How Much Oil and Coal are Left?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

In 1956, the geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that United States oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970. This turned out to be correct. Hubbert's theory is called "Hubbert peak theory" or simply "peak oil." According to the theory, oil production increases until it reaches a peak, at which point roughly half the original resource is remaining. Since Hubbert's initial theory, experts have debated whether worldwide production of oil will also reach a peak. Some of the same debates have also centered around coal, with analysts wondering how much longer we can power our energy-hungry civilization with finite fossil fuels.

A pumpjack oil well.
A pumpjack oil well.

According to the pessimists, we may have already reached worldwide peak oil production, or will reach it soon. This would eventually lead to irreversible increases in the price of oil, causing increases in the price of practically everything else, possibly leading to economic collapse, global depression, and other dire consequences, up to and including the dissolution of modern industrial civilization. They argue that we could run out of oil almost entirely in a few decades or less.

It can be difficult and expensive to extract oil from under the ocean.
It can be difficult and expensive to extract oil from under the ocean.

According to optimists, peak oil production will be reached between 2020 and 2030. The impact will be ameliorated by investments in alternative energy sources such as solar panels, solar thermal, wind, tidal, geothermal, and nuclear fission. Even space-based solar stations, biofuel-producing synthetic microbes, and nuclear fusion are oft-cited possibilities. These optimists argue that fears of peak oil are unfounded, and that more innovative extraction techniques will help bridge the gap. They believe oil is not likely to run out in less than 50 years, and possibly longer than a century.

Most experts agree that there is much more coal available than oil, and if oil runs out, we may switch to coal. Making coal even more useful are chemical processes that can convert it to liquid form. That way, coal could be used as a liquid fuel similar to today's petroleum. Most experts agree that we have at least a couple hundred years worth of coal remaining, perhaps more.

A drill rig is used to drill for oil.
A drill rig is used to drill for oil.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


In 2008, the USGS estimated that only 77 billion tons in the Gillette coalfield were actually economically recoverable. This was a dramatic downgrade from earlier estimates.

If our coal consumption does not increase from current levels and if the Powder River Basin takes over from Appalachia soon (next decade or so, which is very likely), we may be left with less than a 100 year supply of coal.

If our coal consumption increases, you're looking at running out sooner. And if we open ports on the West Coast to export it to China, you'll see it disappear at very fast rate.


@ FrameMaker- There are a few scenarios where coal energy use could be extended beyond the 200 year mark. Natural gas production could increase sharply as some of the new fields come on line, and fields are exploited in the Caspian Sea.

If the developing world increases the adoption of fluidized bed and pulverized boilers, then efficiency will be significantly increased. If this increase in efficiency outpaces demand, then the production would drop, causing the R/P ration to rise.

Coal reserves are still very important in energy, even though it is a very dirty form of energy. The reserves will likely last much longer than peak oil, so in a sense it is a necessary stopgap until other technologies can be fully developed and marketed, and global consumption can be reduced.


@ Anon42587- You bring up some very true points about the amount of coal left. The most recent measures of coal reserves I have seen show that there is about a 192 years’ worth of coal reserves left in the world (from BP Global Reports 2004). Compare this to the R/P ratio of 233 years from BP in 2001, and it illustrates how fast and drastically coal reserves change by year.

We used up 42 years of coal in 3 years because coal production increased, proven reserves decreased or a combination of the two. If energy consumption patterns start to stabilize as predicted in some of the more optimistic energy production growth scenarios, then there is approximately only 150 years of coal left. If you are a pessimist, you could easily postulate that coal will run out in approximately 100-110 years. Clean coal is only a stopgap, and coal suppliers know it. Big steps need to be taken to reduce consumption if we want to have any chance of extending coal reserves to 250 years.


I'd suggest a more detailed addressing of the amount of coal. Like oil, try adding the pessimistic view. The 250 years worth of US coal is merely an educated guess. And if we all turn to using more, it'll be less. In the last few years, China went from an exporter to importer of coal. India is in the same situation. The US is now exporting more and more coal. So much for 250 years worth.

In addition, the quality of the remaining coal is declining. The US has less than 20 years worth of coal in their existing operating mines.

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