General issues on Environmental ecology : Fossil Fuels

Petroleum and natural gas are fuels formed by the anaerobic decomposition of remains of organisms including phytoplankton and zooplankton that settled to the sea or lake bottom in large quantities under anoxic conditions, millions of years ago  and sometimes exceeds 650 million years. Over geological time, this organic matter, mixed with mud, got buried under heavy layers of 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. Fossil fuels contain high percentages of carbon and include coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Currenlty, 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 included hydroelectric 6.3%, nuclear 8.5%, and others (geothermal, solar, tide, wind, wood, waste) amounting to 0.9% only. World energy consumption was growing about 2.3% per year.
Fossil fuels are non-renewable resources because they take millions of years to form, and reserves are being depleted much faster than new ones are being made. The production and use of fossil fuels raise environmental concerns. A global movement toward the generation of renewable energy is therefore under way to help meet increased energy needs.

The burning of fossil fuels produces around 21.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, but 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 (one tonne of atmospheric carbon is equivalent to 3.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide). Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases that enhances radiative forcing and contributes to global warming, causing the average surface temperature of the Earth to rise in response, which the vast majority of climate scientists agree will cause major adverse effects.

Importance of Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are of great importance because they can be burned (oxidized to carbon dioxide and water), producing significant amounts of energy per unit weight. Natural gas, once flared-off as an unneeded byproduct of petroleum production, is now considered a very valuable resource. 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.

How much left?
Years of production left in the ground with the most optimistic proved reserve estimates
Coal: 417 years
Oil: 43 years
Natural gas: 167 years
The calculation above assumes that the product could be produced at a constant level for that number of years and that all of the proved reserves could be recovered. In reality, consumption of all three resources has been increasing. While this suggests that the resource will be used up more quickly. At some point in time, the production of each resource within an area, country, or globally will reach a maximum value, after which, the production will decline until it reaches a point where is no longer economically feasible or physically possible to produce.

Environmental Impact of Fossil Fuels

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 calcium carbonate. Fossil fuels also contain radioactive materials, mainly uranium and thorium, which are released into the atmosphere. However, this radioactivity from coal burning is minuscule at each source and has not shown to have any adverse effect on human physiology.

Peak oil
Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. This concept is based on the observed production rates of individual oil wells, projected reserves and the combined production rate of a field of related oil wells. Optimistic estimations of peak production forecast the global decline will begin after 2020, and assume major investments in alternatives will occur before a crisis, without requiring major changes in the lifestyle of heavily oil-consuming nations. These models show the price of oil at first escalating and then retreating as other types of fuel and energy sources are used. Pessimistic predictions of future oil production operate on the thesis that either the peak has already occurred.