One thing that will remain true about human nature is the quest for development; and in this quest, as is seen through the ages, man will utilize as much as possible, all resources, natural and non-natural, physical and abstract, lasting and ephemeral. One particular set of resources in light of this is fossil fuels; particularly useful in the production of energy. This has been the trend as far back as 4000 BC in China, where fossil fuel production and consumption began with coal – where carving took place out of black lignite (one of the several forms of coal) (Roser, 2019). With the industrial revolution came an increased dependence on coal. Subsequently, upon discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 and the Spindletop discovery in Texas in 1901, there was a shift in dynamics, and oil became a prominent fossil fuel (not indicating that others are not still prominently used today).
Before the 1920s, burning or flaring of natural gas was produced along with oil as a waste by-product. Later on, gas was then used as fuel for industrial and residential heating and power (EKT Interactive, 2019). Today, fossil fuels are currently the world’s primary energy source, and according to a report from the World Energy Outlook (WEO), will continue to remain the world’s leading source of power. Fossil fuels are set to meet about 84% of global energy demand through 2030 (INTERNATIONAL ENERGY AGENCY, 2017), enabling the world to continue moving. So think of products you use every day – your car, plastic bottles, anything you can think of; it is either a product of fossil fuel manipulation, or is running as a result of fossil fuels. But there is one issue – rather, a grand issue, that presents many other significant and far-reaching issues: environmental degradation.
Fossil Fuels and The Environment
Fossil fuels are natural non-renewable resources formed by a natural process of the decomposition of plants and other organisms, buried beneath layers of sediment and rock, and have taken a long time (quantified in terms of millions of years) to become carbon-rich deposits (Nunez, 2019). Major examples of fossil fuels are coal, crude oil, and natural gas, all considered as such because they were formed from the fossilized, buried remains of plants and animals. It is also important to note that these sources provide about 80% of energy needs. As for the major types of fossil fuels: crude oil, or petroleum, is a liquid fossil fuel composed mainly of hydrocarbons (hydrogen and carbon compounds); coal is that solid, black, carbon-heavy chunk of sedimentary rock; while natural gas is an odorless gas composed mainly of methane.
The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development glossary of statistical terms defines the environment as the totality of all the external conditions affecting the life, development, and survival of an organism. Streamlining the concept based on this definition would portray the environment simply as consisting of land, water, and air.
There is an undeniable link between fossil fuels and the environment, and this is presented in those chemicals and compounds which make up fossil fuels. The presence of carbon, methane, and the likes in excessive quantity makes it difficult to ignore, as the impact on the environment is clear. Take for instance plastics, which are made from fossil fuels and are biodegradable. The creation of such plastics affects the environment in many fundamental ways – one being how it affects the cleanliness of the environment; another being that the biodegradable nature of such plastics makes them decompose at some point, releasing the chemicals in the atmosphere and water bodies. It has been stated that every year, eight million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean (Ocean Conservanvy).
How Exactly do Fossil Fuels Impact the Environment?
While there are numerous advantages of using fossil fuels to include: their high energy concentration, low cost and ease of accessibility; they can also be harmful to the environment. Fossil fuels cause land degradation, and water and atmospheric pollution.
The impact of fossil fuels specifically on land is both direct and indirect. It can occur in a number of ways, including land clearing for the purpose of establishing facilities and networks that enable the processes needed for the extraction, transportation, and processing of fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry requires a large portion of land to develop infrastructure such as wells, pipelines, access roads, as well as facilities for processing, waste storage, and waste disposal (Denchak, 2018). This could even involve scraping and blasting to expose underground coal or oil.
With regard to surface mining, which involves removing the overlaying soil to access the coal beneath the earth, this has both short term and long term implications. In the short term, large amounts of soils and rock deposits are dumped into such mediums as valleys and streams, which affects the ecosystems and offsets the natural flow of streams. In the long term, the soil is weak and only able to support a limited amount of crops. These effects cut across other aspects of land clearing. Usually, in the processing of setting up drilling facilities for extraction of oil, a substantial amount of land is cleared first; depending on the area, this may disrupt ecosystems, and affect the soil upon which the drill is inserted. It also has a ripple effect in that, in areas surrounded by forest cover, such cover (trees and plants) is meant to capture GHGs, preventing them from accumulating in the atmosphere and warming our planet. Therefore, in a bid to facilitate the extraction and utilization of fossil fuels, clearing land only serves to facilitate the advent of the effects of such situations as climate change.
Beyond even just land clearing, after setting up oil extraction and transport operations, there is still the likelihood that oil may spill onto the environment, spreading to areas which have not yet been affected by land clearing activities. The Department of Petroleum Resources estimated 1.89 million barrels of petroleum were spilled into the Niger Delta between 1976 and 1996 out of a total of 2.4 million barrels spilled in 4,835 incidents (The Daily Independent, Lagos, 2010). These incidents occurred majorly as a result of pipeline and tanker accidents, sabotage, and scrupulous oil production operations. The effects will range from the degradation of soil to destroying entire ecosystems.
Fossil fuels impact the water in several ways, and unlike land, the fuels may get mixed with a substance that is continuously flowing. Hence, harmful chemicals are mixed with freshwater that provides a source of water for consumption. Additionally, fossil fuels affect marine wildlife and the ecosystem by contaminating the water, ultimately affecting the people and animals dependent on the marine ecosystem. In this light, fossil fuels lead to water pollution. Water pollution occurs when harmful substances (usually chemicals) contaminate a body of water, such as a stream, river, lake, ocean, or aquifer, thereby degrading water quality, and making it dangerous to humans or the environment. This pollution may occur in several ways. One prominent way which countries of the world still find difficulties in addressing is oil spills
The world has experienced a plethora of spills, in which millions of gallons of oil have spilled into the oceans. There was the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a man made disaster that occurred when an oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. The Exxon Valdez oil slick covered 1,300 miles of coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds, otters, seals, and whales. Even today, there are vestiges of crude oil which remain in some locations (History, 2018).
There was also the Prestige Oil Spill accident in November of 2002, which occurred near the coastline of Spain in the city of Galicia and was reported to have spilled almost 18 million gallons of oil into the ocean, damaging all the marine ecosystem there. There was the Torrey Canyon, the Deepwater horizon and many more spills which have left our oceans vulnerable. Beyond ostensible oil spills which would alert any mind, there are some offshore oil extraction activities initiated by the hydrocarbon industry which can have numerous adverse environmental impacts even without suffering a significant oil spill. For instance, drilling activities fundamentally affect the aquatic ecosystem, and such activities only help spread remains of oil spills.
Another issue to note is fracking. Fracking is a process which involves pumping water and various chemicals down an oil or gas well under the influence of high amounts of pressure, thereby breaking bedrock and shale to enable the possibility of extraction of oil deep within the bedrock. It is in the process of injecting chemicals underground that groundwater contamination could occur.
Fracking also consumes a massive amount of water, and according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), each process uses between 1.5 million and 16 million gallons of water to frack a single well (Denchak, Fracking 101, 2019). A resultant effect might be a reduction of water resources in areas where freshwater supplies are needed for drinking and irrigation. This is because water used for fracturing is too contaminated to return to its source, and as such, it is typically disposed of deep underground, where it is removed from the freshwater cycle. Moreover, over 80% of the world’s wastewater – and over 95% in some least developed countries – is released without treatment (UNESCO, 2017). Part of this is from the discharges from fossil fuel extraction processes.
Fossil fuels, maybe more ostensibly, affect the atmosphere the most, given the nature of the chemicals which they are made of. Carbon dioxide for instance, which enters the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels and methane, which is emitted during the production and transport of fossil fuels, are both greenhouse gases (GHGs), and this fact is essential. This is because GHGs undergo a process known as the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a natural process that warms the Earth’s surface. When energy from the Sun reaches the earth, some of it is absorbed and re-radiated by greenhouse gases. Essentially, this is what keeps the earth at certain temperatures. So if there is more GHG emission, there will be more gases that capture heat from the sun, raising the average temperature of the earth. This in turn leads to climate change, affecting the pattern of the weather in the short run and changing climate patterns entirely in the long run.
Climate change today is largely fueled by anthropological activities, and it continues to rise. The WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin showed that globally averaged concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached 407.8 parts per million (ppm) in 2018, up from 405.5 ppm in 2017 (World Metrological Organization, 2019). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, also forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century (NASA, 2019). A continuous rise in temperature levels will only serve to facilitate climate change, resulting in such effects as droughts and heatwaves, a rise in sea levels, desertification, forest fires, storms, and hurricanes, with a further effect on land, water, and ecosystems.
The impact of fossil fuels on the environment cannot be understated, as highlighted in the above. The world needs to wake up to this threat and realize that more needs to be done in developing methods which will balance the need to produce electricity and the need to safeguard the environment. Environment friendly policies need to be established, including afforestation, environmental impact assessment, operational quality assessment, among others, as well as adhering to international frameworks that protect the environment.
Denchak, M. (2018). “Fossil Fuels” The Dirty Facts, https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fossil-fuels-dirty-facts
Denchak, M. (2019). “Fracking 101” Fracking 101, https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fracking-101#whatis
EKT Interactive. (2019) “History of Oil” The Modern Oil Industry, https://www.ektinteractive.com/history-of-oil/
History. (2018). “Exxon Valdez Oil Spill” History, https://www.history.com/topics/1980s/exxon-valdez-oil-spill
INTERNATIONAL ENERGY AGENCY. (2017). “World Energy Outlook Special Report” World Energy Outlook, https://www.gogla.org/sites/default/files/resource_docs/weo2017specialreport_energyaccessoutlook.pdf
NASA. (2019). “The Effects of Climate Change”.
Nunez, C. (2019). “Fossil Fuels Explained”. The National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/energy/reference/fossil-fuels/
Ocean Conservancy. “The Problem With Plastics” The Ocean Conservancy, https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/plastics-in-the-ocean/
Roser, H. R. (2019). ” Fossil Fuels”, https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels
World Metrological Organization. (2019). “The State of Greenhouse Gases in the Atmosphere”