Fact check: Oil is being extracted more quickly than it forms

·3 min read

The claim: Earth's oil supplies replenish more quickly than they are extracted

Oil forms when organic material – the remains of living things – gets compressed and heated under layers of sediment.

Some social media users are claiming this process occurs as quickly as the substance can be extracted.

Oil "regenerates within the Earth faster than it could ever be depleted," reads a July 5 Facebook post.

The post was shared more than 1,000 times in a month.

But it's wrong.

Oil takes millions of years to form, according to researchers. Conditions on modern Earth do not support replenishment at the rate that it is being extracted.

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USA TODAY reached out to the social media users who shared the claim for comment.

Oil is extracted much more quickly than it forms

It takes millions of years for oil to form, according to the Energy Information Administration.

"It won’t replenish in a human lifetime," Jonathan Redfern, a professor and head of Petroleum Geoscience and Basin Studies at the University of Manchester told USA TODAY in an email. "Many (oil) fields – in the USA – have been depleted for decades. They haven’t refilled."

The environmental conditions and organic material required to keep pace with contemporary oil extraction could not realistically be supplied by Earth's ecosystems, according to Jeffery Dukes, a global ecology researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

In 2021, humans extracted about 32.8 billion barrels of oil worldwide, according to a report by petroleum company BP.

Because the creation of oil is a very inefficient geological process, Dukes estimates that 2,500 metric tons of organic material – mostly phytoplankton – is required to eventually form just a single barrel.

This means that even one year's worth of oil extraction represents a simply enormous amount of dead biological material.

"If we were to try to generate oil the old-fashioned way to replenish our stocks, it would take roughly 750 years’ worth of all of the oceans’ (phytoplankton) production ... and also tens of millions of years to replenish this year’s consumption alone," said Dukes.

Additionally, even if there were enough organic material available, there would also have to be plenty of areas on Earth with the right conditions to kick off the oil formation process.

"To form oil, you need regions with both highly productive phytoplankton and minimal decomposition," said Dukes. "Areas like that were fairly widespread during some of the main periods of oil formation, but today they are pretty rare."

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Alex Demas, a U.S. Geological Survey spokesperson, also told USA TODAY in an email that oil is not replenished as fast as it's extracted.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that Earth's oil supplies are replenished more quickly than they are extracted. Oil is not replenished as quickly as it is extracted, according to multiple researchers and government agencies. It takes millions of years for oil to form. Further, the conditions on modern Earth do not support oil replenishment at the contemporary rate of extraction.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Oil is being extracted more quickly than it forms