Which country takes the most fossil fuels out of the ground? The answer to this question is relatively predictable: China. Today China is the world’s biggest consumer of energy and the vast majority of that comes from burning coal mined in China itself. Little surprise then that China is number one in terms of taking fossil fuels out of the ground.
However, absolute numbers can obscure as much as they can enlighten. 1.3 billion people live in China, but only 30 million live in Saudi Arabia. Yet, if people want to say there is a lot of wind power in Texas, Scotland or anywhere else they inevitably reach for the cliche “The Saudi Arabia of Wind”.
What really matters then is both how many fossil fuels a country takes out of the ground in absolute terms, but also in per-capita terms. Such numbers can be instructive. If you produce a rather large number of fossil fuels, then you might be not overly enthusiastic about the potential of global climate treaty to limit their use.
So, which countries lead the world in extracting fossil fuels from the ground?
First things first. There are three types of fossil fuel: oil, coal and natural gas. The first is a liquid, the second a solid and the third a gas. So, how do we measure the total amount of oil, coal and gas each country extracts? Calculating their total weight is one option, but this runs into an obvious problem. If you burn a tonne of oil it will release significantly more energy than if you burn a tonne of coal. However, the heat released when you burn a tonne of coal gets close to something that we can use to reasonably compare the extraction of oil, coal and natural gas. A tonne of oil releases approximately 42 gigajoules (GJ) of energy. This lets us define a “tonne of oil equivalent” (toe) measure. In other words one toe of coal or natural gas is the amount of coal or natural gas that will release the equivalent energy of one tonne of oil (42 GJ).
This comparison has drawbacks, as does any metric. Many things can be done with oil, coal or natural gas. However, for a variety of reasons, engineering and economic, we do not do everything with all fuels. You cannot fly a Boeing 747 with coal or natural gas. Similarly, oil is almost never used for the production of electricity or steel. So, the economic value of each fuel is largely ignored by this measure. Likewise, it does not directly measure greenhouse gas emissions, which some may deem to be a more important measure of fossil fuel extraction.
These caveats made, I will now go through each fossil fuel in turn, before adding it all up, and then finally making a brief comparison of fossil fuel production with fossil fuel consumption.
All production and consumption statistics quoted below are annual numbers for 2013. Fossil fuel production and consumption data are taken from BP’s statistical review of world energy, and population data is taken from the excellent Gapminder website.
Oil has been the world’s largest source of energy for the last half century. And the top three oil producers are Saudi Arabia, Russia and America, between them producing around 38% of the world’s oil. In total, the world’s 15 largest oil producing nations (shown below) produce 80% of the world’s oil.
On a per-capita basis things are somewhat different. America and Russia, the number two and three nations in terms of total production, drop out of the top 15. At the top is Kuwait, which produces just over 50 tonnes of oil per-person each year. This is approximately twenty times higher than annual per-capita oil consumption in America, and in excess of one hundred times annual per-capita oil consumption China.
The only developed nations in the top 15 are Norway and Canada, and unsurprisingly the list is dominated by Middle Eastern countries. God, if he exists, appears to have placed most of the oil in just the wrong spot.
Global coal production and consumption is now dominated by China, which produces and consumes approximately half of the world’s coal. And China dominates growth in coal as well, with its production doubling in the last decade and making up 70% of the global increase in coal production over that period. In addition, other major sources of coal production growth such as Australia and Indonesia are major exporters to China. So, globally if you are thinking about coal you should really be thinking about China.
However, China’s per-capita coal production is much more mediocre than the above graph implies. After all, there are over 1.3 billion people living China. In per-capita terms China produces less coal than America, a reminder that China hass a long way to go before catching up with America. And Australia’s coal production per-person is perhaps most startling. Astonishingly it produces almost eight times more coal per-person than China, and produces three times more than any other country.
America and Russia are by far the world’s two largest producers of natural gas, accounting for almost 39% of the world’s annual output. The world’s top 15 countries produce 78% of the world’s natural gas, a similar percentage to that seen with oil.
Qatar is the world’s fourth biggest producer of natural gas, yet its population is only 2 million. A country with 0.03% of the world’s population therefore produces 5.4% of the world’s natural gas. And it is therefore by a long way the world’s biggest producers of natural gas on a per-capita basis. Norway is similarly impressive, producing five times more natural gas on a per-capita basis than any other developed country, and ranking fourth globally.
Densely populated Holland also has notably high natural gas production, a result of production from the vast Groningen gas field, which was discovered in the 1950s. The history of natural gas production in Holland may be instructive for how things will play out with shale gas in similarly densely populated Britain.
Total Fossil Fuel Production
Unsurprisingly, the three largest producers of fossil fuels are China, America and Russia, with Saudia Arabia being the fourth largest producer of fossil fuels over all. And fossil fuel production is a largely non-European affair – only Norway appears in the top 15. In fact, the United Kingdom is the next ranked European country at number 26.
The top 15 countries extract 78% of the world’s fossil fuels, and only four of the top 15 are developed countries.
Because of its vast natural gas production, Qatar has the world’s largest per-capita fossil fuel production. In total, Qatar’s per-capita fossil fuel production is just under 120 toe. For comparison, typical developed countries consume just over 3 toe in fossil fuels per-capita each year.
Middle Eastern Countries dominate the list of the biggest per-capita fossil fuel producers, making up half of the top 15. Again, there is a lack of European countries, with only Norway appearing in the top 20.
And despite being the top two countries in absolute fossil fuel production, America (19th) and China (34th) do not rank very high in per-capita terms.
And what about consumption?
Some of the world’s biggest consumers of fossil fuels, such as Japan and South Korea, are missing from all of the above lists. So, I will finish by making a brief comparison between the top 15 countries in terms of fossil fuel production and fossil fuel consumption.
The top 3 producers of fossil fuels – China, America and Russian – are also the top 3 consumers of fossil fuels. However, of the world’s 15 biggest consumers of fossil fuels, 6 are not among the 15 biggest producers of fossil fuels. Unsurprisingly, they are almost all developed economies: Japan, Germany, South Korea, Brazil, United Kingdom and Italy.
Differences in the production and consumption of fossil fuels can perhaps best be illustrated using the ratio between national fossil fuel production and consumption. This is an approximate measure of self-sufficiency. Though, a far from fool-proof one. A country can produce an excess of one fossil fuel, but still be fundamentally dependent on imports for another fossil fuel. An example is Holland, which produces an excess of natural gas, but is highly dependent on imports for coal and oil.
Despite its limitations, this measure shows the wide global variation in how self-sufficient countries are.
The world’s biggest producers and consumers, China and America, are both very similar. Each country has a production:consumption ratio of just over 0.75, and they are both largely self-sufficient in terms of coal, but import large amounts of oil.
Almost every developed country consumes more fossil fuels than it exports. In fact, Canada, Australia and Norway are the only developed economies that produce more fossil fuels than they consume. Norway produces 10 times more fossil fuels than it consumes, a ratio that is higher than any other country. This astonishingly high ratio is achieved both by its high per-capita production of fossil fuels, but also by generating almost 100% of its electricity using hydro-electric dams.
In contrast, developed economies such as Japan, South Korea and France produce essentially no fossil fuels, and are almost 100% dependent on imports.
These differences in production and consumption of fossil fuels will play a significant role in determining how countries treat international climate negotations. It is no surprise that influential groups in Canada and Australia oppose any serious efforts to limit global carbon emissions. Similarly, China’s relatively high levels of self-dependence are largely reliant on China’s extensive coal reserves. China will not be able to significantly expand its consumption of oil or natural gas without a massive increase in imports or the expansion of fracking in China. These realities are now leading China to consider a huge expansion of plants which will convert coal to synthetic gas and oil, which will inevitably increase carbon emissions.
In contrast, American energy policy appears to be based around the contradictory goal of reducing the amount of fossil fuels consumed in America, while increasing the amount of of fossil fuels extracted in America. And America is not alone, with Britain similarly considering a massive expansion of shale gas extraction, while reducing consumption of fossil fuels. These complex realities will make the future of national fossil fuel production and consumption difficult to predict.