Fossil fuels are energy resources that come from the remains of organic matter that were subjected to high levels of pressure and heat over time. Although we do not have an exact handle on the timeframe required to create these items, some research does point to natural gas, petroleum, and coal taking several million years to develop.
We place these fuels into one combined category even though the products we use come from different fossilized resources. Coal develops from the remains of vegetation that was once on our planet, and then altered through the pressure and heat of being under the ground. Several different hydrocarbon chains work together to form petroleum.
Even though some people may not realize it, we are all consumers of fossil fuels every day. The modern society that we live in is based on the consumption of this energy resource. That includes many of today’s top technologies, such as smartphones and computers. We currently produce photovoltaic panels to collect solar energy because of the technologies developed around the collection of fossil fuels.
The issue with this energy resource is that it is finite by definition. If we continue to use it, then the fuel will disappear. Estimates as to when that might be are continuing to change as more deposits are discovered, but the general consensus is that we have about 60 years to either move further toward renewables or reduce our consumption levels.
These pros and cons of fossil fuels dig deeper into this critical issue.
List of the Pros of Fossil Fuels
1. Fossil fuels do not require specific locations for processing or refinement.
If we want to collect energy from renewable resources, then we must identify areas on our planet that allow for that to be possible. This issue applies to geothermal, wind, and even solar for some climates. It is not a problem for fossil fuels because we can build processing facilities anywhere to accommodate their arrival and refinement. Although there is a small risk of transport loss with this energy resource, a well-developed infrastructure can minimize them very effectively.
2. Fossil fuels gives us more energy after refinement.
When we process fossil fuels to capture their energy potential, we’re able to create more energy from this resource than what it offers directly on its own. Crude oil is an excellent example of this advantage. If we take a single barrel of this fossil fuel, then we would receive 42 gallons of crude oil. When we finish refining this substance, then the yield is more than 44 gallons of final products. We currently produce 6% more energy potential with fossil fuels, which is something we cannot do with renewables at this time.
3. Fossil fuels help to create products which keep us safe.
Fossil fuels are the primary method of hydrocarbon collection when making plastic products. These items protect us in numerous ways every day to keep us safe without many people realizing it. The average automobile today is about 50% plastic as it can absorb more energy during a collision than metal components. Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are manufactured using plastic products. Child safety locks, GFCI outlets near water sources, and even the sheathing on cords is all made from it.
4. Fossil fuels provide the economic foundation for our communities.
Fossil fuel productions is an essential economic force for numerous countries around the world right now. Russia is an excellent example of this, with production levels accounting for up to 16% of their GDP in recent years. 42% of the GDP in Iraq today comes from the fossil fuel industry. Kuwait has 44% of this GDP tied up in this economic resource. Without these funds, there would be a severe dip in the number of indirect employment opportunities that come from the support requirements that help us to access this natural resource.
5. Fossil fuels provide a high energy output.
The reason why we prefer to use fossil fuels over other energy resources right now from a societal point of view is the high levels of energy output we receive during consumption. We can develop eight times more heat energy in what coal provides compared to other resources. Crude oil provides twelve times more energy when refined correctly in comparison. These output levels are scalable as well, which is why they are advantageous. If demand levels skyrocket in a community, then the extra demand can be met relatively easily.
6. Fossil fuels are cheaper than biofuels for consumption purposes.
Oregon State University discovered in 2011 that the cost benefit of biofuel mandates only saves the consumer the amount that they would pay in a fuel tax in the United States. The cost benefit was as low as $0.25 per gallon for some communities. Then researchers at OSU discovered that using biofuels only created a negligible decrease in the number of fossil fuels that were consumed, leading to higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions instead of lower ones.
Biofuels in the United States would cost up to 31 times more than the energy efficiency improvements that could reduce gas consumption by just 1%.
7. Fossil fuels give us the products we rely upon every day.
If you were to split up the average barrel of crude oil in the United States into what the final products are that reach the market, then 45% of it would become gasoline for automobiles, trains, jets, and various vehicles. Another 30% of the product would become either diesel fuel or heating oil. Then the remained is transformed into various personal products.
The list of products made from petroleum is more than 6,000 items long. Some of the most popular items on that list include soap, shoes, clothing, and toothpaste.
8. Fossil fuels give us affordable methods of heating.
Energy costs in the United States are compared based on their ability to produce 1 million BTUs. When using fossil fuels, the average cost to generate electricity is roughly $2.50, with the price being just 10 cents. Even when the price of crude oil rose to well over $100 per barrel, with a rate of generation priced at $12.50, the overall cost to the consumer was still relatively low. Thanks to the world’s ability to maintain an adequate supply of natural gas, oil, and similar products, our heating and cooling prices of remained relatively stable over the past 20 years even though inflation has caused other products, including renewables in some instances, to become more expensive.
9. Fossil fuels benefit from our current infrastructure plans.
Our society operates on the energy that fossil fuels provide. Even when our focus is on the creation of renewables, we must have fossil fuels available to generate the power that we want which is cleaner. This structure leads us to a net calculation of emissions based on long-term consumption patterns instead of the short-term costs. We have “good” fossil fuel use when the net emissions become neutral over a specific time, whereas “bad” usage would occur if we are unable to experience a net savings.
Even if we wanted to do something about our consumption of fossil fuels today, it would take time to implement a plan because 80% of our energy use is based on this resource.
10. Fossil fuels are available to almost every population center.
Fossil fuels of some type are available to virtually every country on the planet today. Only the central African nations see little-to-no access of this resource within their borders, often due to the politics that take place in the region. Every full-time populated continent gives us access to oil, natural gas, and coal reserves that we can convert into various energies, consumer products, and other usable elements.
List of the Cons of Fossil Fuels
1. Fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases when they are consumed.
The primary issue that we have with fossil fuel consumption is that greenhouse gases are a side effect of our usage habits. Up to 65% of the emissions which occur each year for carbon dioxide releases are directly associated to this resource. Using this product also creates methane, contributing another 16% to the GHG we generate through industrial processes. 6% of our total emissions involve nitrous oxide.
This toxic combination creates a warming effect because it prevents the heat radiation from the sun from escaping. The energy comes through our atmosphere, and then it stays here because of the blocking effect of these gases. About one-quarter of our emissions are due to heat or electricity production, which is significantly more than what we create with our transportation requirements.
2. Fossil fuels are a resource which we might run out of one day.
It is true that for the last 30 years, the fossil fuel industry has been telling people that we will run out of this resource within the next 30 years. The reason why our estimates about the finite nature of fossil fuels continues to be pushed back is that industry professionals continue to find new reserves that were previously unknown. The 2019 estimates indicate that we have about 50 years remaining if we continue to consume products at the same rate and there are no new reserves found.
What is notable about this disadvantage is that even the highest estimates continue to shrink. In 2005, we had an estimated 57 years of reserves remaining. Now we will be under five decades of energy potential by 2020 at the current pace.
3. Fossil fuels could disappear within a lifetime.
Some say that it is only a matter of time before we reach the end of the fossil fuel era. Al Gore once said, “As more and more people understand what is at stake, they become part of the solution, and share both in the challenges and opportunities presented by the climate crises.”
When we look at all of the estimates for fossil fuel consumption around the world, it is more realistic to assume that the developing world will find ways to industrialize, which could speed up our consumption process. Sixteen out of the 20 largest oil fields in the world today have already reached their peak level of production.
4. Fossil fuels create multiple forms of environmental damage.
We often look at the greenhouse gases as one of the most significant disadvantages of using fossil fuels. There must be a consideration for the environmental damage which occurs as we harvest these items as well. We must mine coal to use it, which often means a strip-mining operation will tear up the ground. Tar sands and shale require ongoing collection and processing activities to create useful products. Hydraulic fracking creates questions of water table pollution.
Having access to cheap energy does none of us any good if we aren’t alive to enjoy it. More than 6 million acres of forests and other natural landscapes have been lost to drilling or mining efforts in the United States so far. Continuing on a path that leads to more mineral and heavy metal contamination could become problematic for future generations in a variety of ways.
5. Fossil fuel support networks also damage the environment.
We must have infrastructure in place to process, refine, and use the fossil fuels as we bring them out of the ground. This requirement means that we must build manufacturing centers, transportation networks, and refineries to help us create usable products. All of these activities produce greenhouse gases. Every time we enhance our support networks for this commodity, we increase the risk of a negative effect occurring in our environment. Unless we use fossil fuels in a way that can help us one day stop utilizing this resource altogether, we’ll always be at a deficit when dealing with this issue.
6. Fossil fuels place animal lives at risk.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred when the tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska on March 24, 1989. Roughly 11 million gallons of crude oil were dumped into Prince William Sound because of the event. You would need to fill 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools to reach the amount that affected local wildlife. Over 900 bald eagles, 300 harbor seals, and 2,800 sea otters were killed during the incident. Another 250,000 seabirds lost their lives in the days following the disaster. There were even four human deaths that occurred during this incident, which created negative impacts along 1,300 miles of shoreline.
These spills, whether they occur on land or sea, can contaminate our food supply, increase health risks for a variety of conditions, and make a space unusable for a generation or more. These risks are not always worth the benefits that we obtain from the regular consumption of fossil fuels.
7. Fossil fuels create products that are harmful to human health.
Although we can derive numerous useful products from the collection of fossil fuels, there are also several dangers that we must consider with this process as well. When we expose ourselves to the particulates left behind by some of these products, then it can increase a person’s individual risk of experiencing asthma, lung cancer, and COPD. The pollution generated by our usage habits can lead to additional risks as well. The dust from coal can stay in the lungs of a miner, even while they wear safety gear, which can impact their future health.
Coal particulates have links to heart disease, cancer, and stroke. McMaster University in Canada found that exposure to traffic pollution can increase the risk of pneumonia in older adults. Neurological deficits can occur when people of any age are exposed to certain substances.
8. Fossil fuels change our political structures.
Nations have gone to war over access to this resource for the last century. There are some in the United States who suggest that the military should have taken control over the oil wells in Iraq during the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm. We trade natural gas, coal, and oil as commodities, which means others set the price for them based on real or perceived market factors. OPEC influences this price by purposely increasing or decreasing production levels. Unless we move fossil fuels to a genuine market system, artificial scarcity and other behaviors artificially changes the pricing structure for consumers.
These pros and cons of fossil fuels may be a moot point in future generations. We seem to be on the downward trend of their use. We didn’t stop living in the Stone Age because the planet ran out of rocks, and it is unlikely to think we’ll be forced to look for energy alternatives because we ran out of oil. Although we could do more with filtering and prevention for greenhouse gases, there are many great things that we accomplish because of this commodity.
Brandon Miller has a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a seasoned writer who has written over one hundred articles, which have been read by over 500,000 people. If you have any comments or concerns about this blog post, then please contact the Green Garage team here.