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Fact Check-The term ‘fossil fuel’ was not coined by John D. Rockefeller to trick people into thinking oil is a scarce commodity

American businessman John D. Rockefeller did not coin the term “fossil fuel” to trick people into thinking that oil was a rarity, despite widely shared claims online.

An individual who features in a video with more than 118,000 views on Facebook makes the claim that, in 1893, the Rockefeller Foundation paid scientists at the Geneva Convention to call oil a “fossil fuel” to “induce the idea of scarcity” and so increase its price, adding that oil does not “come from fossils” (here), (here).

Widely shared memes have also made similar claims, with text that reads: “Every time you hear the term ‘fossil fuel’ on the TV, radio, news etc, [sic] you’re being lied to. In 1892 at the Geneva Convention, the biggest man in the oil industry, J.D. Rockefeller paid scientists to call oil a “fossil fuel’, inducing the idea of scarcity in order to set a world price for oil. The truth is that oil is the 2nd most prevalent liquid on earth next to water, and at all times it is regenerating within the earth faster than it could ever be depleted.”

Previous examples shared online are viewable (here), (here), (here) and (here).

John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) founded the Standard Oil Company and became one of the world’s richest men (here).

However, John Howell, Professor of Virtual Geoscience at the School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen, told Reuters the term was not coined by Rockefeller, but was conceived much earlier by German chemist Caspar Neumann.

The term “fossil fuel” is viewable in the index of a 1759 translation of ‘The Chemical Works of Caspar Neumann’ (here), (here), (here), (here).

The oil which is being extracted from the earth today largely originates from buried phytoplankton, marine biomass, and algae millions of years ago (here).

“In the same way that dinosaurs die, are buried and their bones sometimes turned to stone and are preserved as fossils, so too are dead algae and plant material sometimes converted to oil and gas when buried to sufficient pressures and temperatures over geological time (ie millions of years),” Dr Tom Manzocchi, Associate Professor at the School of Earth Sciences, University College Dublin (UCD), told Reuters via email.

Oil is also not created quickly beneath the Earth’s surface, nor is it considered self-replenishing, experts told Reuters (here), (here).

“It took millions of years to yield the millions of barrels of oil we drill for in an oilfield, so most oil and gas we are drilling now and extracting was formed many millions of years ago,” Prof Jonathan Redfern, Chair of Petroleum Geoscience at the University of Manchester, told Reuters in an email.

“The fields can’t be refilled in our lifetime, or even in thousands of years, as although oil and gas is always being formed and released at depth all the time, its rate of formation and movement of the hydrocarbons (it moves up as tiny bubbles of gas or droplets of oil, under buoyancy) is too slow,” he added (here), (here).

VERDICT

False. The term “fossil fuel” was not created by American businessman J.D. Rockefeller to induce the idea of scarcity for oil. The earliest occurrence of the term features in a book published in 1759 by German chemist Caspar Neumann.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .

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