Eco Library   Fossil Fuels

Eco Library


Fossil Fuels

Fossil Fuels

Where They Come From

The first natural resources of the planet to be utilized on a large scale were biomass, water, and wind. Today, we get most of our energy from nonrenewable sources, which include fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal. They are called fossil fuels because they were formed over millions and millions of years ago.

Fossil fuels are derived from the remains of long-dead aquatic plants and animals embedded as sediment in the earth. Over time, these remains were continually covered by layers of sand and silt, and heated by the Earth’s core. The resulting pressure, combined with the heat, gradually transformed the fossils into crude oil, also known as petroleum.


Examples of Fossil Fuels

Coal, oil, and natural gas are the most common fossil fuels.


How Energy is Derived from Fossil Fuels

Most fossil fuels are mined from the earth and then combusted. Fossil fuels’ high carbon content allows them to burn easily, resulting in a release of heat energy. This heat can then be used to push pistons to move a car, spin a turbine in a generator to produce electrical power, or heat a house.  Oil and natural gas can be acquired through drilling, both on land and underwater.


Prevalence of Fossil Fuel Use

Humans have burned coal to produce heat since at least 1000 BCE, but otherwise, fossil fuel use was not very prevalent until the mid-19th century. At this time, coal became the main source of power for the machines of industry worldwide, with an expansion into the use of oil and natural gas at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Today, the burning of fossil fuels for a broad range of personal and industrial power needs, like heating homes, fueling cars, and powering machines, accounts for the majority of the world’s energy generation and is a key component of the global economy. For example, 68% of electricity in the U.S. is derived from the fossil fuels coal and gas, and oil is still the predominant source for all vehicle fuel.


Dangers and Risks

The burning of fossil fuels releases harmful emissions into the atmosphere. Some of these emissions are greenhouse gases, which absorb thermal radiation and reflect it back at the planet. The increased use of fossil fuels over the past two centuries has lead to an increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which has been linked to recent global warming trends and climate change. It is estimated that the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for 79% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2010.

Furthermore, the mining and drilling required for the procurement of fossil fuels generates severe environmental impact in the form of damage to local ecosystems and toxic emissions during the mining process. Oil spills, natural gas fires, and other accidents resulting from these operations have also caused and contributed to serious environmental damage.


How to Lower Impact

Lowering personal usage of fossil fuel-derived energy sources is the best way for individuals to help lower emissions and reduce adverse environmental effects from the procurements and use of fossil fuels.

When possible, consumers should choose energy from renewable sources like wind and solar. Some commercial properties and local energy providers offer this choice to customers, sometimes free of charge, or in some cases for an additional premium.

Electric plug-in and hybrid vehicles do offer an opportunity to lower the impact of oil use on the environment. However, the electricity used to power some of these vehicles also originates from fossil fuels. Some effective strategies that all individuals can employ include driving smartly, reducing the total amount of driving, and taking public transportation whenever possible.