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Coal operation in Australia (HO)
Coal operation in Australia (HO)

Neil Reynolds

The fossil fuel king of the world Add to ...

Measured by proved reserves, which country is the world's No. 1 fossil fuel superpower?

Many people answer: Saudi Arabia, or Russia. Or, less confidently: Saudi Arabia plus Iran, Iraq and Kuwait. Or, more creatively: Saudi Arabia plus Canada and Iraq. As calculated by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, they're all wrong. The correct answer is the United States - which (it says) has enough proved and probable fossil fuel resources to last hundreds of years.

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In a paper published in November ("U.S. Fossil Fuel Resources"), the non-partisan federal agency put the global supply of proved, economically accessible fossil fuels at 5,735.2 billion barrels of oil equivalent (BBOE). It put the U.S. share at 972.6 BBOE - 17 per cent of world supply. This is more than Russia, more than Saudi Arabia, more than Saudi Arabia, Canada and Iran combined.

The agency's calculations are based on proved reserves of oil, natural gas and coal. By this measure, the U.S. has less conventional oil (19.1 billion barrels) than other fossil fuel superpowers: Saudi Arabia has 46.7 billion barrels. But it has much more natural gas (43.4 BBOE) and coal (910.1 BBOE). Saudi Arabia, in contrast, has zero coal. "Using only proved numbers for the U.S. and other nations," the agency says, "[we show]that the U.S. remains among the top nations in proved reserves of all fossil fuels taken together."

Here are the Top 10 countries, according to the report: (1) U.S., 972.6 BBOE; (2) Russia, 964.9; (3) China, 474.8; (4) Iran, 328.1; (5) Australia-New Zealand, 314.6; (6) Saudi Arabia, 309.1; (7) India, 227.3; (8) Canada, 211.4; (9) Qatar, 184.8; (10) Kazakhstan, 164.1. Runner-up countries include Venezuela, UAE, Kuwait and Iraq.

Throw probable resources into the mix and the U.S. leaps further ahead. Saudi Arabia adds 231.3 BBOE for a combined total of 540.4. Canada adds 7.2 BBOE for a combined total of 218.6. The U.S. adds 351.5 BBOE and extends its fossil fuel inventory to 1,324.1 billion barrels of oil equivalent.

These calculations do not count non-fossil energy sources (such as uranium and hydroelectricity, which would move countries such as Canada (with one-quarter of the world's supply of uranium) higher in the standings. Nor do they include next-generation fossil fuel resources.

They don't include, for example, massive coal deposits in Alaska. These hard-to-get deposits hold as much as 3,200 billion tons of coal: enough to maintain current U.S. production (one billion tons a year) for 3,200 years..

Nor do the calculations even include all of the U.S. technically recoverable deposits of coal: The U.S. has 488 billion tons of this category of coal (enough for 488 years) - but the research agency counts only 260 billion.

These calculations also don't include huge U.S. shale oil deposits, described by the U.S. Department of Energy as "the most abundant fossil fuel" in the country - after coal. The department says 1.38 trillion barrels of these difficult deposits are already "potentially recoverable" from 7.8 million acres of federally owned shale oil formations. Worldwide production of crude oil, for comparison purposes, runs at a mere 25 billion barrels a year.

And these calculations don't include any of the vast deposits of methane hydrates (natural gas) that exist in U.S. territorial waters, especially the cold ocean waters around Alaska. By official estimate, these deposits hold 320,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas - a small part of it (85 trillion cubic feet) already "technically recoverable." Even a tiny fraction of this resource would fuel the U.S. economy for long ages: 0.01 per cent of it is 1.5 times the country's annual consumption.

Because Canada and the U.S. share an integrated fossil fuel market, it's best to look at this energy inventory from a North American perspective. Almost certainly, we have far more fossil fuels than we will ever need. Counting only proved and probable reserves, Canada and the U.S. possess 1,542.7 BBOE - 1,542 billion barrels worth of oil-equivalent energy. That's the world's No. 1 energy supply by far.

Fossil fuels supply more than 80 per cent of the world's energy and will continue to dominate energy markets for a long time to come. It's good that we have lots of them.

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