The history of fossil fuels

 By Nicholas Newman

Virtually all of the fossil fuels, including the coal, crude oil and natural gas we use today, was created millions of years ago before, during and even after the days of the dinosaurs. Since then, such materials have played an important part in mankind’s evolution…

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Virtually all of the fossil fuels, including the coal, crude oil and natural gas we use today, was created millions of years ago before, during and even after the days of the dinosaurs. Since then, such materials have played an important part in mankind’s evolution. Even in pre-historic times, our ancestors exploited small outcrops of oils and minerals, gradually paving the way for tin, bronze and iron production. Since then, fossil fuels have played an essential part in human history, fostering technical innovation, industrial production and the cultural and artistic resources of civilized societies.
Coal, oil and gas were available and used in small quantities for industrial purposes by the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians and Chinese. Unlike oil and gas, which are geographically concentrated, coal is a widespread resource and has been mined for over a 1,000 years in China and Britain. It was coal that bolstered Britain’s industrial revolution of the 18th century, which was to be joined by commercial quantities of oil and gas in the next century. Together, the three main fossil fuels continue to underpin our industrial and economic activity as well as bringing comfort to society in the form of lighting, heating, cooking, and mobility in the form of cars, trains, planes and boats.

Today, coal is no longer the world’s leading fossil fuel having gradually lost its place to oil. Since the Paris climate agreement of 2015, global environmental anxieties have slowed growth in the use of all fossil fuels and encouraged the search for energy efficiency and renewable power generation. Nevertheless, fossil fuels will continue to provide the backbone of the power sector, road transport and aviation for at least the near future, not least because of their availability. For example, there are 1.1 trillion tons of proven coal reserves worldwide, enough to last another 150 years, while proven oil and gas reserves are sufficient for around another half century at current production rates.

Pre-industrial era

Some of the earliest evidence of the use of coal comes from the Fushun mine in northeastern China where it was used to smelt copper as early as 1000 B.C. In addition, the Italian adventurer Marco Polo, in his travels around China records coal being used for heating, cooking and smelting steel.
In Europe, there is also considerable evidence of the use of coal. The Greek scientist Theophrastus (371–287 B.C.) notes that coal was used to smelt copper, while in Roman Britain along Hadrian’s Wall and towns such as Chester and Bath evidence of coal being used for heating and smelting of iron ore has been found.
In the Dark Ages, apart from China where coal remained the fuel of choice, wood was readily available and used for both heating and cooking. However, by the Middle Ages, there are extensive records of small coal mining operations throughout Europe. Coal was used in forges for metalworking, in lime-burners and breweries. However, it was not until the 1400s and the invention of firebricks for chimneys that coal became a domestic source of heating fuel and then only for the wealthy. By the 1570s, coal had become the fuel of choice for heating buildings in many European cities.
The ancient Babylonians, Chinese and Egyptians used oil for waterproofing their boats, lubricating their chariot wheels, as adhesives and even as an ingredient in mummification. By the middle ages, in Europe, oil was used as an ingredient in medicines, perfumes, cosmetics and as early weapons such as Greek Fire.

Natural Gas
Just as in their use of coal, the Chinese were early pioneers in the use of natural gas on a commercial scale. China’s Sichuan province provides evidence of gas being used to heat brine for producing salt as early as 200 B.C. In 4th century China, drilling for gas, and transporting it in bamboo pipes to heat and evaporate water from brine in large pans, was on a commercial scale. In Europe, the Greek author Plutarch (A.D. 46-120) records that Alexander the Great saw burning gas wells near Ecbatana, now in modern-day western Iran. By A.D. 100, the Persians were already using natural gas to heat their homes.

Post-industrial revolution

Until the industrial revolution, water was the main source of power. The improvements made to the steam engine by Thomas Newcomen and James Watt in the mid-1700s transformed the prospects for coal since a single steam engine, powered by coal, could do the work of dozens of horses, while at the same time being cheaper to operate.
Coal power and the steam engine together launched Britain’s economic growth. For the first time, industrial activity could depend on a reliable source of power and this enabled large-scale mass production – in mills, factories and mines. Coal fired the early steam railways and ships, speeding up travel, reducing transport costs and boosting international trade. These inventions and successive innovations combined to kickstart the fossil fuel boom that is now nearly two centuries old.

Except for the economic downturns of the 1930s and 1990s, demand for coal has tended to increase in the years between 1900 and 2015. In 2016, global coal output fell by a record amount. In 2016, reports BP’s annual review of global energy trends, coal output dropped by 231 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe). This fall in output was partially caused by U.S. output dropping 85 mtoe and China’s output falling 140 mtoe.
This drop in output is due to a number of factors including many countries switching away from coal generation to natural gas or renewables. In response, mines in South Africa, India and China are closing.
Coal’s share in global power production is predicted to decline from 41 percent in 2013 to just 36 percent in 2021. The IEA predicts that demand for coal will continue to slide but how fast depends largely on policies in China and India.

Since the first successful oil wells were drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, heralding the beginning of the oil age, global oil output has climbed from just 2 million a day in 1861 million barrels a day to over 96 million barrels a day currently, boosted considerably by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in the U.S. and new discoveries around the world.

Numerous innovations in exploration, field development and more recently adoption of digitization and internet of things technologies have improved productivity and reduced costs throughout the value chain from upstream operations. During the last century or so oil prices have varied from $16 a barrel in 1947 to as high as $147 in 2008, before slumping to a low of $28 and recovering to between $55-60 currently.
The advent of the motor car at the beginning of the 20th century assured the success of oil. The First World War further stimulated the demand for oil as ships were modified to use oil instead of coal and production of planes and tanks fueled by oil increased. Oil became a strategic resource and was sought after by British and French oil companies in modern day Iraq and Iran. Until the mid 1940s, the U.S. alone produced around 65 percent of the world’s oil.
The mega oil field discoveries in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the 1930s and 1940s laid the foundation and unquestioned dominance of the Middle East’s oil until the 1973 Arab oil embargo on oil exports to the U.S. The Iranian revolution of 1979 encouraged oil-consuming nations to reduce their reliance on oil and the Middle East. For its part, the U.S. government financed research into fracking technology and gave tax breaks to lay the foundation for the spectacular shale revolution in oil and gas.
Drilling for oil in the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico and more latterly in Africa established large alternative supplies. To curb demand, governments encouraged energy efficiency and for environmental protection provided subsidies first, for renewables and now for electric cars. Increases in supply and a slower growth in demand combined to cause the current oil glut, which is responsible for a halving of prices since the summer of 2014. This has caused OPEC and non-members to cut oil production to bring supply and demand into better balance and therefore, increase in price.

Natural gas
Gas, produced from coal, lit streets in Paris (1801), London (1807), and Baltimore (1816). But it was not until the 1885 invention of the Bunsen Burner, which fine-tuned mixing gas and air, that gas began to be used for cooking and heating , kickstarting the trend in natural gas production which reached 988 billion cubic metres (bcm) in 1970 and more than tripled to 3,551 bcm in 2016, reports BP’s Statistical Review 2017.
Natural gas has benefited from many of the oil industry’s exploration, drilling and production innovations, most notably, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling as well as pipelines to transmit and distribute gas on land. It was not until the late 1960s with the introduction of Liquid Natural Gas cooling technologies in Algeria that gas could be shipped around the world, opening up prospects for later production in Qatar and Australia and feeding markets in Europe, China, Japan and Asia.

The manufacture and laying of pipelines to distribute gas has improved incrementally over time. Originally modern gas pipes were made from wood or lead and later by wrought iron, which was succeeded by steel and now, new pipelines are made from plastic. Likewise, improvements in pipe manufacture and laying techniques increased the practicality and penetration of gas pipelines.
For example, the first long-distance gas pipeline was just 25 miles long and was built in Quebec in 1853. Today, Europe is in the midst of completing a 3,500-mile Trans Adriatic Pipeline linking gas fields in Central Asia with Italy, the entry point for the European market. The pipeline is crossing several mountain chains, earthquake zones and seabed of the Adriatic.
In recent years, gas has begun to displace oil and coal in power generation and for heating homes. Now, forecasters are predicting a new gas boom as intermittent renewable sources of energy, particularly wind and solar, are paired with gas to provide backup power in hybrid power plants.


The policy imperative to contain rising global temperature below 2 degrees centigrade, by reducing emissions from fossil fuels, has perhaps inaugurated a series of measures to reduce the growth in demand for coal. Concern with air quality has slowed demand for coal but boosted demand for gas. Already, oil companies have diversified into gas, increasingly seen as a bridging fuel towards a low-carbon future.
The absence of a suitable replacement for aviation oil, combined with increasing passenger numbers and flights, demand for oil from this sector is forecast to increase despite the recent launch of quieter and more fuel-efficient engines. When drivers forsake their petrol car then, like coal, oil will meet its peak demand. However, increasing world population and industrialization in India and perhaps Africa could forestall the end of the global fossil fuel age for some decades.

READ MORE: A brief history of natural gas by Robin Wylie

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.