What are fossil fuels?
Fossil fuel is a general term for buried combustible geologic deposits of organic materials, formed from decayed plants and animals that have been converted to crude oil, coal, natural gas, or heavy oils by exposure to heat and pressure in the earth’s crust over hundreds of millions of years.
For more than a century, burning fossil fuels has generated most of the energy required to propel our cars, power our businesses, and keep the lights on in our homes. Even today, oil, coal, and gas provide for about 80 percent of our energy needs.
And we’re paying the price. Using fossil fuels for energy has exacted an enormous toll on humanity and the environment from air and water pollution to global warming. That’s beyond all the negative impacts from petroleum-based products such as plastics and chemicals. Here’s a look at what fossil fuels are, what they cost us (beyond the wallet), and why it’s time to move toward a clean energy future.
Coal, crude oil, and natural gas are all considered fossil fuels because they were formed from the fossilized, buried remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. Because of their origins, fossil fuels have a high carbon content.
Definition of fossil fuels
“Fossil fuels are made from decomposing plants and animals. These fuels are found in the Earth’s crust and contain carbon and hydrogen, which can be burned for energy.”
Types of fossil fuels
1. Oil | Petroleum:
Crude oil or petroleum (literally ” rock oil” in Latin) is a liquid fossil fuel that consists mainly of hydrocarbons (hydrogen and carbon compounds). Oil can be found in underground reservoirs; in the cracks, crevices and pores of the sedimentary rock; or in tar sand near the surface of the earth.
Access is through boreholes, on land or at sea, or through open-cast mining for tar sand oil and oil shale. Once extracted, the oil is transported to refineries via a super tanker, train, truck or pipeline, where it is converted into usable fuels such as gasoline, propane, kerosene and jet fuel, as well as products such as plastics and paints.
Petroleum products provide approximately 37 percent of US energy needs, with the transportation sector consuming the most. U.S. oil consumption in 2016 was 10 percent below the record high of 2005 and only 3 percent higher than during the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargo from 1973 to 1974, although the U.S. economy had tripled in the decades since then.
However, oil consumption has increased slightly over the past four years as relatively low gasoline prices have spurred vehicle miles driven and renewed interest in SUVs and light trucks. Still, the consumption of petroleum products in the US is expected to decline at least until 2035 as fuel efficiency standards lead to cleaner vehicles. Continuously strengthening standards for clean cars and fuel economy remains critical to reducing oil consumption.
On the manufacturing side, the United States has seen a decade of boom. The growth in production is due in large part to improvements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, technologies that have sparked a boom in shale oil and natural gas production in the United States.
While horizontal drilling allows manufacturers to drill down and out to get more oil or gas from a single well, hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) is used to extract oil or natural gas from intransigent rock, including shale and other formations to promote.
In fracking, large amounts of water mixed with chemicals and sand are blasted deep into a well at pressures high enough to break rocks and allow oil or gas to escape. This controversial extraction method causes a wide variety of environmental and health problems, including air and water pollution.
Coal is a solid, carbon-heavy rock that occurs in four main types, which largely differ in terms of their carbon content: lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous, and anthracite. Almost all of the coal burned in the United States is sub-bituminous or bituminous.
These types of coals abound in states like Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania and are central in terms of carbon content and the thermal energy they can produce. However, regardless of the variety, all coal is dirty. In terms of emissions, it’s the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel we can burn.
Coal mining is done in two ways: underground mining uses heavy machinery to extract coal from deep underground deposits, while opencast mining (also known as strip mining) removes entire layers of soil and rock to gain access to the coal deposits below.
Strip mining accounts for about two-thirds of the coal sourced in the United States. Although both forms of mining are environmentally harmful, mining is particularly destructive, uprooting and polluting entire ecosystems.
Coal and the power plants it burns account for less than a third of US electricity generation, compared to more than half in 2008. Make cleaner, cheaper alternatives like natural gas, renewables like sun and wind, and energy-efficient technologies Coal is far less economically attractive.
Despite the Trump administration’s promises to revive the industry, coal-fired power plants continue to close today. Future demand for coal is likely to remain unchanged or decrease as market forces drive alternative energy sources.
3. Natural gas
Natural gas, which consists primarily of methane, is generally viewed as either conventional or unconventional, depending on where it is underground. Conventional natural gas is found in porous and permeable rock layers or is mixed into oil reservoirs and can be reached via standard wells.
Unconventional natural gas is essentially any form of gas that is too difficult or expensive to extract through regular drilling and that requires a special stimulation technique such as fracking.
In the US, the development and refinement of processes like fracking has helped the country become the world’s largest producer of natural gas – and the largest consumer of it too – since 2009.
Natural gas is abundant in the US, covering nearly 30 percent of US energy needs. It is the largest source of energy for electricity. It is forecast to be an even larger part of the US energy mix by 2050, threatening to exacerbate air and water pollution.
Orimulsion is derived from bitumen commonly found in the Orinoco oil belt. It is commonly used in commercial boiler fuel power plants. Simulation is the most economical fossil fuel that can produce electricity.
Advantages of fossil fuels
1. A cheap source of energy
Fossil fuels are relatively cheap. It’s relatively easy to find and produce these fuels, and there was a huge supply. Plus, since fossil fuels have fueled our world for 250 years, there’s infrastructure in place to distribute it cheaply.
That is now changing. As the supplies dwindle, so the cost of finding new deposits goes up, and the expense involved in production skyrockets. Deeper wells and mines in more hostile environments equals more expensive energy not to mention an even higher cost to the environment.
Fossil fuels are dependable at the moment. There are plenty of coalfields and large if declining deposits of oil and gas and, as fracking demonstrates, research into extraction is becoming ever more advanced.
Previously regarded as almost infinite, we now understand that there is not a never-ending supply, and certainly not enough to fuel our growing population. However, the date scientists believe we will run out is far enough away that many in power don’t bother to worry about it.
4. Useful by-products
Plastics have revolutionized the way we live. Look around you how many plastic objects surround you now? You’re likely touching some form of plastic right now. Of course, plastics have their problems, especially when used as a single-use item and thrown out after use. Without fossil fuels, we would not have plastic, and it is still used today to make the majority of plastic products.
Disadvantages of fossil fuels
1. Land degradation
Unearthing, processing, and moving underground oil, gas, and coal deposits take an enormous toll on our landscapes and ecosystems. The fossil fuel industry leases vast stretches of land for infrastructures such as wells, pipelines, access roads, as well as facilities for processing, waste storage, and waste disposal.
In the case of strip mining, entire swaths of terrain including forests and whole mountaintops are scraped and blasted away to expose underground coal or oil. Even after operations cease, the nutrient-leached land will never return to what it once was.
As a result, critical wildlife habitat land crucial for breeding and migration ends up fragmented and destroyed. Even animals able to leave can end up suffering, as they’re often forced into less-than-ideal habitat and must compete with existing wildlife for resources.
2. Water pollution
Coal, oil, and gas development pose myriad threats to our waterways and groundwater. Coal mining operations wash acid runoff into streams, rivers, and lakes and dump vast quantities of unwanted rock and soil into streams.
Oil spills and leaks during extraction or transport can pollute drinking water sources and jeopardize entire freshwater or ocean ecosystems. Fracking and its toxic fluids have also been found to contaminate drinking water, a fact that the Environmental Protection Agency was slow to recognize.
Meanwhile, all drilling, fracking and mining operations generate enormous volumes of wastewater, which can be laden with heavy metals, radioactive materials, and other pollutants. Industries store this waste in open-air pits or underground wells that can leak or overflow into waterways and contaminate aquifers with pollutants linked to cancer, birth defects, neurological damage, and much more.
Fossil fuels emit harmful air pollutants long before they’re burned. Indeed, some 12.6 million Americans are exposed daily to toxic air pollution from active oil and gas wells and from transport and processing facilities. These include benzene (linked to childhood leukemia and blood disorders) and formaldehyde (a cancer-causing chemical).
A booming fracking industry will bring that pollution to more backyards, despite mounting evidence of the practice’s serious health impacts. Mining operations are no better, especially for the miners themselves, generating toxic airborne particulate matter. Strip mining particularly in places such as Canada’s boreal forest can release giant carbon stores held naturally in the wild.
4. Burning Fossil Fuels
Global warming pollution
When we burn oil, coal, and gas, we don’t just meet our energy needs we drive the current global warming crisis as well. Fossil fuels produce large quantities of carbon dioxide when burned. Carbon emissions trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to climate change.
In the United States, the burning of fossil fuels, particularly for the power and transportation sectors, accounts for about three-quarters of our carbon emissions.
5. Other forms of air pollution
Fossil fuels emit more than just carbon dioxide when burned. Coal-fired power plants singlehandedly generate 42 percent of dangerous mercury emissions in the United States, as well as two-thirds of U.S. sulfur dioxide emissions (which contribute to acid rain) and the vast majority of soot (particulate matter) in our air.
Meanwhile, fossil fuel–powered cars, trucks, and boats are the main contributors of poisonous carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, which produces smog (and respiratory illnesses) on hot days.
6. Ocean acidification
When we burn oil, coal, and gas, we change the ocean’s basic chemistry, making it more acidic. Our seas absorb as much as a quarter of all man-made carbon emissions. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution (and our coal-burning ways), the ocean has become 30 percent more acidic.
As the acidity in our waters goes up, the amount of calcium carbonate a substance used by oysters, lobsters, and countless other marine organisms to form shells goes down. This can slow growth rates, weaken shells, and imperil entire food chains.
Ocean acidification impacts coastal communities as well. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s estimated to have cost the oyster industry millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.
Building a Clean Energy Future
We’re not locked into a fossil fuel future, however. We’ve made major progress in scaling up renewable energy and energy efficiency in the United States over the past decade, thanks to federal, state, and local policies that have helped to grow the clean energy economy. We’re also using energy much more efficiently than we used to.
State and federal incentives, along with falling prices, are pushing our nation and the world toward a cleaner, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Renewables are on track to become a cheaper source of energy than fossil fuels, which is spurring a boom in clean energy development and jobs. Significantly higher levels of renewables can be integrated into our existing grid, though care must be taken to site and build renewable energy responsibly.
Meanwhile, energy efficiency is our cleanest, cheapest, and largest energy resource, contributing more to the nation’s energy needs over the past 40 years than oil, coal, natural gas, or nuclear power. It accounts for more than 2.2 million U.S. jobs at least 10 times more than oil and gas drilling or coal mining.
If we can put the right policies in place, we are poised to make dramatic progress toward a clean energy future. In fact, a recent NRDC report finds that we can slash U.S. fossil fuel use by 80 percent by 2050. To do that, we will need to cut energy demand in half, grow renewable energy resources so that they provide at least 80 percent of our power, electrify almost all forms of transportation, and get fossil fuels out of our buildings.
That will require sustained, coordinated policy efforts from all levels of government, the private sector, and local communities. But we know we can do it using the proven, demonstrated clean energy technologies that we have today.