Writer: Jana Chan
Summary of Significance
For more than a century, fossil fuels have been used to power businesses, generate heat for homes, fuel cars, support various industries, and more. Beginning during the Industrial Revolution, they have acted as catalysts in creating extensive technological, economic, and social changes. This resource has become so important that it now supplies about 80% of our energy (Denchak, 2018). However, even though fossil fuels have been used for a long time, there are still finite amounts of these nonrenewable resources. As a result of their extraction process and our heavy reliance on this “dirty energy,” a term Denchak (2018) uses to describe fossil fuels, the environment is suffering, and eventually, so will humanity.
According to Denchak (2018), fossil fuels are collected from “the fossilized and buried remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago,” meaning they not only have high carbon content, but there is also a large variety of fossil fuels that can be used. One example is coal, a solid and carbon-heavy rock, which is primarily used to generate electricity. It comes in four main varieties—lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous, and anthracite—that are each characterized by their respective carbon content levels. Almost all of the coal that the US burns are sub-bituminous and bituminous, which can be found “in abundance” in West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania (Denchak, 2018). No matter what type of coal is burned, however, all of it is considered “dirty.” After all, coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel (Denchak, 2018). To extract coal, two methods can be used: underground mining, which uses “heavy machinery to cut coal from deep underground deposits,” or surface mining, which strips “entire layers of soil and rock” to access underground coal deposits (Denchak, 2018). These processes are not only expensive and labor-intensive but also have a destructive impact on the environment from polluting rivers and streams to uprooting and destroying entire ecosystems. During combustion, the damage is just as significant. Air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, mercury, and acid-rain inducing sulfur dioxide, account for at least 32% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US (Environmental and Energy Study Institute [EESI], n.d.).
Another prominent example of fossil fuel is crude oil (or petroleum). Mainly used in transportation, this liquid fossil fuel is mainly made up of hydrocarbons. Most oil can be pumped out of underground reservoirs, but some can must be accessed by drilling through oil shales and tar sands (Denshak, 2018; ESSI, n.d.). Once extracted, the crude oil is transported to oil refineries where they are transformed into usable fuels—like gas, jet fluid, and propane—or nonfuel products like plastic or pesticides. Like coal, crude oil extraction has turned into a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 45% of emissions in the US (ESSI, n.d.). Recently, however, oil production in the US has shot up from only 99 TWh in 1900 to 8,670 TWh in 2017 (OurWorldInData, 2017). This surge comes on the heels of increased interest in hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), a controversial method that allows producers to drill horizontally and reach more oil from a single well. By mixing water with large amounts of chemicals and then blasting these mixtures deep into a well, fracking creates a host of air and water pollution problems (Denchak, 2018).
Finally, natural gas, generally used to generate heat or electricity, can also be considered a fossil fuel. It is composed mainly of methane (CH4) and is typically separated into two categories, conventional and unconventional, based on where the gas was found. Conventional natural gas can be found via drilling into “porous and permeable rock beds” or oil reservoirs, while unconventional gas is any other natural gas that cannot be extracted through standard drilling but must be obtained through a special technique like fracking (Denchak, 2018). Natural gas is extremely abundant in the United States and in addition to its usefulness in electricity production, it is predicted that natural gas consumption will only grow to fill those needs (Denchak, 2018; U.S. Energy Information and Analysis, 2011). It is also important to note that although natural gas burns much cleaner than coal or oil, it still counts for 29% of greenhouse gas emission in the US and its composition of methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide (ESSI, n.d.).
Combining all these different extraction methods for fossil fuels creates an adverse impact on the environment. Land degradation, as large infrastructure must be built to support these methods, leads to the destruction of “entire swaths of terrain.” These once nutrient-rich lands suffer and so do wildlife habitats, who must compete with existing animal populations for already fragmented lands (Denchak, 2018). Water pollution runs rampant, as coal mining operations, oil spills, and the fracking process all contain radioactive and toxic chemicals that can pollute drinking water. Emissions produced from these operations expose about 12.6 million Americans daily to these harmful air pollutants and can be linked to terrible health issues such as benzene, often associated with childhood leukemia, neurological damage, birth defects, and formaldehyde, a cancer-causing chemical (Denchak, 2018). In fact, a group of researchers estimated that every year, 2.1 million people die prematurely because of outdoor air pollution (Silva et al., 2013). Clearly, the process of extracting and processing these fossil fuels has become extremely dangerous and will only grow. Its catastrophic and possibly irreversible impacts on the environment and humanity are simply too great to ignore, and now is the time to find an alternative.
The author of this example first thoroughly provides a brief background of fossil fuels and then describes its uses by including key details such as what they are, when and where they were found, and how they are used. This part should remain as unbiased as possible to maintain this proposal’s credibility. One way she achieves this is by citing reputable and reliable sources, like established scientific journals and articles, government websites, as well as information from well-respected organizations with experience in that particular field. Next, she transitions into explaining why this problem needs immediate attention and what would happen if nothing was done. This can be seen as the author illustrates the world’s increased consumption of fossil fuels in combination with the disastrous effects of extraction. Essentially, she builds a solid argument supporting her proposal by highlighting the importance of this issue. The author does this in a myriad of ways, from including statistics on the detrimental impact of fossil fuels, to referencing data from studies conducted on this issue, to describing the extent of the impact. However, one area where she could have improved was the use of diagrams and other figures to further explain the process of fossil fuel extraction. Simply stating the process is useful, but adding visuals might have enhanced the proposal with greater detail and the potential for further analysis.
Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI). (n.d.). Fossil Fuels.
ESSI. (n.d.). [Fossil Fuel Extraction] [Photograph for cover image]. Environmental and Energy Study
Denchak, M. (2018, June 9). Fossil Fuels: The Dirty Facts. Published online for NRDC (National
Resources Defense Council). https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fossil-fuels-dirty-facts
Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2017). Fossil Fuels. Published online in OurWorldInData.
Silva, R. A., West, J. J., Zhang, Y., Anenberg, S. C., Lamarque, J.-F., Shindell, D. T., Collins, W. J.,
Dalsoren, S., Faluvegi, G., Folberth, G., Horowitz, L. W., Nagashima, T., Naik, V., Rumbold, S., Skeie, R., Sudo, K., Takemura, T., Bergmann, D., Cameron-Smith, P., Cionni, I., Doherty, R. M., Eyring, V., Josse, B., MacKenzie, I. A., Plummer, D., Righi, M., Stevenson, D. S., Strode, S., Szopa S., & Zeng, G. (2013). Global premature mortality due to anthropogenic outdoor air pollution and the contribution of past climate change. Environmental Research Letters, 8(3). https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034005
U.S. Energy Information and Analysis (EIA). (2011). History of energy consumption in the United States,
1775-2009. [Data set]. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=10