A fossil fuel is a fuel formed by natural processes, such as anaerobic
decomposition of buried dead organisms, containing energy originating
in ancient photosynthesis. The age of the organisms and their
resulting fossil fuels is typically millions of years, and sometimes
exceeds 650 million years.
Fossil fuels contain high percentages of
carbon and include petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Other commonly
used derivatives include kerosene and propane.
Fossil fuels range from
volatile materials with low carbon to hydrogen ratios like methane, to
liquids like petroleum, to nonvolatile materials composed of almost
pure carbon, like anthracite coal.
Methane can be found in hydrocarbon
fields either alone, associated with oil, or in the form of methane
The theory that fossil fuels formed from the fossilized remains of
dead plants by exposure to heat and pressure in the Earth's crust
over millions of years was first introduced by
Georgius Agricola in
1556 and later by
Mikhail Lomonosov in the 18th century.
The United States
Energy Information Administration
Energy Information Administration estimates that in
2007 the primary sources of energy consisted of petroleum 36.0%, coal
27.4%, natural gas 23.0%, amounting to an 86.4% share for fossil fuels
in primary energy consumption in the world. Non-fossil sources in
2006 included nuclear 8.5%, hydroelectric 6.3%, and others
(geothermal, solar, tidal, wind, wood, waste) amounting to 0.9%.
World energy consumption
World energy consumption was growing about 2.3% per year.
Although fossil fuels are continually being formed via natural
processes, they are generally considered to be non-renewable resources
because they take millions of years to form and the known viable
reserves are being depleted much faster than new ones are being
The use of fossil fuels raises serious environmental concerns. The
burning of fossil fuels produces around 21.3 billion tonnes (21.3
gigatonnes) of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year. It is estimated that
natural processes can only absorb about half of that amount, so there
is a net increase of 10.65 billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon
dioxide per year.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that
increases radiative forcing and contributes to global warming. A
global movement towards the generation of renewable energy is underway
to help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
3 Limits and alternatives
4 Environmental effects
5.1 Economic effects
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Since oil fields are located only at certain places on earth, only
some countries are oil-independent; the other countries depend on the
oil-production capacities of these countries
Aquatic phytoplankton and zooplankton that died and sedimented in
large quantities under anoxic conditions millions of years ago began
forming petroleum and natural gas as a result of anaerobic
decomposition. Over geological time this organic matter, mixed with
mud, became buried under further heavy layers of inorganic sediment.
The resulting high levels of heat and pressure caused the organic
matter to chemically alter, first into a waxy material known as
kerogen which is found in oil shales, and then with more heat into
liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons in a process known as catagenesis.
Despite these heat driven transformations (which may increase the
energy density compared to typical organic matter), the embedded
energy is still photosynthetic in origin.
Terrestrial plants, on the other hand, tended to form coal and
methane. Many of the coal fields date to the
Carboniferous period of
Earth's history. Terrestrial plants also form type III kerogen, a
source of natural gas.
There is a wide range of organic, or hydrocarbon, compounds in any
given fuel mixture. The specific mixture of hydrocarbons gives a fuel
its characteristic properties, such as boiling point, melting point,
density, viscosity, etc. Some fuels like natural gas, for instance,
contain only very low boiling, gaseous components. Others such as
gasoline or diesel contain much higher boiling components.
A petrochemical refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland, UK
Fossil fuel power plant
Fossil fuels are of great importance because they can be burned
(oxidized to carbon dioxide and water), producing significant amounts
of energy per unit mass. The use of coal as a fuel predates recorded
Coal was used to run furnaces for the melting of metal ore.
Semi-solid hydrocarbons from seeps were also burned in ancient
times, but these materials were mostly used for waterproofing and
Commercial exploitation of petroleum began in the 19th century,
largely to replace oils from animal sources (notably whale oil) for
use in oil lamps.
Natural gas, once flared-off as an unneeded byproduct of petroleum
production, is now considered a very valuable resource. Natural
gas deposits are also the main source of the element helium.
Heavy crude oil, which is much more viscous than conventional crude
oil, and tar sands, where bitumen is found mixed with sand and clay,
began to become more important as sources of fossil fuel as of the
Oil shale and similar materials are sedimentary rocks
containing kerogen, a complex mixture of high-molecular weight organic
compounds, which yield synthetic crude oil when heated (pyrolyzed).
These materials had yet to be fully exploited commercially. With
additional processing, they can be employed in lieu of other already
established fossil fuel deposits. More recently, there has been
disinvestment from exploitation of such resources due to their high
carbon cost, relative to more easily processed reserves.
Prior to the latter half of the 18th century, windmills and watermills
provided the energy needed for industry such as milling flour, sawing
wood or pumping water, and burning wood or peat provided domestic
heat. The widescale use of fossil fuels, coal at first and petroleum
later, to fire steam engines enabled the Industrial Revolution. At the
same time, gas lights using natural gas or coal gas were coming into
wide use. The invention of the internal combustion engine and its use
in automobiles and trucks greatly increased the demand for gasoline
and diesel oil, both made from fossil fuels. Other forms of
transportation, railways and aircraft, also required fossil fuels. The
other major use for fossil fuels is in generating electricity and as
feedstock for the petrochemical industry. Tar, a leftover of petroleum
extraction, is used in construction of roads.
An oil well in the Gulf of Mexico
See also: Oil reserves
Levels of primary energy sources are the reserves in the ground. Flows
are production of fossil fuels from these reserves. The most important
part of primary energy sources are the carbon based fossil energy
sources. Coal, oil, and natural gas provided 79.6% of primary energy
production during 2002 (in million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe))
Levels (proved reserves) during 2005–2006
Coal: 997,748 million short tonnes (905 billion metric tonnes),
4,416 billion barrels (702.1 km3) of oil equivalent
Oil: 1,119 billion barrels (177.9 km3) to 1,317 billion barrels
Natural gas: 6,183–6,381 trillion cubic feet (175–181 trillion
cubic metres), 1,161 billion barrels (184.6×10^9 m3) of oil
Flows (daily production) during 2006
Coal: 18,476,127 short tonnes (16,761,260 metric tonnes),
52,000,000 barrels (8,300,000 m3) of oil equivalent per day
Oil: 84,000,000 barrels per day (13,400,000 m3/d)
Natural gas: 104,435 billion cubic feet (2,963 billion cubic
metres), 19,000,000 barrels (3,000,000 m3) of oil equivalent
Limits and alternatives
Main articles: Peak oil, Hubbert peak theory, Renewable energy, and
P. E. Hodgson, a Senior Research Fellow Emeritus in Physics at Corpus
Christi College, Oxford, expects the world energy use is doubling
every fourteen years and the need is increasing faster still and he
insisted in 2008 that the world oil production, a main resource of
fossil fuel, is expected to peak in ten years and thereafter fall.
The principle of supply and demand holds that as hydrocarbon supplies
diminish, prices will rise. Therefore, higher prices will lead to
increased alternative, renewable energy supplies as previously
uneconomic sources become sufficiently economical to exploit.
Artificial gasolines and other renewable energy sources currently
require more expensive production and processing technologies than
conventional petroleum reserves, but may become economically viable in
the near future. Different alternative sources of energy include
nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind, and geothermal.
One of the more promising energy alternatives is the use of inedible
feed stocks and biomass for carbon dioxide capture as well as biofuel.
While these processes are not without problems, they are currently in
practice around the world. Biodiesels are being produced by several
companies and source of great research at several universities. Some
of the most common and promising processes of conversion of renewable
lipids into usable fuels is through hydrotreating and decarboxylation.
Global fossil carbon emission by fuel type, 1800–2007. Note: Carbon
only represents 27% of the mass of CO2
Main article: Environmental impact of the energy industry
The United States holds less than 5% of the world's population, but
due to large houses and private cars, uses more than 25% of the
world's supply of fossil fuels. As the largest source of U.S.
greenhouse gas emissions, CO2 from fossil fuel combustion, accounted
for 80 percent of [its] weighted emissions in 1998. Combustion of
fossil fuels also produces other air pollutants, such as nitrogen
oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals.
According to Environment Canada:
"The electricity sector is unique among industrial sectors in its very
large contribution to emissions associated with nearly all air issues.
Electricity generation produces a large share of Canadian nitrogen
oxides and sulphur dioxide emissions, which contribute to smog and
acid rain and the formation of fine particulate matter. It is the
largest uncontrolled industrial source of mercury emissions in Canada.
Fossil fuel-fired electric power plants also emit carbon dioxide,
which may contribute to climate change. In addition, the sector has
significant impacts on water and habitat and species. In particular,
hydropower dams and transmission lines have significant effects on
water and biodiversity."
Carbon dioxide variations over the last 400,000 years, showing a rise
since the industrial revolution
According to U.S. Scientist Jerry Mahlman and USA Today: Mahlman, who
crafted the IPCC language used to define levels of scientific
certainty, says the new report will lay the blame at the feet of
fossil fuels with "virtual certainty," meaning 99% sure. That's a
significant jump from "likely," or 66% sure, in the group's last
report in 2001, Mahlman says. His role in this year's effort involved
spending two months reviewing the more than 1,600 pages of research
that went into the new assessment.
Combustion of fossil fuels generates sulfuric, carbonic, and nitric
acids, which fall to Earth as acid rain, impacting both natural areas
and the built environment. Monuments and sculptures made from marble
and limestone are particularly vulnerable, as the acids dissolve
Fossil fuels also contain radioactive materials, mainly uranium and
thorium, which are released into the atmosphere. In 2000, about 12,000
tonnes of thorium and 5,000 tonnes of uranium were released worldwide
from burning coal. It is estimated that during 1982, US coal
burning released 155 times as much radioactivity into the atmosphere
as the Three Mile Island accident.
Burning coal also generates large amounts of bottom ash and fly ash.
These materials are used in a wide variety of applications, utilizing,
for example, about 40% of the US production.
Harvesting, processing, and distributing fossil fuels can also create
Coal mining methods, particularly mountaintop
removal and strip mining, have negative environmental impacts, and
offshore oil drilling poses a hazard to aquatic organisms. Oil
refineries also have negative environmental impacts, including air and
water pollution. Transportation of coal requires the use of
diesel-powered locomotives, while crude oil is typically transported
by tanker ships, each of which requires the combustion of additional
Environmental regulation uses a variety of approaches to limit these
emissions, such as command-and-control (which mandates the amount of
pollution or the technology used), economic incentives, or voluntary
An example of such regulation in the USA is the "EPA is implementing
policies to reduce airborne mercury emissions. Under regulations
issued in 2005, coal-fired power plants will need to reduce their
emissions by 70 percent by 2018.".
In economic terms, pollution from fossil fuels is regarded as a
negative externality. Taxation is considered one way to make societal
costs explicit, in order to 'internalize' the cost of pollution. This
aims to make fossil fuels more expensive, thereby reducing their use
and the amount of pollution associated with them, along with raising
the funds necessary to counteract these factors.
According to Rodman D. Griffin, "The burning of coal and oil have
saved inestimable amounts of time and labor while substantially
raising living standards around the world". Although the use of
fossil fuels may seem beneficial to our lives, this act is playing a
role on global warming and it is said to be dangerous for the
Moreover, these environmental pollutions impacts on the human beings
because its particles of the fossil fuel on the air cause negative
health effects when inhaled by people. These health effects include
premature death, acute respiratory illness, aggravated asthma, chronic
bronchitis and decreased lung function. So, the poor, undernourished,
very young and very old, and people with preexisting respiratory
disease and other ill health, are more at risk.
Main articles: coal industry and petroleum industry
Fossil fuel exporters and
Fossil fuels lobby
Europe spent €406 billion on importing fossil fuels in 2011 and
€545 billion in 2012. This is around three times more than the cost
of the Greek bailout up to 2013. In 2012 wind energy in Europe avoided
€9.6 billion of fossil fuel costs. A 2014 report by the
International Energy Agency
International Energy Agency said that the fossil fuels industry
collects $550 billion a year in global government fossil fuel
subsidies. This amount was $490 billion in 2014, but would have
been $610 billion without agreements made in 2009.
A 2015 report studied 20 fossil fuel companies and found that, while
highly profitable, the hidden economic cost to society was also
large. The report spans the period 2008–2012 and notes that:
"For all companies and all years, the economic cost to society of
their CO2 emissions was greater than their after‐tax profit, with
the single exception of
ExxonMobil in 2008.":4 Pure coal companies
fare even worse: "the economic cost to society exceeds total revenue
in all years, with this cost varying between nearly $2 and nearly $9
per $1 of revenue.":5 In this case, total revenue includes
"employment, taxes, supply purchases, and indirect employment.":4
Abiogenic petroleum origin
Abiogenic petroleum origin proposes that petroleum is not a fossil
Environmental impact of the energy industry
Fossil Fools Day
Fossil fuel divestment
Fossil fuel drilling
Fossil fuel exporters
Fossil fuel phase-out
Fossil fuels lobby
Liquefied petroleum gas
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^ Paul Mann, Lisa Gahagan, and Mark B. Gordon, "Tectonic setting of
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Michel T. Halbouty (ed.)
Giant Oil and Gas Fields of the Decade, 1990–1999, Tulsa, Okla.:
American Association of
Petroleum Geologists, p. 50, accessed 22 June
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^ Kaldany, Rashad, Director Oil, Gas,
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^ "Oil Sands Global Market Potential 2007". Retrieved
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Coal Archived 2008-09-20 at the Wayback
Machine.. eia.doe.gov. Retrieved on 2012-01-27.
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