Fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal are made of hydrocarbon chains from the remains of dead organisms that fossilised millions of years ago. They’re called non-renewable sources of energy, not because they can never be replaced, but because regenerating them takes a long time. Yes, coal, oil, and natural gas are continuously being formed even today, but no one alive right now will be able to make use of these because they take over 650 million years to fully form.
Coal has been used for energy since 1000 B.C., but the exploitation of fossil fuels really took off during the Industrial Revolution. Fast forward to today, the high energy requirements of current technology is rapidly depleting our stores of fossil fuels. Consuming them too fast is also causing horrendous damage to the environment.
There is much debate on the matter about the advantages and disadvantages of fossil fuels. Read on to find out whether they’re really as bad (or as good) as they say!
Good: Fossil fuels are widely available
Fossil fuels are available, easy to locate with current technology, and cheaper to extract and process.
The fact that they’re abundant, and yield high calorific value means they come cheap. Coal is the most used source for power plants, while oil is the most used source for powering vehicles.
Bad: They won’t be for much longer
Fossil fuels are a finite resource, which means it is a question of when and not if fossil fuels are going to run out.
At present we are consuming oil reserves at the rate of 4 billion tonnes annually – these are projected to last until 2052. Natural gas reserves will only last until 2060, particularly after oil reserves have run out and natural gas has to pick up the pace.
Meanwhile, there’s enough coal in reserve to last hundreds of years – but if we’re going to be relying on coal to power our technology after using up oil and gas reserves, we’ll be out of coal by 2088.
Of course, new fossil fuel reserves will be found between now and 2088, extending the time frame of that prediction. Still, that doesn’t erase the fact that fossil fuels will eventually run out for certain. It takes millions of years to form the hydrocarbon chains in fossil fuels, and they cannot be replaced within the lifetime of anyone alive today.
Good: Fossil fuels help the economy
Fuel is a global industry. Harvesting, processing, and exporting fossil fuels provides jobs and generates income for a country and supports its economy.
Not to mention, fossil fuels are necessary for many of the things we need in day-to-day life. Electricity for daily existence at home and work, the manufacture of goods we use, and transportation all rely on fossil fuels.
Bad: They can also break it
Fossil fuels may be cheap, but as reserves run out, they become a rarer commodity. The lack of supply and high demand drives prices way, way up.
Fossil fuels also always have a baseline price because fossil fuels are considered a product and not a technology, as opposed to renewable energy sources. Although renewable energy sources started out as expensive technology, science has been able to evolve and improve it over the years. Over time, harnessing renewable energy sources has become less expensive and more widely available. In many places, opting for renewable sources to provide energy costs almost the same as getting energy from fossil fuels.
Good: Fossil fuels can soon be safely disposed of
Fossil fuels may not be a technology, but technology has sprung up around fossil fuels, trying to make it safer and less destructive to the environment.
Carbon sequestration is one such technology. As the hydrocarbon chains of fossil fuels are broken down, they emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Carbon sequestration captures carbon dioxide emissions and injects it into the ground before it escapes into the atmosphere. This method has the potential to reduce an individual coal power plant’s carbon emissions by 90%, transforming them into clean energy sources that don’t contribute to global warming.
Scientists today are hard at work developing technology to safely trap carbon dioxide underground. They estimate we currently have a worldwide storage capacity of 2 – 10 trillion tonnes of the gas.
Bad: Until then, they continue to do widespread damage
Developing solutions against greenhouse gases is all well and good, but in the meantime, fossil fuels remain destructive in more ways than one.
Individual health suffers due to pollution in the air from fossil fuel combustions from cars and power plants. Coal miners are susceptible to Black Lung Disease, where coal dust accumulates in the lungs to cause scarring and tissue death.
Handling and transporting fossil fuels also have their risks; for example, oil spills in the ocean, and pipe leaks of natural gas.
On the largest-scale level, greenhouse gases are causing massive environmental damage. The emission of acidic gases like nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, and carbon dioxide makes the seas and soil more acidic. Acids join atmospheric water to create acid rain, which falls onto the land and water below. This can change how crops and ocean ecosystems grow, and increase instances of famine.
Greenhouse gas emissions are also responsible for the destruction of the ozone layer, leading to global warming, ice caps melting, and climate change that affects every individual on the planet.
Verdict: It’s bad, but we’re beyond that question now
“The notion is that the sooner we wean ourselves off fossil fuels, the sooner we’ll be able to tackle the climate problem,” says Sally Benson, executive director of the Global Climate and Energy Project. “But the idea that we can take fossil fuels out of the mix very quickly is unrealistic. We’re reliant on fossil fuels, and a good pathway is to find ways to use them that don’t create a problem for the climate.”
We’re beyond the debate on whether fossil fuels are good or bad; the unavoidable fact is that fossil fuels are on their way out. That means the shift to alternative sources of energy is not only inevitable, but necessary. It means that the solution is finding the best way to transition to a life where we’re no longer reliant on fossil fuels. In the meantime, it also means developing technology that will make their continued use safer and less ruinous.