From the hero of the Industrial Revolution to the villain of climate change, fossil fuels are alternately extolled and defamed in the media, textbooks and everyday conversation. Indeed, these materials present a mixed record that is often skewed one way or the other. Proving themselves an efficient and – sometimes – abundant energy source, petroleum, coal, shale and natural gas can take a share of credit for the comfortable lifestyles many enjoy. On the other hand, evidence demonstrates their hazardous effects on the future.
Fossil Fuels Are Green Energy… or Were
Among the many interesting fossil fuels facts is the origin of this material. Many eons ago, fossil fuels began as dead plants and trees (and animals, too). Sinking into swamp and ocean bottoms, this flora was subsequently covered with soil and sand. These minerals formed rock, rock and more rock over the decomposing organic material known as peat. Once the rock pressed all of the moisture from the peat, the latter evolved into coal, natural gas and oil. Pressure and heat were the primary catalysts.
This process all began during the Paleozoic Era, 200 to 300 million years ago. Scientists label this time the Carboniferous Period because of the copious plant life on the earth, including ample algae on the waters. The first half of this stage is Mississippian while the latter half is Pennsylvanian, when most of the coal was formed.
Fossil Fuels Fueled the Industrial Revolution
Fossil fuels facts abound in the 19th century, when coal brought workers from farms to factories. Whereas wood, windmills and hydro-power had dominated energy use in prior eras, coal could produce record heat in record time. This accelerated manufacturing at every stage. Requiring little to no refinement – and with no shortage in sight – coal is likely the major driver of the Industrial Revolution.
Improvements in the steam engine during the prior century meant that coal mines – prone to flooding – were more easily drain-able and accessible than ever before. This was good news since wood was fast growing more precious due to deforestation. In this sense, fossil fuels served as a more sustainable alternative to timber.
Fossil Fuels Responsible for Economic Booms and Busts
States and nations enjoyed tremendous economic growth due to oil, natural gas and coal. Fossil fuels facts include the tremendous benefits those countries (and U.S. states) that have resources to sell in world energy markets enjoy when prices are robust. Most of the rest of the world experiences hardship – through inflation and cash-flow pressures – when crude sells at high prices. Yet the jurisdictions from which the petroleum originates reap the harvest of high profits.
Venezuela, for example, experienced a significant uptick in the standard of living during the first years of the 21st century because of the rising cost of fuel. Its later troubles, on the other hand, are directly linked to oil price decline. In the state of Alaska, 85 percent of total revenue flows through the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. Like Venezuela, the Last Frontier economy also rises and falls on fossil fuels.
Fossil Fuels Cause Acid Rain
Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emit from industrial and manufacturing facilities, ascending high into the troposphere. Mixing with oxygen, water and other elements, these emissions return to the earth in what scientists call acid rain. Acid rain can poison lakes and rivers, degrade soil and kill off plant life, among other harmful effects.
The emissions result from the burning of coal to produce electricity and the combustion of gasoline to power myriad vehicles. These make the precipitation too acidic so that natural processes fail to neutralize it as they normally would. Hence, the toxic and ruinous after-effects described above.
Fossil Fuels and Climate Change
Scientific consensus determines that climate change is aggravated by the greenhouse effect. This happens the heat from solar rays that would otherwise be reflected back into space are instead trapped in the atmosphere by gases. These substances include nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane.
Ranking high among fossil fuels facts is the role such energy sources play in increasing the atmospheric concentration of said gases. Burning oil and coal, particularly, boosts the carbon dioxide levels significantly. This leads to all kinds of temperature and weather disruptions.
Fossil Fuels Burn Cleaner than Before
Fossil fuels facts also reveal,though the environmental consequences remain severe, that things could be worse. Over the years, technology has developed that can mitigate some of the dsmsge to the planet. In the spectrum of fossil fuels, natural gas is the cleanest, i.e. emits the lowest levels of CO2. Coal gets the award for dirtiest burning fuel. Yet even coal’s worst output ban be improved upon.
Environmental engineers have discovered the magic of seawater. When seawater filters smokestack exhaust, it attaches its own magnesium and calcium to the CO2 and other toxic compounds to produce a material akin to limestone. This is then useful for the production of asphalt or concrete. At the end of the process, the seawater returns to the ocean (absent, of course, its magnesium and calcium). Scientists are confident that briny water is also accessible farther inland.
Fossil Fuels Are Non-Renewable
Putting aside ecological degradation and atmospheric turmoil, one of the more negative fossil fuels facts relates to sustainability. These energy sources are not renewable. Remember, they formed from organic material over the course of several million years. For the purpose of human utilization – and at the rate we consume energy – they can reach dangerously low reserve levels if they are neither supplemented with or replaced by alternative sources. Actually, British Petroleum estimates only about a half-century is left at the current rate of expenditure.
All in all, we owe much to fossil fuels: comfort, plenty, a decent standard of living for many. Yet those same energy sources now threaten the very way of life they helped bring about. Continued research and development will enhance the prospect that humanity can minimize their use and find even more efficient supplies of available power.