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The Impending Fossil Fuels Crisis and Would Nature Be Better Off Without Them

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Fossil Fuels

The world depends on oil and other fossil fuels to run. Oil is used to power cars, machines, and other necessary devices. Without oil, the world would come to a standstill, because there is, as of now, no viable alternative that can be widely put into practice.

81%, a majority of the world’s oil, can be found in Organization of Petroleum Exporting, or OPEC countries. (Opec). Member countries include: Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. (Opec) The remaining 19% can be found in the United States, Canada, the North Sea, East Asia, Northwest Russia, and Australia. The world consumes between 31 (Marshak 338) and 35 (International) million barrels of oil a year. There is an estimated 1,200-1,400 billion barrels of oil in the ground (Marshak 325) If that sounds like a lot of oil, that’s because it is. One barrel of oil is equal to 159 liters of oil. That is, essentially, between 95 billion and 111 billion two litre soda bottles full of oil. This is what is politely referred to in scientific circles as ‘a frick ton of oil’.

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Oil, especially in these quantities, can have some nasty effects on the environment. Everything from the drilling process until it’s in the bottle on the shelf is a potential hazard. Oil spills, both at the drilling site and in transportation, can contaminate groundwater, and kill wildlife. The 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest accidental oil spill in US history (Ocean), is a harrowing example of this. An estimated 3.19 million barrels were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico about 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana (Ocean). An estimated 20% ended up on the seafloor, harming the coral populations. Annual dolphin deaths have more than doubled in number since the 2010 incident, and many turtle nests were lost. (Ocean) Seabirds, especially, were negatively impacted by oil spills. An estimated 800,000 birds died (Pallardy), both from ingesting oil and from the oil’s effect on the bird’s abilities to regulate their body temperature. (Pallardy)

That’s only the dangers of oil spills. The actual use of oil is harmful to the environment as well. Oil, when refined into petroleum and burned, produces several gases which have harmful impacts on humans and the environment. (Environment) The release of carbon dioxide from burning petroleum contributes to global warming, sulfur dioxide can cause acid rain, and lead emitted into the air is just bad for everyone. (Environment)

Gas emissions can have particularly bad effects on human health. Carbon monoxide is often released into the air, which can cause headaches, dizziness, and death if the carbon monoxide is trapped an enclosed place. Out in the open air, carbon monoxide isn’t likely to cause death, but it does place additional stress on people with heart conditions. (Union) Two types of nitrogen combine to form the yellow-brown clouds occasionally seen over cities. (Union) These clouds can cause bronchitis and pneumonia, which can cause severe health problems. (Union)

If oil and petroleum can wreak havoc upon the ecosystem and human health, why are they still in wide use? There are other alternatives-nuclear power, biofuels, geothermal energy, hydropower, wind power, solar power. (Marshak 334-337)

Nuclear energy comes from breaking the bonds between protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom. (Marshak 334) This process produces heat which, when combined with water, creates steam. (Emirates) This steam turns a turbine, which powers a generator, which makes energy. (Emirates) Most power plants work in this fashion. The difference between a nuclear power plant and an ordinary power plant, besides the obvious, is that there’s so much more that can go wrong in a nuclear power plant. The dangerous nature of nuclear materials means that if even the tiniest thing goes wrong, one runs the risk of a meltdown, which can lead to an explosion of steam, which leads to scattering radioactive materials throughout the air and onto the surrounding landscape. (Marshak 334) This is commonly referred to as ‘bad’. Due to these hazards, nuclear energy is not the most popular form of alternative energy.

Biofuel is one of the more popular forms of renewable energy, and it is certainly less hazardous than nuclear energy. Biofuels such as bioethanol, biogas, biohydrogen, and biodiesel can be made from common plant and waste items. (Bandala) Among other items, biofuel can be produced out of manure, used cooking oil, and sugar cane. (Bandala) It seems an easy solution-use common, renewable, items that people aren’t using to save the environment. Good plan, right? Unfortunately, biofuels aren’t so simple.

While biofuels can certainly reduce harmful emissions of greenhouse gasses, they also can release emissions of their own. (Bandala) Many biofuels release nitric oxide (Bandala), which, while helpful in medicines for humans, is not so great for the environment. (Britannica) Once in the air, nitric oxide can contribute to smog, and can also combine with water to make nitric acid, which is a contributing factor in acid rain. (Britannica)

Bioethanol, in particular, has another set of problems. Bioethanol is made from sugarcane or corn, which can be used as a food source for humans. (Bandala) Because of country mandates for ethanol production, large percentages of corn and sugarcane are literally burned, after being converted into fuel, of course. The United States mandate for the minimum amount of ethanol to be produced is nearly one billion barrels of ethanol. (Lane) It takes nearly 21 pounds of corn to make a gallon of ethanol. (Cornell) Multiply that by one billion, it takes 21,676,829,268 pounds of corn to meet the United States ethanol mandate. That is a lot of corn that could be fed to a lot of hungry people worldwide.

Geothermal energy comes from the internal heat of the earth. At shallow levels, groundwater will absorb heat from earth, and become hot. This can be used to heat houses, but, if conditions are warm enough, it can also be turned into steam which can turn turbines, to power a generator. (Marshak 336) There is no burning of anything involved, so there’s no greenhouse gas emissions, and it seems unlikely that the earth will run out of heat any time soon. Geothermal energy seems like a fantastic solution to a complex problem. However, there are two problems. Geothermal energy is not widely available, it takes certain environmental conditions to heat groundwater hot enough, and while geothermal energy might not put harmful gasses into the air, it can still have a heavy impact on the surrounding ecosystems. Drilling into the earth can disturb plant and wildlife, landslides can occur from temperature changes, and the steam released from the earth can cause change in local weather. (Iceland) And while no greenhouse gasses are emitted, mercury can sometimes be emitted into the air, which is, arguably, much worse. (Scientists) Geothermal energy plants do try to capture these harmful emissions using ‘scrubbers’ (Scientists), but that process produces a goo filled with arsenic, nickel, mercury, and other heavy metals. (Scientists) This goo, along with waste water, may be dumped into local lakes, or injected back into the earth, which can cause earthquakes. (Iceland)

Hydroelectric power is generated when water spins a turbine, which then powers a generator. (Marshak 336). Many hydroelectric power plants are located in dams along reservoirs, which make production much more efficient. (Marshak 336) Hydroelectric power is particularly useful, because it can store energy in pumps for the times of day when more power is consumed. (Geological) In the process, water is essentially recycled. Water going through the turbine is stored in a pool during low power usage times, then filtered back through the turbine when power demands are higher. (Geological) It’s a very efficient way of doing things, unlike fossil fuels, very little of the natural resource is lost. Unlike some other forms of energy, there are no harmful emissions (Interior), and very low chances of the power plant exploding. It does, however, have a significant impact on the surrounding environment. A reservoir needs a lot of space, and sometimes that space has to be made by flooding natural areas, or places where people live. (Interior) Additionally, it restricts fish movements, and may cause changes in water quality. (Interior)

Wind power is equally straightforward. Windmills are positioned in places that have a constant breeze (Markshak 337), and left to do their thing. The wind turns a fan blade, which powers a turbine, which powers a generator, which creates power. (Marshak 337) Windmills emit no gases, waste no resources, because, like platypi, they don’t do much. However, there are some downsides. Birds tend to see windmills as a threat (Rinkesh), which causes them to burrow into the earth, which can harm the environment. Windmills can be very loud, they aren’t too terribly aesthetically pleasing, and building them in residential areas tends to lower property values, so they cannot be built near residential neighborhoods. (Rinkesh) They can also suffer severe damage from hurricanes and tornadoes. (Rinkesh)

Solar energy takes energy from the sun, which is a resource we shouldn’t run out of for at least another few billion years. Like windmills, solar power themselves have no emissions, and has a minimal environmental impact. There are two ways of generating solar power: solar collectors and photovoltaic cells. (Marshak 337) A solar collector takes reflective materials, or materials with a low albedo, and uses the captured heat to heat other things. (Marshak 337) An example of this would be a reflector oven. Photovoltaic cells convert light into electricity by electrons in silicon wafers that create an electrical current. (Marshak 338) It’s a great way of doing things, but it is, unfortunately very expensive. There is also the fact that solar power does not work at night. (Rinkesh) In the evenings, solar users have to use normal, fossil fuel powered electricity, which doesn’t entirely solve the issue. However, solar technology is still relatively young, and many advances may be made in the years to come.

Fossil fuels are a finite resource with harmful impacts on the environment. Oil spills can kill animals and destroy ecosystems. Emissions from burning oil and oil based products emits harmful gases which can cause illness and unwelcome environmental changes. The need for alternative sources of energy is becoming more important every day, but alternative energy isn’t perfect yet either. Nuclear energy could potentially kill everyone in a several mile radius should something bad happen at the plant. Biofuels release their own toxic gasses and literally burn valuable fuel. Geothermal energy releases harmful heavy metals into the earth which can cause earthquakes. Hydroelectric, wind, and solar power, are all cost prohibitive, and may have minor effects on the surrounding environment. However, technology will develop as time creeps on, and a solution will be found.

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