Fossil fuels are used in the United States more than anywhere else in the world. Coal, oil, and natural gas are all used daily in ways that some may not realize. For example, RMCMI states that half of the United States electricity is generated by the use of coal and that the U.S uses about 1.12 billion dollars in coal each year. Petroleum products are also very important to our daily lives. “In 2017 the U.S consumed a total of 7.28 billion barrels of petroleum products” (U.S Energy). Natural gas makes up roughly thirty percent of energy across the United States annually. These make up our largest sources of energy and with continued usage depleting reserves, it’s time to take a look at different ways to take our pull away from our reliance on fossil fuels. More conservative practices with our fossil fuels are necessary to decrease pollution associated with these energy sources.
Kent Bransford states in an article that fossil fuel combustion “accounts for ninety eight percent of anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, the predominant greenhouse gas by volume”. Levels of carbon dioxide increasing are not known to have an effect on human health, but combustion of fossil fuels has been linked to problems with respiratory health. Ozone is formed from nitrogen oxides reacting with volatile organic compounds and creating the main component of smog. On top of respiratory problems associated with fossil fuel combustion, pulmonary problems have also been identified and linked back to ozone. Continued pollution can lead to higher mortality rates in those exposed that had had pre-existing conditions like pulmonary or cardiovascular disease. The issues that seem bigger are more talked about when it comes to fossil fuel consumption, like the effects on land being used, when in reality the biggest issue facing use are the various diseases worsened by combustion.
When it comes to coal production, there has been a change made to mining in order to keep miners healthier than before. With underground mining, workers were far more susceptible to respiratory illnesses. Although the current method, surface mining, is less efficient, it has a bigger impact on the lives of those that work around coal. Not only did underground mining cause illnesses, but there were also many fatalities on these work sites. Old coal mines that are not managed correctly can “become highly acidic and rich in heavy metals”, which is detrimental to animals, humans, and plants in the surrounding environment. Surface mining has a tendency to allow runoff into water sources and toxify drinking water.
Oil and gas are also providing health risks in their drilling. Risks of off shore and on shore drilling are “often unseen” (UCS). Similar to some of the troubles seen with surface mining, chemicals are sometimes carried away into water supplies in runoff from hydraulic fracking. Water is the main component of what is used, and though other chemicals are not to be used, some do anyway. Not only are the sources of water that come into contact with the runoff completely unusable because of toxicity but attempts to reverse damage create some problems due to how hard it is to safely dispose of these materials. “Drilling and fracking shale gas formations (like the Marcellus Shale) typically requires 3 to 6 million gallons of water per well, and an additional 15,000-60,000 gallons of chemicals, many of which are undisclosed to Federal regulators” (UCS). The UCS also states that in two different studies, fracking runoff in the first totaled 750 different chemicals, and the second study showed 632, twenty five percent of which are believed to cause cancer, mutations, or damage to many of the systems in the body. Both burning natural gas and drilling for oil produce methane, which is either vented or flared to decrease the impact it makes on the environment. Though it does reduce the impact, greenhouse gases are still released into the air. The treatment associated with more viscous oil also creates more harmful gases due to the extra energy used on it to become refined.
The transportation of all of these different fossil fuels creates some of its own pollution. Aside from the coal dust that is spread by its transportation, the use of all of the trucks, trains, and other similar modes of transportation create their own pollution from the burning of their fuel. Pipelines that move natural gas into homes or across different areas are very dangerous considering the gas is highly flammable. According to the UCS, between 2008 and 2015 there were 5,065 significant safety events for workers of natural gas pipelines which includes 108 fatalities and 531 injuries. Pipeline leaks are a large source of methane emissions. One study conducted in Boston found 3,356 separate leaks under city streets. These leaks are dangerous enough that just a small spark could cause a massive explosion across a large city. A solution to the natural gas leak problem is beginning to be utilized in the form of liquefied natural gas. This is a far cleaner way to transport and use.
Problems with transportation of oil is something that is seen on the news fairly often. There have been numerous spills because of pipelines which affect the surrounding environment greatly. Many animals will die after being covered in oil or because of toxified parts of their environment. The Exxon Valdez incident spilled 262,000 barrels of oil in Alaska. Recently, spills in the Kalamazoo and Yellowstone rivers have toxified those sources of water for much of the wildlife in their areas.
When it comes to the disposal of used fossil fuels, all have very high toxicity. Different equipment has been used to attempt to reduce pollution from different fossil fuel plants. In coal plants, smokestacks are geared with material to catch fly ash. UCS says that fly ash is “material captured by the pollution control equipment in a coal plants smokestacks”. There are still some plants that do not have these pollution control devices, so their emissions are more harmful and released directly into the air. There are waste disposal landfills for fossil fuels, but these landfills could possibly allow runoff of highly toxic materials into nearby areas.
There is no easy solution to the problems with toxicity or these products, but it is time to take steps in the right direction in order to ensure a healthier environment for humans, animals, and all other forms of life. The Environmental Protection Agency could adopt more policies to regulate proper anti-pollution equipment which would greatly reduce the current emissions, spills, and leaks. Constant maintenance on pipelines could greatly decrease spills by making sure everything is correctly done and up to date. Coal plants should have smokestack filters required to lower greenhouse gas emissions. More than anything else, renewable energy sources are needed. The current supply of fossil fuels continues to get lower and due to that, prices will increase with the lower supply.
Wind energy is inexhaustible and very efficient. Wind farms already account for thirty percent of the total energy in the United States over the last decade. The switch to using turbines is clean and can provide a starting point for creating a healthier environment for all different life, as well as creating opportunities to boost economies in the same way that fossil fuels do currently. Although there are a small amount of emissions when it comes to production of turbines, there are no emissions from the turbine use itself. Over the next several years renewable energy sources will create the majority of energy in the U.S. The current trend of those with respiratory illnesses and diseases associated with the combustion of fossil fuels will dwindle as old forms of energy may slow their use and create a cleaner environment.
Hydroelectricity is another great form of renewable energy that is underutilized. In areas with large bodies of water, the creation of dams would be able to provide very large amounts of clean and inexhaustible energy. National Geographic shows the Bonneville Dam as generating more than a million watts of energy per year. The implementation of dams has a minimal impact on wildlife in surrounding areas. Fish populations are maintained and some of the different fish populations thrive after the creation of dams. The Hoover Dam alone gives power to nearly two million people in three states.
Solar energy is another form of energy that should soon make strides in how much of the total U.S energy it produces. The UCS shows that solar energy has minimal environmental impact dealing mainly with land use, habitat loss of some species, and the use of hazardous materials in the production of solar panels. There are two types of technology associated with solar energy: photovoltaic and concentrating solar thermal plants. There are small amounts of pollution associated with solar energy, but these numbers are much smaller than those associated with fossil fuels. Life cycle emissions for photovoltaic are between 0.07 and 0.18 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour, while concentrating solar power can have between 0.08 and 0.2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour.
Fossil fuels create a large portion of the U.S economy and have been crucial for daily life, but it is time to see that the problems are beginning to outweigh the positives. The lack of regulation on what is being used to find fossil fuels and how waste is disposed of are showing that these methods are becoming outdated. Renewable energy in the forms of hydroelectricity, solar energy, and wind energy, have clearly created better alternatives that will better our environments and have a significant impact on our economy.