Fossil fuels

6 March 2015

What is a fossil fuel?  Well, it may sound a bit like a dinosaur, and that’s not actually that far from the truth. Put simply, it’s a fuel formed over millions of years from organic matter such as plankton, plants and other life forms.

Over time, sand, sediment and rock buried the organic matter and it eventually formed large quantities of fuels. These underground resources are still the primary fuel source for electricity, heating and powering vehicles around the globe.

There are five main fossil fuels:

  1. Coal is a flammable black or brown organic sedimentary rock. It’s mostly carbon and is typically found as layers (coal beds) or veins (coal seams). 
  2. Natural gas is a combustible mix of hydrocarbon gases. It’s colourless and consists mainly of methane (CH4). ‘Conventional gas’ is easily extracted; ‘unconventional gas’ requires more sophisticated extraction technologies. 
  3. Oil is mostly known as crude oil or condensate, but includes all liquid hydrocarbon fossil fuels. Petroleum and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) are the most common types of fuel obtained from oil extraction and refining. 
  4. Petroleum is a liquid fuel made of hydrocarbons and other liquid organic compounds. It refers to both naturally occurring unprocessed crude oils and petroleum products made of refined crude oil.
  5. Liquefied petroleum gas or LPG is heavier than natural gas. Although gaseous under normal atmospheric conditions, LPG is stored under modest pressures in its liquid form and so can be more easily transported and stored.

 

Australia’s fossil fuel resources and exports

Australia is the world’s eighth largest energy producer, contributing about two and a half percent of world energy production.

  • Australia is the world’s second largest coal exporter and our coal exports were worth about $40 billion in 2013-14.2
  • Australia is the world’s third largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter and these exports were worth about $16.4 billion in 2013-2014.3
  • Australia produces crude oil, condensate and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). Crude oil and LPG exports were worth about $12.4 billion in 2013-2014. 4

Globally, all of these fuels are used on a massive scale. Worldwide, about 89 million barrels of oil and liquid fuels are consumed every single day.5


Worldwide, about 89 million barrels of oil and liquid fuels are consumed every single day.6


What’s the difference between fossil fuels and renewables? 

Fossil fuels come from carbon-based organic matter. Using them to generate electricity produces greenhouse gases. Gas is often referred to as a ‘cleaner energy source’ because it can emit less than half the carbon emissions of coal. 

Renewables, on the other hand, are not carbon-based materials. They are from sources that nature constantly replenishes, such as the sun, wind and water. 

An important distinction between renewables and fossil fuels is that renewables do not produce greenhouse gases when used to produce electricity. For this reason, renewable sources are often called ‘green energy’.

  1. Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) 2014, Energy in Australia 2014, BREE, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra. 
  2. Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) 2014, Energy in Australia 2014, BREE, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra. 
  3. Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) 2014, Energy in Australia 2014, BREE, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra. 
  4. Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) 2014, Energy in Australia 2014, BREE, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra. 
  5. International Energy Agency (IEA) 2014, FAQs: oil, IEA. 
  6. International Energy Agency (IEA) 2014, FAQs: oil, IEA.