The Industrial Revolution allowed the world to modernize into what it is today. One of the driving factors in the industrial revolution was the introduction of coal energy. Coal provided a more efficient and dense energy source than burning wood. This allowed larger machines and mechanized factories to become the norm for production.
Since the industrial revolution coal has given way to oil and natural gas as two prominent energy sources. These power large factories, cars, and create almost all of the world’s electricity. This increasing energy demand has been met by an ever increasing supply of fossil fuel energy.
Fossil fuels are the most prominent energy source in our world today. They are used for everything from electricity generation to powering cars and trucks to heating our homes. Although alternatives to fossil fuels – such as solar, wind, or nuclear fission power – are beginning to be developed, we are still seeing an increase in the amount being used every single year .
The effects of fossil fuels are well known, as is their effect on the environment. However, there are also a lot of good things related to their use and these are what big oil and coal companies use when they argue for the use of fossil fuels.
Over the last 100 years scientists, and more recently the public, have become increasingly aware of the negative environmental effects of fossil fuels. Even though we know fossil fuels cause negative impacts we have continued to use them because they do have some redeeming qualities.
The advantages and disadvantages of fossil fuel energy continues to be a major debate in today’s society.
What are fossil fuels?
There are three different categories of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas.
These groups are separated based on the state we find them in (solid, liquid, or gas) and how they are formed. Fossil fuels are formed over millions of years as dead plants and animals (organic matter) decompose and are buried in earth’s crust. Over time the extreme pressure and heat found in earth’s crust causes the carbon and hydrogen atoms in organic matter to chemically change into the fossil fuels we use today .
Chemically fossil fuels are just chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms of varying length. The process takes millions of years to occur and requires extreme conditions, which makes it nearly impossible to artificially replicate.
The three types of fossil fuel are created from different types of organic matter. Coal is found as a solid and is formed by land based plant matter. Out of the three types of fossil fuels it has the longest carbon chains and produces the least amount of energy per gram.
Oil is a liquid and is formed by tiny plants and animals from our oceans. It has medium sized carbon chains and produces the middle amount of energy of the three.
Natural gas is formed more quickly and as a byproduct of oil and coal. It has the shortest carbon chains, but also produces the most energy per gram [3,4].
Advantages of using fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are widely used today because they have many positive aspects. A few of the most powerful advantages to fossil fuels are listed below.
#1 Relatively inexpensive
Statistically, fossil fuels are currently one of the cheapest forms of energy available. Since fossil fuels have been so widely used over the last 200 years a lot of money and time has been spent researching them.
Systems have been designed to extract and use them in the most efficient and cost effective ways possible, like systems that harness natural gas given off during oil extraction.
We have had a long time to build infrastructure for fossil fuels. This has been an expensive investment, but now makes it easy to process fossil fuels. This has helped reduce their cost to extract and turn into usable energy . To effectively move away from fossil fuel energy we would need to redesign these expensive systems.
*Disclaimer: This does not consider cost of long term impact or money invested in research.*
Fossil fuels do not rely on natural systems, like wind or solar power. This is a big deal for countries like Germany that have huge amounts of solar infrastructure, but only 60 percent of their days are sunny .
We know that when fossil fuels are burned they produce energy and we can easily calculate the quantity of energy they will produce based on the amount of fossil fuels present. This gives us a reliable energy source that can be used around the clock in any conditions.
#3 Safe and easy to transport
With constantly improving technology fossil fuels are now relatively safe and easy to transport. Moving fossil fuels poses little health risks for humans. Fossil fuels are collected all over the world and successfully moved huge distances before their use.
One example is how the U.S. imports 10 percent of its yearly oil supply from Saudi Arabia, over 12,000 kilometers away. Because fossil fuels are so stable there is relatively low risk that they will ignite during transport .
#4 Energy efficient
Fossil fuels are super efficient compared to every other known energy source. This means that they produce a lot of energy based on their size. Unfortunately, no known renewable energies are even close to the efficiency of fossil fuels
Oil produces 45 billion joules of energy per cubic meter and wind at 10 mph produces only 7 joules per cubic meter. Oil is over 6.4 billion times more energy dense than wind energy and solar and water energy are even less energy dense . Because fossil fuels are so energy dense we can collect much less of them to produce the energy we need.
#5 Useful byproducts
Plastics are some of the most commonly used materials on earth and they are produced from petroleum. When oil is extracted from earth it is separated into different groups that are used for different purposes. Most are used for energy production, but a few groups, like Naphtha, are not useful for producing energy. Instead of being wasted they are used to make plastic .
Without fossil fuels we would not be able to make many of the cheap and useful plastic products we use every day.
#6 Global distribution
Fossil fuels are everywhere. There are rich veins of coal, gas, and crude oil spread throughout the world.
Once a vein has been tapped, huge amounts of fuel can be extracted from it, meaning that a lot of resources can be drawn from a relatively small area .
#7 Low infrastructure requirement
Electricity generation plants which are powered by fossil fuels are extremely easy to set up and maintain. They can produce huge amounts of energy in a single place, especially if the fuel source is not nearby.
Fossil fuels also create large numbers of jobs due to the labor intensive extraction, transportation, and utilization processes .
Disadvantages of using fossil fuels
Fossil fuels have many advantageous characteristics, but they also cause huge damage to the environment. A few of the most concerning disadvantages to fossil fuels are listed below.
#1 Finite resource
We will eventually run out of fossil fuels because they are non-renewable.
Fossil fuels take millions of years to naturally form in earth’s crust and we are using them at a much faster rate than they are naturally produced.
This is a huge issue because if we cannot produce enough energy almost all of the technology our societies rely on will cease to function. We shouldn’t be investing time and money into extracting more fossil fuels and improving our extraction techniques. Rather, we need to focus on developing alternative – preferably renewable forms of energy.
#2 Environmental impacts of extraction
Fossil fuels are removed from earth’s crust by mining for coal and drilling for oil or natural gas. Both of these processes are extremely energy intensive, destructive, and polluting.
One type of mining, known as strip mining, is typically characterized by removing large portions of surface soil in search of shallow coal deposits. Strip mining removes valuable nutrient rich soils, all plant / animal life, and increases soil erosion.
Vast areas in the Appalachian region of the U.S. have been affected by strip mining. The EPA has calculated over 2,000 miles of streams have been completely destroyed by the process .
Oil extraction has its own issues like the release of heavy metals into natural ecosystems, disturbing land for well installation, and contaminated waste water leaking into groundwater supplies. These issues have big impacts on the natural world and our health.
#3 Environmentally damaging accidents
Extracting and transporting fossil fuels comes with large environmental risks. One of the largest risks is oil spills, like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This spill released 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, which killed countless animals and has caused many lasting impacts in the region.
There have been over 44 major oil spills in the U.S. alone since the 1970’s. The impacts from these events are innumerable and have caused serious harm to aquatic ecosystems . Oil spills are one of the leading causes of marine disasters, and can cause the deaths of millions of birds, mammals, and fish every time they happen .
#4 Climate change
When fossil fuels are burned they release large quantities of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses (GHGs). GHGs are the main cause of climate change, which is steadily becoming one of the biggest problems on our planet. As more fossil fuels are burned, more GHGs are released perpetuating the problem.
Climate change has already started affecting many places on earth by causing extreme weather events and rising sea level. If climate change continues the effects will be disastrous for many people around the world.
#5 Human health
Burning fossil fuels produces a lot of air pollution. This air pollution is typically made of soot and compounds like Nitrogen Oxides.
These pollutants have been shown to cause problems like asthma and allergies, especially in children. Some cities, like Beijing, have such high rates of air pollution that people are unable to leave their homes for days at a time without risking sickness.
Additionally, the WHO has linked 7 million premature child deaths a year to air pollution and estimated the yearly health cost of treating air pollution related health issues is $100 billion .
#6 Water usage
In many parts of the world water shortages are a constant issue. Fossil fuel power plants require large quantities of water for cooling, which they typically remove directly from lakes and rivers.
In the U.S. a study found that fossil fuel power plants use four times more water than all of the homes they power . This is a staggering amount of water that is rendered unsuitable for human consumption and exasperates an already dire problem.
#7 Waste products
Refining coal and oil creates some very environmentally harmful byproducts. Fossil fuels are rarely found in a pure form, so they must be extracted to remove the unwanted elements.
The waste is often made up of high concentrations of sulfur and other undesirable compounds. It is very costly to dispose of this waste and if not done correctly it can leak into natural ecosystems. Leaks can lead to disastrous consequences, like increased cancer rates in local animals .
#8 Rising costs
As fossil fuels are becoming scarcer and harder to extract from the earth, more resources are needed to find them. This makes them more expensive, which may eventually lead to renewable energies becoming the cheapest .
When comparing the advantages and disadvantages of fossil fuel energy it becomes very clear that the negative impacts are extremely damaging to the planet. Unfortunately, humans have become very reliant on fossil fuels, so it will be a long process to move completely away from them.
Even though it is still increasing in popularity, some countries have started to generate large portions of their electricity from renewable energy sources. Germany now receives 30 percent of its total electricity from wind and solar energy sources and India installed 6 Gigawatts of solar panels in 2017 alone [14,15]. These countries are the role models the rest of the world should follow.
Ultimately to make a substantial change we must each do our own part to reduce fossil fuel usage. This can be by installing solar panels or even riding a bike to work instead of driving. Every small change we make moves us towards a fossil free future.