of the extensive research needed to find and develop fuel deposits.

By adding up all the factors, Dukes determined how much organic material was required to produce the oil, coal and gas deposits that are available to us today. Or perhaps more to the point, how much of what was originally there was lost due to erosion or other natural forces and never joined the fossil fuel pool.

And that led to another astonishing figure.

Dwindling Supply

Only one-eleventh of the carbon in plants deposited in peat bogs ends up as coal, according to his calculations. But that's amazingly efficient compared to the process that turns biological material that was deposited in ancient marine environments into oil and natural gas.

And here's the shocker. Only one atom out of every 10,750 carbon atoms ended up as oil or natural gas. The rest washed off, blew away, or was somehow returned to the earth's carbon bank.

It's amazing that the process worked at all because only a tiny percentage of organic material "grew in a place where it could eventually become stored and turned into a fossil fuel that we could reach today," Dukes says.

"And so you would think that we would have run out a long time ago, but fortunately there were millions and millions of years during which this fossil fuel was accumulating in all its various forms."

Nowadays, "we are clearly running through it quite fast," he says. That's why he titled a report on his research, published in the November issue of the journal Climatic Change, "Burning Buried Sunshine: Human Consumption of Ancient Solar Energy."

Many experts believe the world's production of fossil fuels has already peaked. After this, if they are right, it's all downhill.

It will take a while to get there, of course. But along the way the world's political power will shift increasingly toward countries that have it, and away from countries that have already spent it.

The societies that survive will be those that figured out other ways to produce the fuel they needed to power their homes, factories, and transportation devices. It's hard not to wonder why that isn't the No. 1 priority in the world today.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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