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Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines the term fossil fuel as “a fuel, as coal, oil, or natural gas, that is formed in the earth from plant or animal remains.” The major fossil fuels include coal, petroleum, and natural gases. Here in the United States, and all over the world, fossil fuel functions as an extremely beneficial resource. We use gas to fuel our cars and depend on electricity produced from coal and oil to heat and cool our homes. But, these positive aspects do not come without drawbacks. Environmental health, climate change, acid rain, and air pollution are among the top problems with fossil fuel production and consumption.
Fossil fuel use creates severe impact on the environment in all stages of use: recovery, transportation, preparation/refining, storage, and end use. Recovery, the first stage is basically the process of coal mining. This includes the destruction of topsoil, and the risk of gushers or accidents. Also, recovery leads to discolored local creeks and rivers because of the acidic run-off of these waters (Lecture 3/11/02).
Next, these resources must be transported all over the world, where they will go into the preparation and refining stage. During this stage, there is a risk that refuse or sludge will result from coal cleaning parts (Lecture 3/11/02). Also, air and water pollution may result from the process of petroleum refining, which involves the change of the chemical composition of petroleum to produce desirable chemicals and fuels. However, that means that the undesirable results are released to pollute the atmosphere. (Lecture 2/22/02)
After being properly refined, the resources are stored. This stage may cause environmental problems such as gasoline leaks in underground tanks at gas stations. Finally, end use results in the release of pollutants from combustion. These pollutants include unburnt hydrocarbons, particulate matter, such as ash or soot, and sulfur and nitrogen oxides (Lecture 3/11/02). The combination of these pollutants often results in smog, a problem most pressing in California (http://www.sparetheair.org/).
Major challenges exist concerning environmental problems with fossil fuel use. One challenge is to reduce fossil fuel use, in general, while also accommodating the increasing population and industrialization (Lecture 3/18/02). A second challenge is to remember to put human life before the need for industrialization. The National Resource Defense Council states that every year, some “64,000 people may die prematurely from cardiopulmonary causes linked to particulate air pollution".
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The United States alone accounts for 25 % of the world’s fossil fuel derived emissions (Kraushaar & Ristenin 1999). As such, we need to find a balance between a healthy environment and necessary use of fossil fuels. In response to this challenge and other problems, steps were taken to reduce environmental pollution from fossil fuel use. In 1970, the Clean Air Act was passed. This act focused on the reduction of sulfur, nitrogen oxides and particulate emissions. Amendments were added to this act in 1977 and 1980 (Lecture 3/16/02).
In 1979, new source performance standards for utilities were introduced. In 1992, 106 countries participated in an Earth Summit in Rio. These countries signed an international treaty to reduce carbon dioxide emission to 1990 levels. This treaty also included an agreement to stabilize the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere (Lecture 3/18/02). Also, in 1997, Kyoto Protocol was introduced to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in developed countries. This protocol called for a 7 % reduction of the emissions of greenhouse gases by 2010 (Kraushaar & Ristenin 1999).
Fossil fuels are a necessary part of our lives. They heat our homes, cool our offices, and power our electricity. However, there must be motions toward more environmentally conscious terms of usage. The above ideas, such as the Earth Summit and Kyoto Protocol were steps in the right direction. We just must keep going.
“Danger in the Air.” National Resource Defenses Council. 3/25/02.
Lecture Notes dated: 2/22/02-3/20/02.
Kraushaar, Jack J., Ristenin, Robert A. Energy and the Environment. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, NY: 1999.
Michaels, Patricia A. “Environmental Externalities.” Environmental Issues. (2002)
“Spare the Air: 2001.” Bay Area Air Quality Management District. 3/25/02.