Fossil fuel and it’s impact on the environment

May 18, 2009

The technical definition of fossil fuels is “incompletely oxidized and decayed animal and vegetable materials, specifically coal, peat, lignite, petroleum and natural gas”. The technical definition of fuel is “material that can be burned or otherwise consumed to produce heat”. In our modernized world, fossil fuels provide vast luxurious importance. We retrieve these fossil fuels from the ground and under the sea and have them converted into electricity. Approximately 90% of the world’s electricity demand is generated from the use of fossil fuels.

There is a growing concern regarding the collaboration between fossil fuels and environmental pollution. Debates regarding this contamination have become commonplace in today’s effort to sustain the earth’s health. Fossil fuels are not considered a renewable energy source and aside from the environmental impact, the cost of retrieving and converting them is beginning to demand notice. Seemingly this issue has many different angles that need to be addressed in order to ensure future generations a sustainable living.

Environmental implications:

Environmental impacts of fossil fuel are coupled to a number of naturally irreversible factors that are detrimental both on local and global scale. They have been categorized and described individually in the following section:

a) The increase of green house effect; Global warming; Climate Change

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a “greenhouse gas,” trapping heat in the lowest part of the earth’s atmosphere. This contributes to “global warming” – the average temperature of the earth slowly increases, affecting ecosystems across the globe. Climate change is responsible for huge economical consequences. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, the number of significant natural catastrophes such as floods and storms rose nine-fold, and the associated economic losses rose by a factor of nine. Figures indicate that the economical losses as a direct result of natural catastrophes over 5 years between 1954 and 1959 were US$35 billion while between 1995 and 1999 these losses were around US$340 billion [1]. Europe’s extreme summer heat wave was the biggest single event in the year 2003—costing more than $10 billion in agricultural losses alone and killing some 20,000 people [1].

b) Accumulation of solid wastes

Converting fossil fuels may also result in the accumulation of solid waste. This type of accumulation has a devastating impact on the environment. Waste requires adequate land space for containment and/or treatment, as well as financial support and monitoring for waste not easily disposed of. This type of waste also increases the risk of toxic runoff which can poison surface and groundwater sources for many miles. Toxic runoff also endangers surrounding vegetation, wildlife, and marine life.

Possibly the most visible impact of fossil fuel production is the potential for environmental disaster during transportation. A number of high-profile oil spills have illustrated the extent of environmental damage possible. On a smaller scale, storage tank leakage and other accidents can directly damage local environments. The pollution effects of these accidents can last for tens of years and sometimes longer, and cleanup is often costly. The disastrous oil spillage of “Tasman spirit” of more than 12000 tons July 2003 is not very distant on the time line. The coast line of Karachi was completely intoxicated. A conclusive report on the damage to the ecology is still to be compiled. Coal mining, especially strip mining, affects the area that is being mined. Characteristically, the material closest to the coal is acidic. After the mining is completed, the land will remain barren unless special precautions are taken to ensure that proper topsoil is used when the area is replanted. Materials other than coal are also brought to the surface in the coal mining process, and these are left as solid wastes. As the coal itself is washed, more waste material is left. Finally, as the coal is burned, the remaining ash is left as a waste product. During extraction, drilling fluids or “muds” are used for lubrication. These muds contain certain toxic and non-toxic, but damaging, chemicals. They contaminate the immediate area being drilled and are often dumped nearby, causing more environmental contamination.

c) The rise in sea levels

Sea levels are rising twice as fast as they were 150 years ago and man-made greenhouse emissions are the prime cause, a study by scientists in America has found.

Tide lines worldwide are raising by about 2 millimetres a year, compared to 1 millimetre a year in 1850. First, accelerated sea-level rise seems to be one of the more “certain” consequences of global climate change with a “worst scenario” increase of 95 cm by 2100.

The UNEP in its regional seas program in 1989 has included Pakistan in a group of countries, which are vulnerable to impact of rising sea level. If the present trend of sea level rise (SLR) at Karachi continues, in the next 50 years the sea level rise along the Pakistan Coast will be 50 mm (5 cm). Since the rising rates of sea level at Karachi within the global range of 1–2 mm/year, the trends may be treated as eustatic sea level rise. Historical air temperature and sea surface temperature (SST) data of Karachi also show increasing pattern and has registered increasing trend of about 0.67 °C in the air temperature over the last 35 years. Whereas the mean SST in the coastal waters of Karachi has also registered an increasing trend of about 0.3 °C in a decade [2].

d) The acidic pollution

Although first recognised as a regional problem in Europe and the US, 1 over the past 10 years acid rain has been observed at sites throughout the world, from the polar ice caps to the tropical rainforests of Asia, Africa and South America. Within just a single generation, acid rain has grown from being a local and regional nuisance to a major global problem.

More recently, alarm has been expressed about increasing levels of acidification in East Asia.2-4 Approximately one-third of the world’s population resides in East Asia and the region has been experiencing phenomenal economic growth over the past two decades. The rapid growth of industrial and agricultural production, especially in China, India, Thailand, and Indonesia, has resulted in a remarkable increase in SO2 and NOx emissions during the past decade, and these emissions look set to grow further. Although emissions of these pollutants are lower than in Europe and the US on a per capita basis, experts predict that total emissions in East Asia will surpass the combined emissions of Europe and the US by the year 2020.

e) Health implications

Evidence of the ill effects of fossil fuels is endless, and can take on many forms. Some forms are not easily seen by the human eye, although the disastrous results such as the loss of aquatic life can be seen somewhat after the fact.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) as many as 160,000 people die each year from the side effects of climate change and the numbers could almost double by 2020. These side effects range from malaria to malnutrition and diarrhoea that follow in the wake of floods, droughts and warmer temperatures. Another example of the severe impact caused by the global warming is the heat wave that hit across the Europe in summer of 2003 causing deaths in tens of thousands [2].

f) Shift in the Ecological balance and land impacts

Extraction of fossil fuels requires significant infrastructure to remove the fuel from the earth. Roads, storage tanks, oil and gas wells, and other development must be built to support extraction. Because much fossil fuel extraction takes place in rural or wild areas, this development often has significant impacts on plants and wildlife.

Oil, coal, and gas are typically found underground below groundwater levels. During extraction, drilling can break the barrier between fossil fuel and groundwater reserves. Later during storage and transportation, broken pipes or storage tanks can also contaminate water supplies.

When oil and gas are removed from a reserve under the earth, this leaves what is essentially a large hole underground. When there is no longer anything to support the land above, the land can collapse, causing environmental and property damage. During the electricity-generation process, burning fossil fuels produce heat energy, some of which is used to generate electricity. Because the process is inefficient, much of the heat is released to the atmosphere or to water that is used as a coolant. Heated air is not a problem, but heated water, once returned to rivers or lakes, can upset the aquatic ecosystem. Production, transportation, and use of oil can cause water pollution. Oil spills, for example, leave waterways and their surrounding shores uninhabitable for some time. Such spills often result in the loss of plant and animal life. Coal mining also contributes to water pollution. Coal contains pyrite, a sulphur compound; as water washes through mines, this compound forms a dilute acid, which is then washed into nearby rivers and streams.

Other environmental impact of  fossil fuels:

Land and Water Impacts
Because fossil fuels are buried deep in the ground, they must be extracted and transported to their various end uses. This causes a variety of environmental problems both locally and nationwide:

Surface and ground water pollution:

Oil, coal, and gas are typically found underground below groundwater levels. During extraction, drilling can break the barrier between fossil fuel and groundwater reserves. Later during storage and transportation, broken pipes or storage tanks can also contaminate water supplies.

Drilling mud releases:

During extraction, drilling fluids or “muds” are used for lubrication. These muds contain certain toxic and non-toxic, but damaging, chemicals. They contaminate the immediate area being drilled and are often dumped nearby, causing more environmental contamination.

Land subsidence:

When oil and gas are removed from a reserve under the earth, this leaves what is essentially a large hole underground. When there is no longer anything to support the land above, the land can collapse, causing environmental and property damage.

Land and wildlife disruption:

Extraction of fossil fuels requires significant infrastructure to remove the fuel from the earth. Roads, storage tanks, oil and gas wells, and other development must be built to support extraction. Because much fossil fuel extraction takes place in rural or wild areas, this development often has significant impacts on plants and wildlife.

Oil spills during transportation:

Possibly the most visible impact of fossil fuel production is the potential for environmental disaster during transportation. A number of high-profile oil spills have illustrated the extent of environmental damage possible. On a smaller scale, storage tank leakage and other accidents can directly damage local environments. The pollution effects of these accidents can last for tens of years and sometimes longer, and cleanup is often costly.

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3 Responses to “Fossil fuel and it’s impact on the environment”

  1. ganga ram bhandari Says:

    where are the table,chart ,figures related to the topics?

  2. FatHeadaVap Says:

    Nice information,, i will come back again soon.

  3. aaronshrestha Says:

    very useful information.. lets learn to say no to fossil fuels & work together for creating a green planet


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