Fossil fuels provide about 80% of the energy in the US. Their main attraction is energy density. Coal, oil, and gas release an incredible amount of energy very quickly, allowing many industrial processes that are otherwise impossible. To date, no renewable sources can replicate these qualities, making it challenging to displace fossil fuels as our primary energy source. However, there are many downsides to how we power the modern world. Here are the facts you need to know about fossil fuels and their effects on the planet.
Oil Fuels Our Transportation
Oil is a hydrocarbon-based liquid that we extract from the Earth, usually by drilling. Pipelines. Trucks, trains, and tankers transport it to refineries that refine it into fuels like gasoline, jet fuel, propane, and kerosene. Oil accounts for 35% of US energy consumption, mainly in transportation.
Coal Is Declining in Popularity
Coal is a carbon-heavy rock that we can often burn directly. However, it releases more carbon per unit of energy than other fossil fuels, reducing its popularity. Coal accounted for half of US electricity production in 2008 but has since fallen to less than 30%. In addition, extracting coal from the ground causes incredible environmental damage.
Natural Gas Burns Cleaner but Still Emits Carbon
Natural gas resides in underground rock formations and caverns, which we access by fracking, a controversial drilling method. It consists primarily of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. Nevertheless, natural gas supplies 38% of US electricity. The US is the world's largest natural gas producer, with production rising. Ease of production and lower carbon emissions than other fossil fuels have led to its growth in popularity.
Fossil Fuel Extraction Degrades the Land
Drilling, fracking, and mining have deleterious effects on the environment. For example, strip mining leaves enormous plots of land wholly barren and unproductive well after coal extraction stops. In addition, as a result of fossil fuel extraction, habitats disappear, permanently endangering wildlife breeding and migration patterns.
Accidents, Waste, and Spillage Pollute Our Waterways
Oil, natural gas, and coal all pollute our waterways. Oil spills are the most visible form of destruction, but coal mining releases untold quantities of toxic runoff into lakes and streams, polluting freshwater supplies. Moreover, fracking has similar effects.
Wastewater from extracting or processing fossil fuels can also overflow or leak from facilities, contaminating waterways with radioactive particles, heavy metals, and other toxins. In drinking water, these compounds correlate to higher rates of birth defects, cancer, and neurological damage.
Fossil Fuels Pollute the Air Before They Are Burnt, Too
Fossil fuels can emit toxins into the atmosphere before they are burned as fuel. For instance, oil and natural gas wells can pollute the air through gas leaks even after the wells have been decommissioned. In addition, coal mining has been causing black lung since before the industrial revolution, but the ailment is hitting miners younger and harder than ever.
Fossil Fuels Account for 75% of Our Carbon Emissions
Fossil fuels are the completely decomposed remains of animal and plant matter – they are carbon-based. When we burn fossil fuels to release their energy, the carbon from the fuel binds with oxygen in the air to form CO2. These emissions account for 75% of total carbon emissions in the US and lead directly to climate change.
There Are Alternatives to Fossil Fuels Gaining Momentum
The destructive nature of fossil fuels has spurred the growth of numerous alternatives, including wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power. In addition, scientific innovation has drastically increased mechanical efficiency, where fossil fuel consumption is still necessary. As we develop more effective production methods of sustainable energy, their prices will fall and displace fossil fuels as the go-to source for energy.
- Decarbonize Your Home Electricity – To reduce fossil fuel consumption, switch your residence to greener energy. Installing solar panels is excellent but expensive. Some electricity providers have tiered programs where you can pay a premium to receive some of your power from partners using renewable sources. Finally, you could investigate a community solar project for your neighborhood.
- Switch Appliances – Consider installing a high-efficiency washer and dryer. In addition, induction stoves are very efficient and gaining popularity. Heat pumps come with a high up-front cost but can heat and cool your home way cheaper than traditional heating systems.
- Vote for Lower Emissions – Voting works. The ill-fated Keystone XL pipeline is evidence enough to show what a grassroots campaign can accomplish. Stay in touch with federal and state representatives to make it known you won't stand for public investments in new fossil fuel projects.