GEOS 195 "Introduction to Fossil Fuels"

James Staub,

The University of Montana


A a rigorous introductory course designed to provide an overview of geologic, geochemical, and geophysical principles and concepts associated with fossil fuel origins, exploration, development, production, and utilization. The course starts with a general introduction to fossil fuels and geologic principles and ends with a discussion of environmental issues associated with fossil fuel use.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Online course

Institution Type:

University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

The course is delivered 100% online. It is designed for students enrolled in the online two-year Energy Technology Program at UM's College of Technology, but is also a general Geosciences elective open to all undergraduate students at UM. Energy tech students represent the largest number of enrolled students and business administration majors follow as a close second. While there are no required prerequisites, a basic understanding of chemistry, physics, and mathematics (through algebra) is very helpful.

Course Content:

Individual Learning Units are described (from the online course)

Introduction to Fossil Fuels
Please read the Introduction in Petroleum Geology, Exploration, and Production in the text by Hyne and the three different Introductions (Main, Volumes I and II) in the Atlas of Coal Geology (AAPG Studies in Geology No. 45). These readings provide general overviews about coal and petroleum (i.e. oil and natural gas). Also review the attached files. They are intended to augment the other reading materials. Please also start to review information on coal, natural gas, and petroleum available on the Energy Information Agency website at, the Department of Energy website at and the International Energy Agency at to begin to become familiar with issues related to domestic and international energy production and consumption. Two other very useful websites are the American Petroleum Institute at and the World Coal Institute at These websites form a nucleus for you to obtain additional information about fossil fuels. You will be expected to locate additional websites during this course that contain relevant information on fossil fuels and use this information during discussions.

Geologic Principles
In order to understand many of the ideas and concepts related to the exploration for and development of fossil fuels it is necessary to have an understanding of basic geologic principles. For those of you who have had previous courses in geology this information should represent a review/refresher. For those of you who have no background in geology this information represents a mini-course in Introductory Geology which will provide a starting point for you to understand the materials on fossil fuels presented in this course.

Sedimentary Basins
Most of the fossil fuel resources on the planet occur in sedimentary basins and range in age, generally, from Cambrian to Pleistocene. An understanding of the geologic processes that lead to basin formation, the geometries of their sediment fill packages, and of subsurface processes and environments is required.

Fossil Fuel Origins and Chemistry
There are many different topics that can be included under the heading Fossil Fuel Origins and Chemistry. Topics such as organic chemistry, kerogen analysis, and coalification are but a few. It is necessary to understand not only the "basic" chemistry of the fossil fuels and fossil fuel generated synfuels, but also the nature of the biological precursor materials and what happens to these materials during their burial and subsequent thermal maturation. 

Petroleum Accumulation
In order for a sedimentary basin to become a petroleum province five elements must be present and these elements must happen in the proper sequence. There must be a petroleum source, a seal, a trap, a reservoir, and proper timing (of petroleum migration). If the first four elements are not present or have not formed prior to or concurrent with migration, the generated petroleum will simply escape to the surface. Introductory petroleum source rock and generation concepts were covered previously in Fossil Fuel Origins and Chemistry. The information on source rock and generation must be incorporated with the concepts presented here to understand the basics of petroleum accumulation. 

Petroleum Reservoir Depositional Environments
Sandstones and limestones (including dolomite) are the most common reservoir lithologies. Sandstones are the dominate reservoir type in many regions of the world where as limestones are the dominate reservoir type in the Middle East. Most petroleum reservoirs tend to be relatively young, geologically speaking. Sediments can accumulate in many different environments ranging from terrestrial to deep marine. The information provided is intended to serve as a brief overview of various types of depositional environments and is by no means inclusive of all types. 

Coal is an extremely complex material composed primarily of the remains of higher terrestrial plants. According to Schopf (1956) "Coal is a readily combustible rock containing more than 50 percent by weight and more than 70 percent by volume carbonaceous material, formed by the compaction or induration of variously altered plant remains similar to those of peaty deposits. Differences in the kinds of plant materials (type), in degree of maturation (rank), and range of impurities (grade), are characteristic of the varieties of coal." 

Coal Bed Methane
Coal bed methane (CBM) resources represent a substantial energy resource that, until relatively recently, has not undergone extensive development. Unlike the situation in conventional hydrocarbon development, with CBM coal acts as both the source and the reservoir. 

The methods and technologies used in exploring for fossil fuels are complex. This Learning Unit provides an introduction to basic concepts, methods, and techniques. There is, in fact, extensive overlap across the spectrum of fossil fuel exploration in the types of technologies used; hence there are not separate sections for coal and petroleum. 

Environmental Issues
The environmental concerns surrounding the use of fossil fuels are substantial. The reading information provided to date only begins to touch the subject area and has focused primarily on coal related issues, although CO2 sequestration is an issue that transcends all aspects of fossil fuel use. In addition to course reading materials use the online resources at your disposal to expand your knowledge and understanding of the extremely important area and participate in the Discussion.

Course Goals:

Upon completion students should have a basic understanding of how we use fossil fuels; their origins, compositions, and occurrences; their production and the technologies used to produce them; and the environmental consequences of their use. This is required knowledge if, as a society, we are going to make informed decisions regarding national and global energy and environmental policy issues that confront us.

Course Features:

Students are very responsive and interact extensively during Discussion Board exchanges. The Discussion Board part of the course seems to give a "classroom'" type of context and the students learn about each other and freely exchange ideas and perspectives.

Course Philosophy:

The course consists of 10 Learning Units. The Learning Units are generally sequential and each unit builds on the information provided in the previous unit. Since this course is delivered 100% online the idea is to keep students focused on learning needed information toward the endgame, which is an extended discussion on our energy needs and the environmental impacts that result from our choices. The final discussion serves as a capstone for the course where the students can apply the knowledge they have gained.


As part of each Learning Unit there is an online discussion board of the reading materials and an assignment with questions to answer. Students are encouraged to find and present additional information from the web as part of the discussions.


GEOS 195 Syllabus (Microsoft Word 85kB May7 09)

References and Notes:

Nontechnical Guide to Petroleum Geology, Exploration, Drilling, and Production, 2nd edition, by Norman J. Hyne, Penn Well Corporation, 2001, ISBN 0-87814-823-X

Atlas of Coal Geology, 1st edition, CD-ROM, AAPG Studies in Geology No. 45, edited by A.R. Papp, J.C. Hower, and D.C. Peters, American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 1998, ISBN 0-89181-141-9