Oil does not regenerate faster ‘than it could ever be depleted’

26 January 2024
What was claimed

J.D. Rockefeller paid scientists to call oil a fossil fuel at the 1892 Geneva Convention to “induce the idea of scarcity”.

Our verdict

These claims are false. Scientists had used the phrase “fossil fuel” as early as 1759 before J.D. Rockefeller’s birth, and we have seen no evidence it was discussed by chemists at an 1892 meeting in Geneva about naming compounds.

What was claimed

Oil regenerates faster within Earth than it can be depleted.

Our verdict

False. Crude oil, which is formed from algae and plankton compressed and heated at high temperatures under layers of sediment, takes millions of years to generate.

A graphic shared more than 900 times on Facebook falsely claims that oil regenerates faster than it can be depleted.

The post says: “Every time you hear the term fossil fuel used by ‘experts’, you’re being lied to. In 1892 at the Geneva Convention J.D. Rockefeller paid scientists to call oil fossil fuel to induce the idea of scarcity. The truth is oil is the 2nd most prevalent liquid on earth next to water and regenerates within earth faster than it could ever be depleted.”

However, the claims made in this post are not true.

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How is oil generated?

Oil cannot regenerate faster than it can be depleted, as the post claims.

Oil, along with natural gas and coal, contains hydrocarbons of biological origin which occur in the Earth’s crust and can be used as a source of energy.

Crude oil is formed when organic material—the remains of living things such algae and plankton—is compressed and heated at high temperatures under layers of sediment for at least tens of millions of years.

While oil, like other fossil fuels, is technically regenerative, this process takes millions of years and oil is being depleted faster than new reserves can naturally be created.

Professor Jonathan Redfern, Chair of Petroleum Geoscience at the University of Manchester, told Reuters that oil fields cannot be “refilled in our lifetime, or even in thousands of years”.

Who coined the term ‘fossil fuels’?

The post claims that John D. Rockefeller, the American business magnate, paid scientists to call oil a fossil fuel at the 1892 “Geneva Convention”.

The Geneva Conventions are a series of international treaties drawn up in Geneva between 1864 and 1949, with the aim of minimising the effects of war on both soldiers and civilians, and are unrelated to the oil industry. No event named the “Geneva Convention” took place in 1892.

However, the Geneva Nomenclature Congress, known as the Geneva Congress, which brought together some of the most prominent organic chemists of the day, did take place in that year.

The aim was to address confusing nomenclature (how names for compounds are decided) in their field.

Mr Rockefeller was the founder of the Standard Oil Company which dominated the oil industry in the United States until its break-up in 1911. He built his first oil refinery in 1863.

A captioned photograph of the attendees at the Congress shows that Mr Rockefeller was not among the delegates, and reports of the congress state there was no representative from the United States

While the chemists did look at the nomenclature around hydrocarbons, such as methane and propane, Full Fact could find no evidence that the term “fossil fuel” was discussed, or agreed upon by the members of the Congress as a term for oil. The term “fossil fuel” had already been featured in the work of German chemist Caspar Neumann in the 18th century.

The phrase is first recorded as being used in the 1759 English translation of ‘The Chemical Works of Caspar Neumann’, published after his death with additions by the British physician and chemist William Lewis

“Fossil fuel” also appears in the title of an 1835 book by the English author John Holland, entitled ‘The History and Description of Fossil Fuel, the Collieries, and Coal Trade of Great Britain’. This was published four years before Mr Rockefeller’s birth in 1839.

A search through Google Books Ngram Viewer, that charts the usage of words or phrases in published books over time, shows that results for “fossil fuel” and “fossil fuels” were both used periodically from the mid 1800s until more widespread use in the 1950s.

Uptake of the term in publications increased sharply from the 1940s, after Mr Rockefeller’s death in 1937.

Scientists now use the term to cover three main groups of non-renewable fuel: coal, oil and natural gas. 

False claims like these have the potential to cause confusion about the climate, energy security and fuel prices. 

We have previously fact checked a viral clip falsely claiming to show the discovery of oil in Burkina Faso, and a misleading claim by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about the number of jobs supported by the oil and gas industry in Scotland.

Image courtesy of US Department for Energy

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