The History of Fossil Fuels: The Big Picture

The History of Fossil Fuels: The Big Picture

By
Grace Smoot

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Fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) have been and still are the world’s primary energy source, despite recent pushes for the expansion of renewable energy. So we had to ask: What is the history of fossil fuels?

Fossil fuel energy began millions of years ago with the creation of coal, oil, and natural gas. Inventions during the Industrial Revolution during the mid-18th and early 19th century created a great demand for fossil fuels, which have since grown to account for over 80% of our primary energy today.

Keep reading to learn how fossil fuels came to be, who and what pioneered their development, how effective they have been thus far, and what the future of fossil fuels could entail. 

Here’s the History of Fossil Fuels in a Nutshell

Fossil fuels consist of coal, oil, and natural gas, all of which were formed millions of years ago when the carbon-rich remains of animals and plants were compressed and heated deep underground.

Fossil fuel: fuels, such as gas, coal, and oil, that were formed underground from plant and animal remains millions of years ago”

Cambridge Dictionary

Fossil fuel energy is produced via the combustion of pressurized plant and animal remains. The heat created upon combustion creates steam which spins a turbine and spins a generator to produce electricity.

Fossil fuels have gone through three distinct development phases in their development:

  • Early market formation and innovation: The early history of fossil fuels began when plant and animal remains, which gradually built up on the earth’s surface and the ocean floor, were converted into either coal, oil, or natural gas depending on a variety of conditions. 
  • Consolidation and strengthening: The Industrial Revolution in the 1750s kickstarted the fossil fuel movement, which gained further momentum following the invention of the steam engine, kerosene, and petroleum. The opening of the first coal, oil, and natural gas-fired power plants between 1800 and 1900 helped to consolidate and strengthen the market. 
  • Mainstreaming: Today, coal is mainly used for domestic energy generation and overseas transport, oil is our primary fuel for transportation, and natural gas has been identified as a transition fuel from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The establishment of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) have facilitated the transition away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner forms of energy as the climate crisis continues to worsen. 
Fossil Fuels MilestonesHistorical Event
Initial startThe early history of fossil fuels began when plant and animal remains gradually built up on the earth’s surface and the ocean floor, mixing with sand, silt, and calcium carbonate. Under immense heat and pressure, some of these remains were converted into either coal, oil, or natural gas depending on the combination of organic matter present, how long it was buried, and pressure conditions. 
Milestones in fossil fuel development1600s: Coal gradually began replacing wood as the primary source of fuel.
1626: The usage of natural gas by Native Americans was first recorded in North America, near Lake Erie.
1659: Natural gas was first discovered in Europe in the Netherlands.
1712: Thomas Newcomen invented the first steam engine, which allowed miners to dig deeper and access more coal.
1760-1830: The Industrial Revolution in Britain created a huge demand for coal.
1769: James Watt invented the first coal-powered steam engine. His design had separate condensers, which made it more efficient than the Newcomen steam engine. 
1821: William Hart drilled the first natural gas well in the US. Hart is widely known as the father of natural gas, later establishing the Fredonia Gas Light Company, the first natural gas company in the US.
1846: Abraham Gesner invented kerosene, which replaced previous fuel products (e.g., whale oil). 
1847: James Young distilled an early form of petroleum. He is widely known as the father of the oil industry. 
1850: James Young and Edward William Binney created the world’s first commercial oil refinery. 
1852: Ignacy Łukasiewicz invented the kerosene lamp and co-founded the first petroleum extraction company. 
1854: Ignacy Łukasiewicz, Tytus Trzecieaki, and Karol Klobassa established some of the world’s first oil wells in Bóbrka, Poland. 
1857: The first drilled oil well was established in La Brea, Trinidad. 
1859: Edwin Drake drilled the world’s first viable oil well in the US. This started an oil rush and led to the establishment of several, large oil corporations. 
1865: John Rockefeller founded Standard Oil Company, an oil monopoly in the US. Rockefeller is known as the world’s first oil baron. 
1882: The world’s first coal-fired power plant, the Holborn Viaduct plant, opened in London. 
1885: The oil industry found new demand and a new market with Karl Friedrich Benz’s invention of the gasoline-powered automobile.
1885: Robert Bunsen invented the Bunsen burner, which combined natural gas and air to produce a flame that could be used for cooking and heating. 
1913: Romania constructed the first transport pipeline for natural gas, becoming one of the first countries in the world to use natural gas for industrial purposes.
1920-1970: The Seven Sisters, the largest oil companies in the world, dominated the global oil industry. 
1928: The Red Line Agreement was signed, marking the beginning of an oil monopoly.
1960: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia formed the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). These nations produce approximately 30% of the world’s crude oil. Today, OPEC consists of 13 member countries.
1971: The South Pars/North Field gas field was discovered in Iranian and Qatari territorial waters. It remains the largest deposit of natural gas in the world.
2013: The Jebel Ali Power and Desalination Plant was opened. It remains the world’s largest, single-site natural gas power generation facility.
2016: OPEC formed an alliance with 10 other oil-producing countries to form OPEC+. Today, OPEC+ consists of 10 member countries that produce approximately 40% of the world’s crude oil.
Current statusCurrently, we consume over 137,000 TWh worth of fossil fuels, and fossil fuels account for 82% of our global, primary energy supply.Coal is mainly used for domestic energy generation and overseas transport, oil is our primary fuel for transportation, and natural gas has been identified as a transition fuel from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Future outlookThe future of fossil fuels will be heavily influenced by ambitious government targets, policy support, increasing competitiveness of renewable energy companies, and decreasing costs of renewable energies.
Key policy developments1974 – The International Energy Agency (IEA)
1992 – World Coal Association (WCA)
1995 – The International Hydropower Association (IHA)
2001 – World Nuclear Association (WNA)
2005 – Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC)
2009 – The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)
2013 – Ocean Energy Europe (OEE)
2015 – International Solar Alliance (ISA)
2015 – The Paris Agreement
2021 – Global Methane Pledge (GMP)

Understanding fossil fuels’ history can provide insight into how they have evolved into the energy source they are today.

When and How Did Fossil Fuels Get Started

Fossil fuels were formed millions of years ago when plant and animal remains gradually built up on the earth’s surface and the ocean floor, mixing with sand, silt, and calcium carbonate. Under immense heat and pressure, some of these remains were converted into either coal, oil, or natural gas depending on the combination of organic matter present, how long it was buried, and pressure conditions. 

  • Researchers date the use of coal all the way back to the Stone Age, which occurred over 2.6 million years ago. Cavemen used coal for primitive heating and cooking purposes during this time.
  • Surface occurrences (natural seepages) of oil have been known since ancient times, with the Assyrians and Babylonians first using crude oil more than 5,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians used oil for wound dressings and laxatives. 
  • Surface occurrences (natural seepages) of natural gas have also been known since ancient times, with some of the first natural gas seeps discovered in Iran between 6000 and 2000 BC.

How Have Fossil Fuels Developed Over Time

Fossil fuel consumption began with the Industrial Revolution, and consumption has increased exponentially over the past 70 years. In the 1900s, new technologies and environmental concerns forced a switch from solely coal to a mix of coal, oil, and natural gas.

Related:

Are you interested in learning more about the history of coal, oil, and natural gas? Check it out in these articles here: 

What Are Milestones in Fossil Fuel Development 

The invention of the steam engine, kerosene, and the process of producing natural gas from coal kickstarted the coal, oil, and natural gas industries, respectively.

1600s: Coal gradually began replacing wood as the primary source of fuel.

1626: French explorers discovered Native Americans in the US burning gasses found around Lake Erie. This was the first recorded discovery of natural gas in North America. 

1659: The Groningen gas fields were discovered in the Netherlands, marking the first discovery of natural gas in Europe. At its peak, the Groningen fields produced 88 billion cubic meters of gas per year.

1712: Thomas Newcomen invented the first steam engine, which was used to pump water out of mines. This allowed miners to dig deeper into coal seams and mine greater amounts of coal.

1760-1830: The Industrial Revolution in Britain created a huge demand for coal to power new machines (i.e. steamships and steam-powered railroads).

1769: James Watt invented the first coal-powered steam engine. His design had separate condensers, which made it more efficient than the Newcomen steam engine. His model would serve as the basis for future improvements.

1821: William Hart drilled the first natural gas well in the US. Hart is widely known as the father of natural gas, later establishing the Fredonia Gas Light Company, the first natural gas company in the US.

1846: Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner invented kerosene by refining liquid from coal, oil shale, and bitumen. Kerosene burned brighter and was more economical than previous fuel products (e.g., whale oil).

1847: Scottish chemist James Young continued to experiment with coal, discovering how to distill an early form of petroleum and paraffin wax, commonly used in candles. Young is widely known as the father of the oil industry. 

1850: James Young partnered with geologist Edward William Binney to create the world’s first commercial oil refinery. They manufactured oil and paraffin wax from locally mined coal. 

1852: Polish pharmacist Ignacy Łukasiewicz invented the kerosene lamp and co-founded the first petroleum extraction company. He was the first to implement crude oil on an industrial scale.

1854: Ignacy Łukasiewicz, Tytus Trzecieaki, and Karol Klobassa established some of the world’s first oil wells in Bóbrka, Poland. 

1857: The first drilled oil well was established in La Brea, Trinidad by the American Merrimac Company. The well was closed two years later because it had not yielded enough oil to be commercially viable.

1859: Edwin Drake drilled the world’s first viable oil well in Pennsylvania (US). This started an oil rush and led to the establishment of several large oil corporations which would become monopolies. 

1865: John D. Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil Company. It operated as a monopoly in the US from 1870 until it was forced to dissolve in 1911. Rockefeller is widely regarded as the world’s first oil baron. 

1882: The world’s first coal-fired power plant, the Holborn Viaduct plant, opened in London. It burned enough coal to power over 1,000 lamps. A second power plant opened later that year in New York City (US).

1885: Karl Friedrich Benz invented the world’s first gasoline-powered automobile. The oil industry found new demand with this invention.

1885: Robert Bunsen invented the Bunsen burner, which combined natural gas and air to produce a flame that could be used for cooking and heating. 

1913: Romania constructed the first transport pipeline for natural gas, becoming one of the first countries in the world to use natural gas for industrial purposes.

1920-1970: The Seven Sisters, the seven largest oil companies in the world, dominated the global oil industry. They were composed of 5 American and 2 international companies.

1928: The Red Line Agreement, a deal between several American, British, and French oil companies over the discovery of immense oil fields in the Middle East, was struck. It marked the beginning of an oil monopoly that would span several decades.

1960: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia formed the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). These nations produce approximately 30% of the world’s crude oil. (Today, OPEC consists of 13 member countries.

1971: The South Pars/North Field gas field was discovered in Iranian and Qatari territorial waters. It remains the largest deposit of natural gas in the world with a capacity of 1,800 trillion cubic feet. 

2013: The Jebel Ali Power and Desalination Plant was opened. The oil and gas-fired plant is the world’s largest single-site natural gas power generation facility, with a 9,547 MW capacity

2016: OPEC formed an additional alliance of oil-producing countries that they named OPEC+. Today, OPEC+ consists of 10 member countries that produce approximately 40% of the world’s crude oil. OPEC+ works with OPEC to stabilize the global crude oil market.

How Has the Fossil Fuels Market Developed Recently

Following rapid growth in the 1800s and 1900s, global fossil fuel consumption has remained relatively stable in the 2000s.

More specifically, between 2019 and 2022:

What Is the Present Status of Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuel consumption has increased 8-fold since 1950 and has almost doubled since 1980. Today, coal is one of the most important and cheapest primary fossil fuels used for domestic energy generation and overseas transport, oil is our primary fuel for transportation, and natural gas has been identified as a transition fuel from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

In 2022, we consumed over 137,000 TWh worth of fossil fuels, 40% of which came from oil alone (52,000 TWh).

Illustration of Fossil fuel consumption by fuel type, World from Our World in Data
Our World in Data: Fossil fuel consumption by fuel type, World

In terms of fossil fuel consumption:

In 2022, we generated almost 36% of the planet’s electricity from coal and got 31% and 23% of our primary energy from oil and natural gas, respectively.

Despite renewable energy (e.g., solar, wind, hydropower) adding a record 266 gigawatts to the energy grid in 2022, fossil fuels still accounted for 82% of our global, primary energy supply.

Illustration of Share of primary energy from fossil fuels from Our World in Data
Our World in Data: Share of primary energy from fossil fuels.

In terms of fossil fuel production:

How Will the Future of Fossil Fuels Look Like

The Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (C), specifically notes a transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. This means phasing out coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear, for example.

Ambitious government targets, policy support, increasing competitiveness of renewable energy companies, and decreasing costs of renewable energies will heavily influence the future of fossil fuels. If renewable energy can become more cost-competitive, we could see fossil fuel consumption decrease at a greater rate.

How Fossil Fuels Will Likely Develop in the Future

Fossil fuels have varying short and long-term outlooks depending on the specific type of fossil fuel.

How will coal energy likely develop:

How will oil energy likely develop:

How will natural gas likely develop:

What Policies Are Put in Place to Reduce Fossil Fuel Usage

The most well-known piece of legally binding, international climate mitigation legislation is The Paris Agreement, the goal of which is to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (C), preferably to 1.5C, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

The Paris Agreement specifically notes a transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energies as being a critical part of meeting these goals.

Check out the highlights of the 2015 COP21 directly from the UN Climate Change channel:

Two Weeks of COP 21 in 10 Minutes

In addition, The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario is one framework for the global energy sector to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and universal energy access by 2030.

The type of fuel we consume today has shifted from solely coal, to coal and oil, and lastly to coal, oil, and natural gas. The 21st century has seen a call to transition away from fossil fuels towards more renewable energy sources. Fossil fuel production and consumption have therefore begun to decrease in some countries.

There are many global and country-specific policies and organizations aimed at reducing fossil fuel usage and meeting the 2050 net zero scenario, including: 

  • 1974 – The International Energy Agency (IEA): The IEA was founded in response to the major oil disruptions in 1974. It promotes international energy cooperation and is made up of 31 member countries. 
  • 1992 – World Coal Association (WCA): The WCA was founded to facilitate industrial and governmental cooperation to advance clean coal technologies. Because coal is still vital to many economies, the WCA seeks to upgrade current coal plants with technologies to reduce CO2 emissions. 
  • 2013 – Ocean Energy Europe (OEE): They are the largest global network of marine energy professionals, with over 120 member organizations. They aim to advance tidal and wave energy technologies. 
  • 2015 – International Solar Alliance (ISA): The ISA is a treaty-based organization established to create cooperation among solar energy-resource-rich countries and the rest of the world. There are currently 94 member countries.

If you are interested in learning more about country-specific energy policies, you can visit the IEA’s policies database and filter by specific energy type.

What Are Currently the Different Types of Fossil Fuels

The 3 main types of fossil fuels are coal, oil, and natural gas. Together, they have powered our businesses, cars, and lights for over a century, providing over 80% of our energy

Related: Are you interested in learning more about fossil fuels? Check it out in this article here: Fossil Fuels Explained: All You Need to Know

What Are Currently the Different Types of Coal Energy

Coal energy is produced via the combustion of black or brownish-black sedimentary rock. Coal is one of the most important primary fossil fuels used for domestic energy generation and overseas transport and is one of the cheapest for its energy content. 

Coal: a combustible black or dark brown rock consisting mainly of carbonized plant matter, found mainly in underground deposits and widely used as fuel.”

Cambridge Dictionary

Not all coal is the same. In fact, there are 4 main types, or ranks, of coal depending on the type and amount of carbon the coal contains and the amount of heat energy the coal can produce:

  • Anthracite: The highest rank of coal. A hard, brittle, and black lustrous coal that is often referred to as hard coal because it contains the highest concentration of coal (86-97%) out of all coal ranks.
  • Bituminous: A middle rank of coal. It has a 45-65% carbon content and is typically used for electricity generation and steel making because it has a high heating (Btu) value.
  • Subbituminous: A middle rank of coal. It has a 35-45% carbon content and is typically used in electricity generation because it has a low-to-moderate heating value.
  • Lignite: The lowest grade of coal, also referred to as brown coal. It contains the least concentration of carbon (25-35%), has a high moisture concentration, has a low heating value, and is typically used in electricity generation.

What Are Currently the Different Types of Oil Energy

Oil energy is produced via the refinement and processing of crude oil. Petroleum products made from crude oil include gasoline, distillates (diesel fuel and heating oil), jet fuel, waxes, lubricating oils, and asphalt.

Oil: petroleum (= the black oil obtained from under the earth’s surface from which gasoline comes)”

Cambridge Dictionary

Once oil has been extracted from wells it is refined, or broken down into various components and reconfigured into new products. Oil refinement occurs via the following steps:

  • Distilling: Crude oil is heated until it becomes a vapor. The vapor is lifted upwards in a distilling column and collects at different levels in trays, separating the liquids. Lighter products (butane) rise to the top of the column whereas gasoline, naphtha, kerosene, diesel, and heavy gas oil collect in trays going from top to bottom in the column.
  • Cracking: Because there is a demand for lighter distilled products like gasoline, refineries convert heavy liquids into lighter liquids via cracking. Cracking breaks up long hydrocarbon chains into smaller ones, converting heavy oil into gasoline. Cat cracking, catalyst-driven cracking, is the most common form of cracking. 
  • Reforming: Refineries again use a catalyst to increase the quality and volume of gasoline. Reforming increases the octane number by rearranging the naphtha hydrocarbons to create gas molecules. A high octane number is more beneficial because it can withstand more compression before detonating. And the higher the octane number, the more stable the fuel. 
  • Treating: Crude oil contains pollutants including sulfur, nitrogen, and heavy metals that must be removed. The treating process removes these pollutants either by binding them to hydrogen, absorbing them in columns, or adding acid to them. 
  • Blending: Finished petroleum products are a blend of various streams of hydrocarbons that are then mixed into motor fuels. Refineries can also mix additives such as octane enhancers, metal deactivators, anti-oxidants, anti-knock agents, rust inhibitors, or detergents. 

What Are Currently the Different Types of Natural Gas Energy

Natural gas energy is produced via conventional drilling or by hydraulic fracturing. Natural gas is used primarily for heating and generating electricity but can also be used as a raw material (feedstock) in the production of chemicals, fertilizer, and hydrogen, and as lease and plant fuel. 

Natural Gas: flammable gas, consisting largely of methane and other hydrocarbons, occurring naturally underground (often in association with petroleum) and used as fuel”

Oxford Dictionary

Conventional natural gas can be divided into two categories, both of which are used as vehicular fuels:

  • Compressed natural gas (CNG): Produced by compressing natural gas to less than 1% of its volume at standard atmospheric pressure. It is used in light-, medium-, and heavy-duty applications and is stored at a pressure of up to 3,600 lbs per square inch. 
  • Liquified natural gas (LNG): Produced by purifying natural gas and cooling it to -260 degrees Fahrenheit (-162 Celsius). This removes the extraneous compounds in the fuel and reduces the volume of the fuel, leaving behind primarily methane and small amounts of other hydrocarbons and making it much easier to transport across long distances. It is used in medium- and heavy-duty vehicles but is not used as widely as CNG because of its high production, storage, and transportation costs.

Another form of natural gas is renewable natural gas (RNG), also referred to as biomethane. RNG is a pipeline-quality vehicle fuel generated by purifying biogas. Biogas is created via anaerobic digestion of organic materials (i.e. landfill and livestock waste) or thermochemical processes (i.e., gasification). RNG is chemically identical to conventional natural gas.

Final Thoughts

The early history of fossil fuels began when plant and animal remains, which gradually built up on the earth’s surface and the ocean floor, were converted into either coal, oil, or natural gas depending on a variety of conditions. The Industrial Revolution in the 1750s kickstarted the fossil fuel movement, which gained further momentum following the invention of the steam engine, kerosene, and petroleum. 

Today, coal is mainly used for domestic energy generation and overseas transport, oil is our primary fuel for transportation, and natural gas has been identified as a transition fuel from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Fossil fuels still provide over 80% of our primary energy, despite renewable energy gaining momentum in recent years.

The establishment of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) have facilitated the transition away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner forms of energy as the climate crisis continues to worsen. 

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