Fossil fuels are used every day to create thousands of products and power countless processes essential to daily life. According to the National Academies of Sciences, 81% of the total energy used in the United States comes from coal, oil, and natural gas today.
Despite their prevalence, the use of fossil fuels has become a point of contention for many global citizens, because of the many negative consequences of utilizing them. In fact, 69% of U.S. adults say they prioritize developing alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, over expanding the production of oil, coal, and natural gas.
You may wonder why we continue to rely on fossil fuels when so many Americans want to develop more sustainable energy sources. The truth is, there are some reasons why it’s still advantageous to use fossil fuels today.
In this guide, we’ll fully examine this debate, looking at the pros and cons of fossil fuels, how they impact our planet, and why they are so difficult to transition away from.
What are fossil fuels?
You are certainly familiar with the most common examples of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas, but how do these fuels come to be?
Fossil fuels are compound mixtures consisting of decomposing plant and animal material from millions of years ago. This material is trapped in the Earth’s crust and contains carbon and hydrogen, which can be burned for energy.
Fossil fuels are created when this decomposed material undergoes extreme heat and pressure in the Earth’s crust – as the matter is compressed over time, the chemicals begin to break down and transform into natural fuels.
Each fossil fuel is a result of different combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and other compounds. Different organic materials form unique fuels: the most common fossil fuels are the result of unique amounts of pressure and materials.
Coal, oil, and natural gas are a result of these unique processes, according to National Geographic:
- Coal is usually found in sedimentary rock deposits where rock and dead plant and animal matter are piled up in layers. In fact, more than 50% of a piece of coal’s weight is typically from fossilized plants.
- Oil is originally found as a solid material between layers of sedimentary rock, like shale. This material is heated in order to produce the thick oil substance we are familiar with today.
- Natural gas is primarily made of methane and is typically found in pockets above oil deposits. It can also be found in sedimentary rock layers.
Humans extract the stored energy in these materials in a variety of ways. Mining is used to extract solid fossil fuels by digging, scraping, or exposing buried resources. Drilling methods help extract liquid or gaseous fossil fuels that can be pumped up to the surface of the Earth, like oil and natural gas.
Fossil fuels are not renewable, meaning that there is a finite supply of these materials inside the Earth. Over time, as humans have extracted fossil fuels, we have had to drill deeper and deeper into the Earth’s crust to harness these materials.
Today, oil and gas wells can range in depth from a few hundred feet to more than 20,000 feet. In some parts of the world, wells go as deep as 30,000 feet.
Why is it important to extract these fossil fuels?
In short, fossil fuels contain stored energy in the form of carbon and hydrogen, which, when burned, power the mechanical processes we rely on, such as transportation and the electricity we use in our homes every day.
Although there are numerous negative effects of fossil fuel use and extraction, most of the world relies on the energy that fossil fuels produce.
Uses of fossil fuels
Before diving into the specific pros and cons of fossil fuels, it’s important to understand the ways in which fossil fuels are already essential to our daily lives.
While renewable energy sources like solar and wind energy are growing in popularity, the global economy is currently reliant on fossil fuel use. Let’s dive into the numerous ways that fossil fuels are utilized around the world every day.
The U.S. spends 29% of its total energy each year to power industrial, farm, rail, and sea transportation with fossil fuels. The main type of fuel used for transportation in the U.S. is petroleum.
These fuels are made from crude oil and natural gas processing, including gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, and propane, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Natural gas and electricity are also widely used for transportation in the U.S.
If you drive a car, truck, or motorcycle, you know that your car’s engine burns fuel that comes from crude oil, or gasoline. Distillate fuels are used mainly by large trucks, buses, trains, and ships. Commercial and private airplanes use jet fuel to power their trips across the country.
In 2021, petroleum products accounted for about 90% of the total energy used in U.S. transportation activities. All in all, the transportation of goods, people, and food uses a large amount of fossil fuel.
Fossil fuels are used in our homes as well, but their most prominent use may surprise you.
More than half of the energy use in U.S. homes is used for heating in the winter and air conditioning when it’s warm outside. Of course, the amount of energy used varies by season, geographic region, home size, and the fuels used.
Next on the list of household energy uses is water heating, lighting and refrigeration, processes that occur year-round and power pretty much every home in the U.S. Combined, these activities accounted for 27% of total annual home energy use in 2015.
Many stoves in modern-day homes are powered electrically, but gas-powered stoves utilize propane to cook food. Fossil fuels are present in our households in additional ways – plastic containers, toilet seats, telephones, toys, kitchen utensils, and more. Fossil fuels produce the petrochemicals used in the manufacturing of polyester and plastic products.
Medical and pharmaceutical uses
The transportation and household uses of fossil fuels may not have surprised you, but did you know that fossil fuel extracts also have medical and pharmaceutical uses?
For example, processed plastics made with oil are used in heart valves and other specialized medical equipment. Chemicals derived from crude oil are used in radiological dyes and films, tubing, syringes, and oxygen masks. Even MRI scanners are made from fossil-fuel-derived materials.
Additionally, fossil fuel extracts are used in products many of us use every day. The chemical Benzene, for example, is a natural component of crude oil and gasoline. It’s often used to make some types of lubricants, rubbers, and even drugs.
To better understand why fossil fuels are used in so many products and processes around the world and why detractors want to be rid of these fuels, let’s dive into the pros and cons of fossil fuels.
Advantages of fossil fuels
While there are various cons of utilizing fossil fuels in our households and businesses, there are several reasons why fossil fuel use has become so commonplace over the years.
Let’s examine some of the advantages of fossil fuel use.
1. Efficient energy sources
Fossil fuels are among the most efficient sources of energy, because small amounts of oil or gas, for example, produce a large amount of energy. Different fuels carry different amounts of energy per unit of weight, and fossil fuels are more energy dense than other sources.
The energy density of oil, according to a Drexel University study, is about 35 to 45 gigajoules (10,000 kWh) per cubic meter. Alternatively, solar energy has a density of 1.5 microjoules per cubic meter, over twenty quadrillion times less than oil.
While renewables like solar energy may be more sustainable, it’s difficult to deny that fossil fuels make efficient energy sources.
2. Useful byproducts
Fossil fuels also create byproducts that are widely used throughout homes and businesses. In fact, petrochemicals derived from oil and natural gas make the manufacturing of over 6,000 everyday products and high-tech devices possible.
So, how does oil turn into a plastic item like the toothbrush you use every day?
After crude oil is removed from the ground, it’s sent to a refinery where different parts of the crude oil are separated into usable petroleum products. While most of these groups are used for the production of energy, a few chemicals are used to make various items.
Some of the products made from fossil-fuel-derived materials may surprise you:
- Artificial limbs
- Contact lenses
- Swimming pools
These everyday items would not be possible without chemicals derived from fossil fuels.
3. Easy to transport
Transporting fossil fuels is easier when compared to transporting the energy gained from other sources like wind, water, or solar power.
Crude oil moves from the extraction source to refineries using barges and tankers, and over land by trucks and railroads, or underground through pipelines. Natural gas is transported by underground pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers. These materials are housed in metal tankards and containers.
While it is generally considered easy to transport these fossil fuels, it’s important to note that oil spills and natural gas leaks occur frequently. These incidents are a large source of various pollutants leaking into our atmosphere and water sources.
4. Generates thousands of jobs
There are millions of people currently employed by the fossil fuel energy sector – in 2019, nearly 1.7 million people worked in fossil fuel industries, conducting activities such as mining, electricity generation, and transportation.
Many countries rely on the economic activities resulting from fossil fuel extraction and use. Because of this, the adoption of renewable energy must include transitioning these millions of jobs that individuals and families rely on around the world.
5. Readily available and relatively easy to extract
Fossil fuel plants and extraction sites require a relatively small amount of infrastructure. For example, offshore oil rigs and onshore oil derricks pump most of the petroleum that is extracted throughout the world. This process involves drilling a hole into a potential oil patch and then pumping the oil out through a long tube.
Most countries that rely on fossil fuels also already have the infrastructure and knowledge with which to mine and drill for these fuels.
In addition, since fossil fuels have powered our world for over 250 years, there is already infrastructure in place to distribute it and utilize it at a relatively low cost. Most of our infrastructure is, ultimately, already built for fossil fuel use, from cars to gas-powered stoves.
Over the last few centuries, large amounts of fossil fuels have been readily available around the world. Rising population has created more and more demand for these energy sources.
To extract fossil fuel resources at a faster rate, global nations have invested large sums of money into the energy sector. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted that energy sector investment would rise to over 8% in 2022 to reach a total of $2.4 trillion.
Disadvantages of fossil fuels
Now that we understand the various reasons why fossil fuels are considered advantageous around the world let’s dive into the many disadvantages of fossil fuel use.
1. Environmental degradation
Primarily, the burning of fossil fuels causes air pollution, which makes its way into our soil and water sources. The combustion of these fuels releases carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses, which trap heat in our atmosphere and heat up our planet.
Thus, greenhouse gasses like CO2 are the primary cause of one of the most existential threats to our planet: climate change. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that emissions from fossil fuels are the dominant cause of global warming. In 2018, 89% of global CO2 emissions came from fossil fuels and industrial activities.
Many places around the world are already experiencing the effects of climate change, such as the ever-rising sea level and extreme natural disasters, and weather patterns. If this persists, the consequences will be disastrous for all living species.
Evidently, the use of fossil fuels contributes to environmental degradation and is worsening climate change by the day.
2. Power stations require lots of reserves of coal
Today, we rely on power stations to produce energy. For power stations to keep working, they require vast amounts of coal: it takes about 1 pound of coal to generate one kWh of electricity.
In addition, large trucks are used to transport coal if power stations are not located near large deposits of coal. This transportation also requires a lot of power which can not only damage the Earth but is also very expensive. In turn, fuel prices will keep rising as a result of high transportation costs.
3. Health complications (from fuel combustion)
Critically, fossil fuel combustion causes air pollution, which can lead to serious health complications that are passed down through generations.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burning fossil fuels releases pollutants that lead to early death, heart attacks, respiratory disorders, stroke, and asthma. It has also been linked to autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.
Carbon dioxide emissions have also been associated with global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer. The ozone layer protects humans and animals from the powerful rays of the sun, so degrading this layer exposes us to high levels of radiation, which causes skin cancer.
4. High depletion level
Critically, fossil fuels are not renewable energy sources. Unlike water, sun, and wind energy sources, the level of fossil fuels underground is depleting with each passing day.
In the next few centuries, we will run out of fossil fuel reserves. Experts predict we have 139 years left of coal, 54 years left of oil, and 49 years of gas supply. In our lifetime, we must transition to alternative sources of energy to power our everyday lives and critical processes.
5. Oil spills and gas leaks
When transporting oil, there is a high likelihood of the oil spilling onto land and into the sea. In the U.S. alone, there have been over 44 major oil spills since the 1970s, resulting in severe harm to aquatic life.
Ultimately, oil spills are disastrous to all living things and almost impossible to clean up.
The Horizon oil spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico released 4.9 million oil barrels into the Gulf of Mexico. The petroleum that had leaked from the well before it was sealed formed a slick extending over more than 57,500 square miles, harming and killing millions of plants and animals in the region.
Natural gas pipelines also leak this harmful fuel into the soil and atmosphere. Leaks are incredibly dangerous because they can kill vegetation and trees, cause explosions and fires, and release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
6. High levels of water usage
Water shortages are a common problem in most parts of the world, especially in developing nations or areas stricken by drought.
In California alone, oil and gas operators used 3 billion gallons of freshwater from municipal sources between 2018 and 2021, an amount equal to what would be used in more than 120 million showers.
Fossil fuel power plants contribute to this problem because they require vast amounts of water for cooling. A study conducted in the U.S. reveals that fossil fuel power plants consume over four times the water that all the water used in homes in the U.S.
The long-term effect of water consumption by fossil fuels is the depletion of finite water resources, and the result is a lack of water. Contaminated water supplies or a lack of water can result in improper sanitation, exposure to chemicals, health issues, and even death.
7. Rising fuel costs
As fossil fuels continue depleting, it is becoming harder and harder to extract them from the Earth. In turn, the cost of extracting fossil fuels has risen. In the U.S., if fossil fuel prices are driven higher, the country could spend more than $30 trillion on fossil fuels between 2010 and 2030.
Also, since only a few countries in the Middle East produce the world’s fossil fuels, there is an increasing fear of war, lower output of fuels, and strikes by trade unions that can lead to fuel fluctuations around the world.
The clean energy transition
While there are clear pros and cons of fossil fuels, it’s clear that the disadvantages of continuing to use fossil fuels far outweighs the benefits. The clean energy transition seeks to make renewable energy sources more reliable and encourage the widespread adoption of renewables over fossil fuels.
Experts agree that switching from more harmful fossil fuels like coal and oil to less emission-intensive fuels like natural gas can result in significant CO2 and air quality benefits. While it’s not a long-term answer to climate change, switching to natural gas can make a difference in the short term.
However, our supply of fossil fuels will run out soon. Significant investment, private-public partnership, and widespread adoption of renewable energy sources like solar and wind energy must occur before we can successfully phase out the use of the fossil fuels that are harming our planet.
Organizations like the Clean Energy Transition Institute, the United Nations, and the European Commission have identified pathways to decarbonization in the building, industrial, and manufacturing sectors. Like with the domestic use of fossil fuels, these industries must transition away and find alternatives.
Conclusion on the pros and cons of fossil fuels
When we compare the pros and cons of fossil fuels, it is clear that despite their numerous uses, fossil fuels are causing untold damage to our planet, humans, and plant and animal species.
Since human beings have relied upon fossil fuels for a long time, the transition may seem difficult, but it’s necessary for the survival of our planet and species.
However, some countries have begun to generate substantial portions of electric power from renewable sources. Individuals and large organizations and corporations should all join in the clean energy movement, to make the Earth a better home for us all.