Fossil fuels, including coal, oil and natural gas, are currently the world's primary energy source. Formed from organic material over the course of millions of years, fossil fuels have fueled U.S. and global economic development over the past century. Yet fossil fuels are finite resources and they can also irreparably harm the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for 79 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. These gases insulate the planet, and could lead to potentially catastrophic changes in the earth’s climate. Technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) may help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions generated by fossil fuels, and nuclear energy can be a zero-carbon alternative for electricity generation. But other, more sustainable solutions exist: energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Oil is the world’s primary fuel source for transportation. Most oil is pumped out of underground reservoirs, but it can also be found imbedded in shale and tar sands. Once extracted, crude oil is processed in oil refineries to create fuel oil, gasoline, liquefied petroleum gas, and other nonfuel products such as pesticides, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, and plastics.
The United States leads the world in petroleum consumption at 19.05 million barrels per day as of 2014. Net petroleum imports for the U.S. were 4.5 million barrels per day. Top exporters to the United States include Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria. Oil poses major environmental problems, and the world’s heavy reliance on it for transportation makes it difficult to reduce consumption. Besides the environmental degradation caused by oil spills and extraction, combustion of oil releases fine particulates which can lead to serious respiratory problems, and is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, petroleum is responsible for 42 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
Heavier crude oils, especially those extracted from tar sands and shale, require the use of energy intensive methods that result in more emissions and environmental degradation compared to conventional oil. As conventional oil from underground reservoirs runs out, more oil producers are turning to unconventional sources such as tar sands and oil shale.
Coal is primarily used to generate electricity and is responsible for 39 percent of the electric power supply in the United States in 2014 (down from half in 2007). The United States produces around 11.5 percent of the world’s total with Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Texas leading in production. China is the global leader in coal production, responsible for 45 percent of world supply.
The combustion of coal releases air pollutants such as acid rain-inducing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and mercury. The mining process can also be very damaging to the environment, often resulting in the destruction of vegetation and top-soil. Rivers and streams can also be destroyed or contaminated by mine wastes. The combustion of coal is responsible for 32 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
The premise of "clean coal" has recently been promoted as a way to use this abundant energy source without damaging the environment. Carbon capture and storage (CCS), where carbon is separated from coal and injected underground for long term storage, could theoretically be used to mitigate the coal industry's greenhouse gas emissions. However, CCS has yet to be proven as a safe or realistic way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from commercial power plants and the environmental and health costs of mining remain.
Natural gas comprised 27 percent of U.S. energy use in 2014 and is most commonly used to produce heat or electricity for buildings or industrial processes. Less than two percent of U.S. natural gas is used as a transportation fuel, typically for bus fleets. Natural gas is also used to produce fertilizer, paints, and plastics. The United States produces around 19.8 percent of the world’s natural gas and consumes about 21.5 percent. Natural gas is most commonly transported by pipeline, which makes Canada the key exporter to the United States, while Russia remains the main supplier for much of Europe. Increasingly, however, natural gas is being transported by ship in a liquefied form (LNG) to meet greater global demand for the fuel.
Natural gas burns cleaner than coal and oil, with almost zero sulfur dioxide emissions and far fewer nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions. Natural gas releases almost 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil and 43 percent less than coal. However, natural gas is still responsible for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
Natural gas, which is primarily composed of methane (CH4), is also generated by the decomposition of municipal waste in landfills and manure from livestock production. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Capturing and burning the gas to produce usable heat and power prevents the methane from being released from the landfill or feedlot into the atmosphere directly.
Despite current U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, several options exist to begin the necessary transition away from a harmful fossil fuel economy. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings, vehicles, industrial processes, appliances and equipment is the most immediate and cost effective way to reduce energy use. Planning communities where people can safely and conveniently use public transit, walk, or bike, instead of using private vehicles, also reduces energy demand. Finally, there are several alternative resources that can supply clean, renewable energy to replace fossil fuels, including water, biomass, wind, geothermal, and solar energy.
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Learn more about Fossil Fuels
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- New Renewable Capacity Outpaces Fossil Fuels and Nuclear for Second Straight Year
- Going Green in 2017: The Business Case for Renewable Energy
- The Ins and Outs of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement in Universities
- RECLAIM Act Sets Partisanship Aside for Struggling Coal Communities
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