Fossil fuels are energy resources formed over millions of years from remains of dead plants and animals buried underneath sediment and rock. Subsequent decomposition without the presence of oxygen, coupled with naturally occurring heat beneath the earth and pressure from rock and dirt converted these dead plants and animal matter into fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are used throughout the world to power everything from cars to lights in the home. However, there is currently a lot of hot debate over the use of fossil fuels – is it right to use them? Are they safe to use? Should we be trying to cut down how much we use year on year? Nowadays, we are finding more and more alternatives to fossil fuels, including more renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind and hydropower. The most common fossil fuels are coal, natural gas and petroleum, all of which have been formed over millions of years.
There is an urgent need to stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, dramatically reduce wasted energy, and significantly shift our power supplies from oil, coal, and natural gas to wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewable energy sources.
~ Bill McKibben
Three Major Types of Fossil Fuels
For coal to form, more than heavy vegetation is required. The debris from vegetation must be buried, compressed under high pressure and insulated from erosion. Even with these favorable conditions for the formation of coal, it would not form unless the vegetation debris was submerged and buried by sediments.
2. Oil or Petroleum
Oil is sometimes known as petroleum. Oil is formed from dead plants and animals. When these plant and animal species die, they sink to the ocean floor forming a sedimentary drift of decomposing matter. Sediment starts to pile up on the decaying plant and animal matter. As more and more sediment pile up to form numerous layers, the bottom layer becomes compacted by the ever-increasing pressure from the piling sediment.
This leads to temperature increases. Over time, the temperature becomes so intense that it starts to speed up chemical processes, which trigger very heavy and complex molecules known as kerogens to congregate from the dismantled components of organic molecules. The kerogens, together with long-lasting lipids, as well as limited leftover scraps of cell wall constitute the raw materials that convert into oil after intense heat and increased pressure application.
3. Natural Gas
Natural gas is less dense than air, and its biggest constituent is methane gas. Methane is a chemical compound made up of carbon and hydrogen. Natural gas formation is similar to oil, only that it forms due to increased and relentless pressure applied to oil, which causes it to vaporize into a gas.
Natural gas typically occurs near underground oil deposits. Gas extraction technologies pump it out from underneath the ground and transport it through huge pipelines.
Pros of Fossil Fuels (Advantages)
1. Available in Plenty
The fact that fossil fuels are able to satisfy the needs of the world population means they are bountiful in supply. Fossil fuels are found in almost every country in the world. This aspect gives governments a piece of mind knowing that they will not deplete in the near future.
With technology traveling at breakneck speeds, extraction and refinery procedures have also scaled up, making the availability of fossil fuels even greater. We already have plenty of people gathering coal and oil, for instance, from all the places in the world that are rich in fossil fuels, using all the equipment that has been specially designed and made for the extraction of fossil fuels.
2. Easier to Find
Fossil fuels are actually very easy to find. They occur all over the world, usually in very rich veins deep inside the earth, which means that, once we have committed to getting coal or gas out of the ground or out from under the sea, we are guaranteed to get a lot of resources from that particular area.
The fact that they occur all over the world means that all nations and countries should have access to at least some fossil fuels. (Unfortunately, however, this does not always happen thanks to world politics!)
3. Extremely Efficient
Fossil fuels are extremely efficient. This means that they can generate huge amounts of energy, even if we just use a small amount of, for instance, oil or coal. So far, for instance, we have found that the most effective fuel for cars is, without doubt, petroleum. Nothing else – no renewable energies, at least – even comes close to generating the same amount of energy that fossil fuels do.
Fossil fuels contain carbon and hydrogen molecules, making them highly stable. The constant state of their molecular composition also makes them easy to store. They don’t form other compounds when stored in cans for longer periods. This is also the reason why transporting them is a lot easier and safer than other kinds of fuel.
4. Massive Economic Benefits
It’s a no-brainer that fossil fuels mightily contribute to a country’s prosperity. If you look at the economies of oil and gas producing countries, you will see a common trend; economic prosperity. Government subsidies to oil firms range in billions of dollars, and the contribution to the growth of a country is more than convincing.
If you start considering how many countries across the world greatly rely on fossil fuels, the number of industries powered by them and the number of products that would not be available right now without them, you begin to understand just how fossil fuels have permeated our day-to-day life.
5. Easier to Transport
Whereas transporting renewable sources of energy such as wind, sun and water are impossible, transporting fossil fuels is actually relatively easy. Because fossil fuels are safe and stable, they can be transported easily and efficiently over long distances.
They can be transported on large trucks or pumped through large pipes below and above the ground. These pipes are easily laid underground and can transport gas or oil with ease.
Although they can be relatively expensive to lay in the first place, once they are completed, they serve as a very cheap and effective method of transportation for these essential fuels.
6. Creates Jobs
There is no doubt that fossil fuels have created numerous jobs in the fields of finance, administration, and construction. Fossil fuels generate hundreds of thousands of jobs every year.
To just abandon the use of fossil fuels now would lead to lots of people being jobless which could seriously affect the economy all over the world. This demonstrates that the fossil fuel energy sector is a solid source of employment.
7. Easy Set-Up
Unlike renewable energy sources that are infinite but have a dependency on sun, wind and water, fossil fuels are available widely. A fossil fuel plant can be set up anywhere in the world as long as it gets large quantities of fuel to generate power. They are easier to extract and process and are capable to produce large amounts of energy at a single location.
Fossil fuels have been relied upon since the industrial revolution. Other renewable energy sources such as solar and wind rely on the current climatic conditions to produce electricity. If the sun is not shining, the production of electricity stops. Also, the velocity of wind affects the production of electricity. Fossil fuels guarantee a reliable supply of electricity.
9. High Calorific Value
Calorific value is the amount of energy contained in any fuel. Calorific value is ascertained by measuring the amount of heat produced by the total combustion of a given quantity of it. Calorific value is typically expressed in joules per kilogram.
All energy produced on the earth has a particular calorific value. The higher the value, the more effective the fuel is. Fossil fuels have the highest calorific value of any fuel. This explains why they are still dominant in renewable and other alternative energy sources.
10. Useful by-product
Typically, the byproducts of fossil fuels do not stir enthusiasm. What most people do not comprehend is that plastics are handy byproducts of fossil fuels. They might not be good for the environment, but they are useful and cheap. Plastics are also used in medical equipment and computers.
Cons of Fossil Fuels (Disadvantages)
Learn more about the disadvantages of fossil fuels here.
1. Environmental Degradation
The main disadvantage of using fossil fuels, of course, is the pollution that they cause. The problems that are caused as a direct result of burning fossil fuels are well documented by scientists all throughout the world. It is a known fact that carbon dioxide, gas released when fossil fuels are burnt, is one of the primary gas responsible for global warming.
The rise in temperature of earth has resulted in the melting of polar ice caps, flooding of low lying areas and rise in sea levels. If such conditions continue, our planet Earth might face some serious consequences in the near future. Hence, environmental pollution is one of the major disadvantages of fossil fuels.
2. Need Truckloads of Reserves
Power stations are where power comes from – coal is burned and energy is generated. However, for these power stations to keep working, they require a huge and regular supply of coal to be brought in every single day.
Truckloads of fuel, trainloads of fuel need to be shipped into power stations regularly on a constant basis in order to keep up the level of energy that is required by all those houses, hospitals and shops relying on the power from these fossil-fueled power stations.
This means that either power stations need to be built very close to large deposits of coal, or that the coal needs to be shipped miles away to the nearest power station, which requires more power and ends up damaging the Earth even more. These methods of generating electricity can, therefore, be incredibly expensive, and the prices are due to keep on rising as the fuel shortage worsens.
3. Effect on Human Health
Fossil fuels are not at all environment friendly. Burning of fossil fuels results in pollution and can cause serious environmental concerns. Pollution-related diseases kill millions of children a year.
According to WHO, 7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution. High levels of air pollution can cause serious health complications such as chronic asthma, low lung functioning, chronic bronchitis and cardiovascular diseases. People who live in areas with a large amount of traffic are at high risk.
4. Finite Energy Source (Non-renewable)
Fossil fuels are a finite energy resource. They are destined to deplete in the near future. Unlike sunlight, water or wind energy, fossil fuels cannot be renewed: the number of fossil fuels in the earth’s crust today is all that we are ever going to get (at least until another several hundred million years pass and even more organic matter decays and decomposes).
This means that, once the gas, coal and petroleum reserves have been completely used up, there is nothing more left. In fact, they are projected to run out in the next 50 years.
Unfortunately, this also means that we will not be able to use our cars anymore as we have not yet found a suitable method to run cars that work as efficiently as petroleum or that is not dangerous.
5. Oil Spill
Once again, fossil fuels can damage the environment, this time in the form of oil spills. Huge tankers carrying oil from one place to another – at great cost and great risk – can sometimes crash or run aground and spill the content into the sea and on the nearby coast.
This is disastrous not only for the sea and land but for the animals that live off of it. Birds can get coated in the oil and be unable to fly, fish can choke and other animals, such as seals or penguins, can ingest this deadly fuel when they try to clean it off themselves.
Oil spills do not occur often, but when they do they can kill hundreds if not thousands of animals. Oil spills lead to pollution of water bodies and the death of aquatic animals including those living offshore. Also, the environment around the shore is severely devastated.
6. Rising Cost
Fossil fuels are highly susceptible to price fluctuations and market manipulation. Few middle-east countries in this world hold a surplus amount of fossil fuels and are responsible for 40 percent of the world’s oil production.
The rest of the world depends on these countries to fulfill the gap between demand and supply in their own countries. Lower output, fear of war, strikes by trade unions can result in worldwide price fluctuations.
7. The Health of Coal-mining Workers
Foraging for coal in coal mines, for instance, can be very dangerous, since the dust that coats people who go down to get coal can get ingested and seriously compromise someone’s health. Mining for coal as well as drilling for oil can cost as many as hundreds of peoples’ lives every single year. We may need to find an energy source that is safer in the future.
8. Impact on Marine Life
Fossil fuels are needed in huge reserves wherever their plants are set up. This requires them to be transported to the desired location via truck, train, ship or airplane. Often we hear of some leaks in oil tankers or ship getting drowned deep under the sea that was carrying crude oil to get refined.
The impact of this is that crude oil contains some toxic substances which when mixed up with water poses a serious impact on aquatic life. Transportation of crude oil via sea can cause oil spills which can pose a hazard to marine life by lessening the oxygen content of water.
Fossil fuels have a number of different pros and cons. Unfortunately, the biggest disadvantage of burning fossil fuels for energy is the fact that it is so damaging to the environment. However, luckily more and more effort is being put into finding alternative sources of energy such as renewable sources like sunlight and wind, which means that we should soon not have to rely on fossil fuels any longer.