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Everything You Need to Know About Fossil Fuel Power

Fossil fuel is a natural resource of power made from the remains of dead plants and animals. It is a major source of global energy and gives us the ability to power our daily lives. However, whilst utilizing fossil fuel energy is useful, it is a mass contributor to climate change.

What is fossil fuel power?

Fossil fuel energy includes a large list of different sources that can used as power. In energy statistics1, coal, manufactured gases, peat, shale and oil sands, oil and natural gases all considered part of this group.

Major fossil fuel industries profit from producing and selling these as products on a global scale. Examples include the likes of BP in the United States2 who dominate the petroleum industry. The economic stance is one that businesses and politicians sometimes take.

For example, at the 2014 Canada Europe Energy Summit3, the UK’s Energy Minister Matt Hancock commented on fossil fuels. He said4, “Our aim is to maximise economic recovery of our hydrocarbon reserves, to boost growth, energy security, and jobs.”

Fossil fuel companies have come under criticism for their stance and impact on climate change. Since 1965, 20 companies have contributed to 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide5. This hasn’t gone unnoticed as many protest against them.

Carbon emissions and climate change

Scientists recognise that the burning of fossil fuels over last century has increased the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Estimates suggest that roughly 80% of all manmade carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions originate from fossil fuels combustion.

The IPCC recognises6 that fossil fuel emissions must be halved by 2030 if we are to achieve targets of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. However, research by the UN Environment Programme shows we are not on track to meet this. More needs to be done to divest and move away from fossil fuel power. Renewables present an alternative.

Are there alternatives to fossil fuel power?

As a result of our fossil fuel use over the last century and the environmental impact it has had, there is a need for alternatives. We can’t continue on the same path and expect to meet our climate change goals. Furthermore, fossil fuel resources will run out as they are finite.

Renewable energy systems are a possible alternative as they have a limited negative environmental impact compared to fossil fuel power. Examples include wind, solar power, biomass, hydroelectricity, and geothermal.

Some research says renewables aren’t ready, but others are more optimistic7. Predictions suggest the solar surge will come at the cost of coal, currently the largest fossil fuel source of carbon emissions. There are also suggestions that electric production will curb the demand for oil. Yet whilst there are drawbacks, renewables are a way of moving away from fossil fuel power.



Key things you should know about these new oil sands projects

Current fossil fuel production levels are not in line with goals outlined by the IPCC, according to research. One of the keys to this is the role of new oil sands projects. They sit uneasily with 1.5 degrees goals1 widely agreed upon at COP summit meetings.

The extraction of oil sand is one of the lesser-known fossil fuel industries, but nonetheless it is still controversial. It results in the production of oil from the extraction of reserves.

Where are the proposed new oil sands projects?

Frontier mine, Alberta Canada. The site is a staggering 292 square kilometers covering 24,000-hectares2. Its capabilities mean it could produce 260,000 barrels of bitumen each day at its peak. As a result, potential development would make it one of the largest ever built in Alberta.

Canada has long had a history of oil production. The country is the fourth-largest producer and exporter of oil in the world. This makes its oil reserves an economic incentive with 96% of Canada’s proven oil located in the oil sands3. However, any new plans would be another step in the wrong direction for the environment.

Why are the new oil sands projects controversial?

Firstly, the environmental impact of the oil sand industry is huge. The Frontier mine oil sand project would be entirely incompatible with climate change goals. Research suggests it would produce 6 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year until 20674. This is a gargantuan amount. Nevertheless, it is not dissimilar to many other previous Canadian oil sands projects in its environmental impact.

Secondly, a vast amount of energy is needed to create space for the mine as 3,000 hectares of old-growth forest would need to be cut down5. As a carbon sink, this has a further impact on climate change.

What are current plans?

Teck Resources Ltd. are pulling its application for a new oil sands project in Alberta6. This has removed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from making a critical decision on the future of Alberta. Should it have remained, Trudeau would need to consider Canada’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

What else do I need to know?

Canada has had a strong history with oil sand projects due to its rich reserves. However, the Frontier mine project does not appear to have a long lifetime at just 41 years7, as future oil demand remains in question. This perhaps contributed to Teck Resources Ltd.’s own uncertainty about the economic sense of the project, alongside more global concerns.



What is the most abundant fossil fuel?

Despite the clear need for us to transition to green energy, fossil fuels still dominate our energy markets. But what is our planet’s most abundant fossil fuel?

The Most Abundant Fossil Fuel Crown Goes to…Coal

Nations like Saudi Arabia have major oil fields, while Russia leads the pack on proven natural gas resources.

But, taking the planet as a whole, the most abundant fossil fuel is coal.

The United States has the largest coal sources of any nation. States like Wyoming and Virginia have made coal mining a way of life. In fact, the United States government boasts its coal reserves total one quarter of the world’s proven coal sources.

To put that another way, the United States has more coal than the rest of the world has available oil reserves.

There’s a big problem though. For the past few years the United States government has tried to revive its coal industry, but it hasn’t worked.

For one thing, the American public doesn’t want more coal mining operations. Another issue is that natural gas and other fossil fuels are out-competing coal. The growing green energy sector is also applying pressure.

So, it’s little wonder that the global coal market has been in free-fall. Despite the United States seeing a brief surge in coal export demand around 2017, this downward spiral does not look set to end.

Fossil Fuels Infrastructure: An Increasingly Risky Bet

Coal is notorious for being a “dirty” fossil fuel, and with good reason.

The mining process is an ugly one that carves up massive amounts of earth and can also change water courses. Acid mine drainage is also an environmental concern that requires long-term management.

Now, the United States has started to transition to natural gas production. Nations like the UK through to Japan are also following. They bill this as a “clean” energy alternative.

However, environmental groups say while natural gas might seem attractive, it is anything but environmentally friendly and has several of the same problems as coal.

Many gas drilling sites cannot be the same as the sites we have used for oil and coal extraction. This means we are having to clear yet more new land and build new infrastructure to feed our fossil fuel habit.

What’s more, some gas extraction processes use a lot of water. With that comes the risk of water contamination. This happened in Wyoming where research shows fracking led to ground water contamination.

Environmentalists worry that investment in natural gas infrastructure now will only prolong fossil fuel use in the future, and we can’t afford that.

If we are to have any hope of achieving our climate change related targets, scientists are clear that fossil fuels cannot be part of our long term strategy.

It is time to leave fossil fuels alone, whether that is coal, oil or natural gas, and whether they are abundant energy sources or not.