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The 5 W’s of Fossil Fuels


Image courtesy of Vitaly Vlasov via Pexels.


What are fossil fuels?


“Fossil fuels are compound mixtures made of fossilized plant and animal remnants from millions of years ago” (Smithsonian). In other words, fossil fuels are fuels formed through natural processes of the remains (fossils) of plants and animals from millions of years ago. The type of fossil fuel depends on the type of fossil and the amount of heat and pressure it was exposed to. The formation of these fuels occurs when decomposing organisms are buried under layers of sediment and rock; this process takes over millions of years to become the carbon-rich deposits we call fossil fuels.


Some examples of fossil fuels include oils, coal, and natural gas. Oil is a liquid composed mainly of carbon and hydrogen. Petroleum use accounts for nearly half the carbon emissions in the U.S. and about a third of the global total. Coal is a solid carbon-heavy rock (typically has an ash/black colour) that is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel we can burn in terms of the amount of carbon emission. The last main type of fossil fuel is natural gas, which is an odourless gas composed primarily of methane. Natural gas often lies in deposits that, like those for coal and oil, formed millions of years ago from decaying plant matter and organisms. It is important to note that fossil fuels are non-renewable energy sources, meaning that once they are used they cannot be replaced as it takes millions of years for these fuels to form.


Where are fossil fuels found?


Fossil fuels are found in the Earth’s crust around the world, but the amount of a specific type of carbon deposits varies depending on location and the limitations of current technologies. Oil or crude oil can be further defined by various petroleum products including but not limited to gasoline, diesel and heating oil. According to the Department of Energy, the top-oil producing countries are the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and China. These 5 countries together account for over 40 percent of the world’s supply of energy.


As stated before, fossil fuels form under the pressure of layers of sediment and rock for millions of years, making it hard for humans to extract these resources. However, as the world becomes increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, more ways to extract fossil fuels have been developed to ensure we can “have all of it”. As a result of advances in drilling techniques (i.e fracking, using pressurized liquid to fracture layers on top of fossil fuels), both natural gas and oil production have dramatically increased in the U.S. in the past 2 decades. By combining fracking with drilling and other innovations, the fossil-fuel industry has managed to extract resources that were previously too expensive to reach. As a result, natural gas has surpassed coal to become the top fuel for U.S. electricity production, and the U.S. leads the world in natural gas production, followed by Russia and Iran.


Who uses fossil fuels?


Currently, around 80 percent of the energy the world consumes is oil, coal and natural gas. 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. Although there are various types of energy like renewable and non-renewable, most areas rely on fossil fuels since there is an economic incentive (cheaper than other sources of energy). “Nearly 15 billion metric tons of fossil fuels are consumed every year” (Resource Watch). Three countries use more fossil fuels than the rest of the world combined: China, the United States and India. Together, these countries consume 54 percent of the world’s fossil fuels by weight, according to the Global Material Flow Database.


Who will face the ramifications of the use of fossil fuels?


Everyone will face the ramifications of the use of fossil fuels in the future, and some are already experiencing the negative effects. The ramifications can be broken down into 3 parts: during extraction, distribution and the aftermath of burning fossil fuels. The extraction of fossil fuels leads to land degradation due to infrastructures like wells, pipelines, as well as strip mining and fracking. During strip mining, toxic airborne materials can go into the miners’ respiratory system and cause lung cancer. Various strategies of reaching fossil fuels contribute to water and air pollution.


In addition, all drilling, fracking, and mining operations generate vast volumes of wastewater, which can be filled with heavy metals, radioactive materials, and other pollutants. Industries typically 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. Communities nearby these sites will be more exposed to pollutants making them more susceptible to diseases and health issues.


Storms in Texas


The ramifications are the most impactful and prominent after we burn fossil fuels. We don’t just receive energy, but we continually feed the current global warming crisis. Fossil fuels produce a large quantity of carbon dioxide when burned. After the carbon is released, it goes up into the atmosphere, traps heat in the atmosphere and leads 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. Although it may seem insignificant, the increase in annual temperatures will result in precipitation, heat waves and ultimately more natural disasters.


An example of this is the Winter Storm Uri that struck the southern U.S. this month with frigid temperatures and unusually high snowfall. In Texas, the cold weather resulted in widespread power outages, damage to infrastructure and several dozen deaths. According to NASA, the average surface temperature of the planet has risen about 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. This increase in temperature has altered the pattern of cold air above the Arctic Circle thus resulting in the extreme storms in the South.


When did the use of fossil fuels begin?


The use of fossil fuels first began in the 1800s with coal used for electricity generation, fuelling the Industrial Revolution. Half a century later, by the early 1960s, coal had already become the predominant energy source of U.S. electricity generation. The increased use of fossil fuels can be directly linked to the increase in CO2 emissions in the atmosphere and the warming of the Earth.


Why do we use fossil fuels?


Currently, they supply about 80 percent of the world’s energy. Fossil fuels provide electricity, heat, and transportation while contributing to the processes that make a huge range of products, from steel to plastics. We, as humans, have created a society that relies on energy resources; although there are alternative options to create energy, fossil fuels are the most “accessible” and economically appealing energy sources. In a short film that was produced with the help of Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot on the climate crisis, they discussed how we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. A way to do this is to transition away from using fossil fuels and use renewable energy sources like hydroelectricity and solar energy, as well as decreasing your energy usage in general.

To learn more about climate change in general, listen to the R2AC podcast episode on climate change!


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Article Author: Kelley Liang

Article Editors: Victoria Huang, Valerie Shirobokov