The Environmental Effects of Fossil Fuels

The Environmental Effects of Fossil Fuels

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The Environmental Effects of Fossil Fuels

The situation is scary, but real. The very resources that the world relies upon for energy are also helping to destroy the world. Fossil fuels, such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas, all include some very serious environmental concerns with their essential energy usage abilities. All stages of fossil fuel use have a severe impact upon the environment, from recovery to storage and end use. Thankfully, important legislation has been put together to help to reduce and control the havoc caused by fossil fuels on the environment. But, with the enormous need for fossil fuels, it is impossible to prevent all environmental problems, especially when they are a part of each stage of usage.

In recovery of fossil fuels, such as coal mining, top soil is destroyed, acidic water run-off causes orange creeks, and land subsidence occurs.[1] Petroleum drilling is a danger on land or off-shore due to gushers and accidents that are harmful to the environment. Transporting fossil fuels is also a problem, especially with petroleum, with accidents and even routine operations polluting the seas. Preparation and refining of the fossil fuels can lead to refuse or “sludge” finding a way out of coal cleaning plants, and air and water are often spoiled from petroleum refining. Gasoline leaks are always a risk during storage of petroleum, but end use might be the most disastrous of the stages. End use produces pollutants from combustion, such as sulfur and nitrogen oxide (SOX and NOX), particulate matter (ROX), and carbon monoxide (CO) and unburnt hydrocarbons (UHC).[2] These pollutants, either separately or in combination with one another, are responsible for smog in the ozone, acid rain, and The Greenhouse Effect.

In 1994, transportation was the major source of carbon monoxide emissions (77%), nitrogen oxide emissions (46%), and lead (32%). [3] A combination of sulfur and nitrogen causes acid rain which, in 1952, caused 12,000 deaths and many ill in London, England.[4] All fossil fuels being burned produce carbon dioxide, a leading cause of the Greenhouse Effect. The Greenhouse Effect is the idea that incoming solar radiation readily penetrates the glass coverings of an ordinary greenhouse, but the outgoing infrared radiation from the interior does not.

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[5] This idea is applied to the earth’s atmosphere, and has become a great environmental problem. The Greenhouse Effect is causing a gradual global warming which could lead to floods droughts, rising sea levels, the melting of the polar ice caps, changes in precipitation and forest damage to name a few.[6] And unfortunately, these effects of CO2 may continue. According to the Energy Information Administration, carbon dioxide emissions from energy use are projected to increase at an average rate of 1.5 percent per year, from 1,562 million metric tons carbon equivalent in 2000 to 2,088 million in 2020.[7] Fortunately, however, steps are being made by the governments of the world to reduce some of these problems caused by fossils fuels and their emissions.

The Clean Air Act of 1970, with amendments in 1977 and 1990, focuses on reducing sulfur and nitrogen oxides and particulate emissions. The 1979 New Source Performance Standards for Utilities set SO2 emissions at 1.2 pounds/ 1 million Btu.[8]

At the Earth Summit in 1992, industrialized nations pledged to reduce their greenhouse gases emissions to those of 1990. The Kyoto Protocol calls for the U.S. to cut emissions 30% by the year 2010.[9]

Despite these attempts to prevent further destruction of the environment, major challenges are still to be faced. In order to save the environment from the dangerous impacts of fossil fuels, fossil fuel usage must be reduced while population and industrialization increases, and efficiency of fossil fuel use must be increased.[10] The situation continues to be very scary, and very real, but hopefully with knowledge of the problems with fossil fuel usage, every person can be more aware and more helpful.


[1] Lecture notes, March 11th, 2002

[2] Lecture notes, March 11th, 2002

[3] Kraushaar, Jack J., and Robert A. Ristinen. Energy and the Environment. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999. pg. 304

[4] Lecture Notes, February 11th, 2002

[5] Kraushaar, Jack J., and Robert A. Ristinen. Energy and the Environment. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999. pg. 330

[6] Lecture Notes, March 13th, 2002

[7] Energy Information Administration. U.S. Government. 25 March 2002 <>.

[8] Lecture Notes, March 15, 2002

[9] Kraushaar, Jack J., and Robert A. Ristinen. Energy and the Environment. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999. pg. 341

[10] Lecture Notes, March 18, 2002
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