Environmental Impacts of the Petroleum Industry

It is hard to know where to start when

detailing the negative effects the petroleum industry has on the environment, because the entire planet has suffered such degradation as a result of humanity’s overuse of fossil fuels. Petroleum, which we know better as oil, is actually toxic to all forms of life. Unfortunately, oil is linked to almost every aspect of our lives today: it’s what powers our transportation, it’s the source of our heating and cooling, and it’s widely used to generate electricity. The by-products of oil produce a multitude of products including plastic, cleaning materials and pharmaceuticals.

How petroleum works

Fossil fuels were formed many millions of years ago from plants and animals that lived at the time. Once this living matter died, their remains were deposited. There is carbon left over from this living matter and it’s this carbon that is now used to produce energy. Some of these fossil fuels are found on land and are deposited in the earth, while other biological matter settled on the sea floor, which is why there are many oil rigs to be found at sea. Petroleum comes in many forms – it can be liquid or in gas form. The most common type of gas is methane.

The danger of oil to the planet

As mentioned, petroleum is highly toxic. Oil is absolutely lethal to fish, so the various oil spills that occur frequently cause irreparable harm to the oceans. Human beings are also badly affected by the side effects of crude oil as it can be highly carcinogenic. In both crude oil and gas you will often find benzene, which is a substance known to cause leukemia. The fact that this product can lower white blood cells causes immunity to drop and a higher susceptibility to diseases. It has even been established that many birth defects can be linked to petroleum products.

Air pollution from petroleum products

Crude oil can’t be used in its natural state, so it needs to be refined. This releases toxins into the atmosphere that damage the ecosphere and impact human health. Thereafter, the way that oil is used is usually by burning it. This releases huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and definitely contributes to the greenhouse gases that are causing so many problems today.

It should be mentioned that burning oil doesn’t normally complete the combustion process. What this means is that it isn’t just water and CO2 that is released, as other compounds are formed, which are usually extremely toxic. The list is endless, but includes carbon monoxide, which is a highly dangerous gas. Even the soot created by burning oil (which can easily be seen coming out of the exhausts of vehicles) can coat human lungs, which can cause cancer or heart disease.

Acid rain and oil spills

In the case of acid rain, there is a chemical process set in motion by the high temperatures created by the combustion of petroleum that sets off a deadly cocktail of toxic gases. When these gases combine with the water in the air, the rain that falls is highly acidic. One of the results is the extraordinary sight of whole forests of dead trees. The Great Barrier Reef and other magnificent coral reefs are slowly dying, affected by the increasing acidity in the oceans, and several lakes are filled with dead fish, also due to rising levels of acidity.

Oil spills usually cause outrage and elicit many pictures of the affected and dying animals. Although the large oil spills are well publicized and are catastrophic to the environment, this isn’t the only problem. Coupled with the massive disasters is the ongoing damage caused by leaking cars and boats, as well as spillage from tankers, pipelines, airplanes and illegal dumping. Cleanup of these spills is very difficult and can take years to complete. However, the loss of marine life and the impact on animal and human health cannot easily be reversed.

Other side effects of petroleum on the environment

The toxic substances released by petroleum not only damage the environment but also impact human health. Waste oil is a by-product that is used in areas such as brake fluids or gear box oil. These products produce the same problems as other petroleum-based products and often directly affect neighborhoods. For example, when waste oil drips out onto a road or a driveway it usually ends up polluting the water table. Poisons such as benzene are then directly introduced into the soil and drinking water. It’s little wonder that the rate of cancer is expected to increase three-fold in coming years.

The pervasive use of oil has led to the many ailments the planet faces today, the most serious of which is global warming. There is no doubt that the overall temperature of the earth’s atmosphere is gradually rising, and this is generally attributed to the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of CO2, CFCs, and other pollutants. As can be seen, the use of petroleum has played a major part in this looming disaster.

Written by Greentumble Editorial Team