fossil fuels


Because 86% of our energy comes from fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil), those energy sources usually get the most flak in any energy debate. Three fossil fuel gripes top the lists. First, folks worry about our dependency on other - sometimes unsavory - nations for oil imports. Also, environmentalists don't like fossil fuels' potentially damaging effects on the environment. And last, because fossil fuels don't grow on trees, people worry that we're not moving fast enough to find substitute energies for when (or if) we eventually run out.

While few entirely disagree these are concerns, many caution that they're not worth getting all wound up about and that current regulations and the invisible hand of the market will set things right.

We're not going to resolve that argument here, but we will lay out some facts to put the debate in perspective

The fossil fuels we use

source: EIA

Where they come from


  • All fossil fuels:

    • 66% home grown;

    • 34% imported.

  • Oil:

    • Home grown: 40%; 9 million barrels per day (2004) (GAO)

    • From other countries: 60% (2004)(GAO):

How much fossil fuel the earth still has:

  • Oil: 1.0-1.2 Trillion barrels are in known oil reserves (quoted by EIA from Oil and Gas Journal and World Oil, but not certified by EIA - this is an excel file). Approximately 62% is in the Middle East. 2% in the U.S. (Note: "known" oil reserves is not the same as what exists for sure - there may be additional unknown and untapped reserves.)

  • Natural gas: 5.5-6.1 quadrillion cubic feet (EIA - excel file)

  • Coal: We don't have global numbers, but the National Academy of Science says the US has enough reserves to keep us going at current consumption rates for 100 years. (NAS)

How much the earth is consuming:

  • Oil: 30 billion barrels/year (GAO)

  • Natural gas: 95 trillion cubic feet/year (EIA)

Future energy demands:

  • World demand for energy will grow approximately 50% by 2025 (EIA)

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR):

ANWR is a hot button issue in the energy independence vs. environment debate; a wildlife refuge in Alaska sitting on top of oil reserves, ANWR is seen by some as a key means to solving our energy dependence problem and by others as a natural treasure not worth disrupting for the small amount of oil below. See our ANWR issue brief for more on the debate.

How large is the refuge?

19 million total acres (USGS); including:

  • 8 million acres designated as wilderness and 3 rivers designated as wild rivers (FWS).

  • "1002 area" (area considered to have the highest potential for oil and gas): 1.5 million acres <(USGS).

What lives there?

  • 45 species of land and marine mammals, 36 species of fish and 180 species of birds (FWS).

How much "technically recoverable" oil is there?

  • In the entire ANWR region (USGS): between 5.7 & 16 billion barrels

  • in the "1002" region: between 4.3 & 11.8 billion barrels (USGS).

Strategic Petroleum Reserve

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) usually comes up for discussion when gas prices get steep. It was set up in 1975 after the OPEC oil embargo as an insurance against possible future foreign supply cutoffs, but gets tapped during other supply scares (most recently, after Katrina). Politicians like to debate about when it's appropriate to dip into the SPR.

How much can it hold?

727 million barrel capacity (largest emergency oil supply in the world) (DOE)

How much crude oil do we have? (DOE):

  • 687.9 million barrels total as of July 14, 2006

  • 273.6 million barrels sweet (meaning it has a sulfur content of less than .5%)

  • 414.3 million barrels sour (meaning it has a sulfur content of between .5% and 2%) Since sour oil has more sulfur, it needs more refining than sweet oil in order to be used as a fuel source.

How long can it cover us for? (DOE)

59 days of import protection, meaning it can make up for all imported oil if we get cut off. (It used to be 118 in 1985.)

Gas Tax:

federal government tax on gasoline:

  • 18.4 cents per gallon.

Each state has additional gas taxes, and many states also add in sales tax. Those rates are listed here.

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administion sets the average miles per gallon requirement all cars and light trucks in the US must meet.

  • 27.5 mpg for cars

  • 22.5 mpg for light trucks ('08)

  • 23.1 mpg for light trucks ('09)

  • 23.5 mpg for light trucks ('10)

An energy bill passed in 2007 upped fuel efficiency standards to about 35mpg (averaging across fleets) to be reached by 2020. The yearly standards that automakers have to meet along the way may be reset under the Obama administration (WP).

Where the facts are from:

Other sources of interest:

  • Set America Free - multipartisan group of security hawks and environmentalists that want to wean the US off of foreign oil.

  • GAO's report (pdf) on the electricity grid

  • British Petroleum's stats on world energy.

  • Even more stats from the International Energy Agency.

  • A NYTimes op-ed on how hybrids are not necessarily the eco-friendliest machines.

Updated January 28, 2009

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