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Samantha Putterman
By Samantha Putterman April 8, 2022

John D. Rockefeller didn’t coin term ‘fossil fuels’ to trick people and boost oil prices

If Your Time is short

  • John D. Rockefeller was not responsible for coining the term "fossil fuel." It was first used by German chemist Caspar Neumann in the 1700s. 

  • Oil might be abundant, but it’s not that simple, energy experts said. It took millions of years to yield the barrels of oil that are being drilled now, and just because oil exists somewhere, doesn’t mean it’s economically or technically possible to extract it.

As Americans continue to pay high prices at the gas pump, some have taken to social media to claim that people have been lied to about fossil fuels and the availability of oil. 

According to one TikTok video shared on Facebook, fossil fuels do not, in fact, come from the remains of long-dead organisms, and oil is one of the most abundant liquids on the planet, next to water. 

The woman in the clip claims that the term "fossil fuel" was coined by American businessman and Standard Oil owner John D. Rockefeller to trick the public into thinking that oil was a rarity so he could drive up the price.

"Did you know that fossil fuels do not come from long-dead living organisms?" the woman says in the clip. "In 1892, the owner of standard oil, who happened to be John D. Rockefeller himself, he named fossil fuels to trick people into thinking that his product was scarce, in turn allowing for an increase in prices. How much did you pay in gas today? And how do you feel knowing that you're paying that much for the second most abundant liquid on the planet?"

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

Rockefeller is not responsible for coining the term "fossil fuel" in 1892 — it was being used well before he was born — and fossil fuels do, in fact, come from decomposing organisms.

Oil also isn’t created quickly, and while it may be abundant, experts said that doesn’t mean it’s all readily available.

Tyler Priest, a history and geography professor at the University of Iowa and leading expert on the history of offshore oil and gas, told PolitiFact that the claim stems from a longstanding conspiracy theory about big oil corporations going back to Rockefeller. 

The belief involves the so-called "abiogenic oil" theory which, he said, "proposes that petroleum is formed by inorganic means deep in the earth’s mantle, and thus is almost infinitely abundant. Somehow, the oil industry has managed to keep most people from learning about this."

Who coined ‘fossil fuel’?

John D. Rockefeller was born in 1839 and founded the Standard Oil Company in 1870, becoming one of the world's first billionaires.

While he made a lot of money off oil, he didn’t coin the term "fossil fuel" to drive up the price. It was, instead, conceived by a German chemist named Caspar Neumann and can be found in the index of the 1759 English translation of "The Chemical Works of Caspar Neumann."

The term was used in other works that pre-date Rockefeller, including in the title of an 1835 book on the history of Great Britain's coal trade.

But it was used more widely in the early 1900s to give people the idea that petroleum, coal and natural gas come from ancient living things, making them a natural substance.

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In Google Books Ngram Viewer, a tool that charts the usage of specific words or phrases in books over time, results for "fossil fuels" show that the term was used periodically between 1750 and 1900 and spiked after the 1940s, which was after Rockefeller’s death in 1937. 

"‘Fossil fuels’ was not really a term anyone used to refer to oil in the late 19th century, at least in the U.S. context," said Priest. "People used the terms ‘oil,’ ‘mineral oil,’ ‘rock oil,’ ‘Seneca oil,’ ‘gas oil,’ or ‘petroleum.’ I’m pretty sure (John D. Rockefeller) never invented or even used the term ‘fossil fuels.’" 

How fossil fuels work

Fossil fuels are made from decomposing plants and animals — mainly microorganisms like phytoplankton and algae from millions of years ago. These fuels are found in the Earth's crust and contain carbon and hydrogen, which can be burned for energy. Coal, crude oil, and natural gas are examples of fossil fuels.

While water is considered the most abundant liquid on earth, we could not find an official measurement that ranks the prevalence of different types of liquids on earth.

But even if oil were somehow determined to be the second-most abundant liquid on the planet, that designation doesn’t mean much, energy experts said. 

The U.S. Energy Information Administration, the federal agency responsible for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating energy information, told PolitiFact that, while it doesn’t have comparisons of volumes of oil versus other liquids, just because oil exists somewhere doesn’t mean it’s economically or technically possible to extract it.

Experts estimate the volume of recoverable crude oil using a figure called "proved reserves" — estimates of the volumes of oil and natural gas that geological and engineering data demonstrate to be recoverable in future years under existing economic and operating conditions.

The amount of proved reserves fluctuates in certain circumstances.  

"In 2020 for instance, proved reserves of oil declined from 2019 levels," EIA spokesperson Chris Higginbotham told us in an email. "Lower crude oil prices in 2020 caused many operators to revise their estimates of proved reserves downward and scale back development plans for new wells … So, just because oil exists, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily available."

Oil is also not created quickly and is not considered a self-replenishing resource.

"Petroleum, like coal and natural gas, is a non-renewable source of energy," National Geographic says on its website. "It took millions of years for it to form, and when it is extracted and consumed, there is no way for us to replace it."

Our ruling

A Facebook post features a TikTok video that claims Rockefeller created the term "fossil fuels" in 1892 to trick people into thinking oil was scarce and boost prices when fossil fuels are actually "the second most abundant liquid on the planet."

Rockefeller is not responsible for coming up with the term "fossil fuels" at the end of the 19th century. It was being used over 100 years earlier, first showing up in 1759 in texts by the German chemist Caspar Neumann. 

Oil might be abundant but it took millions of years to yield the barrels of oil that are being drilled today, and not all oil is necessarily able to be extracted. And experts say there’s no clear measurement that puts oil as the planet’s "second most abundant liquid."

We rate this False.

Our Sources

Facebook post, April 1, 2022

National Geographic, Resource Library "Fossil Fuels", Accessed April 6, 2022 

National Geographic, Resource Library "Petroleum", Accessed April 7, 2022

Powells Books, Does Oil Come From Dinosaurs?, Sept. 15, 2017 

Penn State University, Earth Archives, fossil fuels, Accessed April 6, 2022

Google Books, The Chemical Works of Caspar Neumann "fossil" search, 1773  

Google Books, The Chemical Works of Caspar Neumann "fuel" search, 1773

Google Books Ngram Viewer, "fossil fuels", Accessed April 6, 2022 

Reuters, Fact Check-The term ‘fossil fuel’ was not coined by John D. Rockefeller to trick people into thinking oil is a scarce commodity, Sept. 24, 2021 

Email interview, Chris Higginbotham spokesperson for the Energy Information Administration, April 6-7, 2022

Email interview, Benjamin Goldman archivist at Penn State University, April 7, 2022 

Email interview, Tyler Priest, professor of history and geography at the University of Iowa, April 7, 2022

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John D. Rockefeller didn’t coin term ‘fossil fuels’ to trick people and boost oil prices

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