Energy for lighting, heating, and cooling our buildings, manufacturing products, and powering our transportation systems comes from various natural sources. The earth’s core provides geothermal energy. The gravitational pull of the moon and sun creates tides. The sun emits light (electromagnetic radiation), which creates the wind, powers the water (hydrologic) cycle, and enables photosynthesis. Plants, algae, and cyanobacteria utilize solar energy to grow and create biomass that can be burned and used for biofuels, such as wood, biodiesel, and bioethanol. Over the course of millions of years, biomass from photosynthetic organisms can create energy-rich fossil fuels through the geologic process of burial and transformation through heat and pressure.

Each of these types of energy can be defined as renewable or non-renewable. Renewable energy sources can be replenished within human lifespans. Examples include solar, wind, and biomass energy. Non-renewable energy is finite and cannot be replenished within a human timescale. Examples include nuclear energy and fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form. All energy sources have some environmental and health costs, and energy distribution is not equally distributed among all nations.

 Environmental and Health Challenges of Energy Use

The environmental impacts of energy use on humans and the planet can happen anywhere during the life cycle of the energy source. The impacts begin with the extraction of the resource. They continue with the processing, purification, or manufacture of the source; its transportation to the place of energy generation, and ends with the disposal of waste generated during use.

The extraction of fossil fuels can be used as a case study because its use significantly impacts the environment. As we mine deeper into mountains, farther out at sea, or farther into pristine habitats, we risk damaging fragile environments, and the results of accidents or natural disasters during extraction processes can be devastating. Fossil fuels are often located far from where they are utilized, so they need to be transported by pipeline, tankers, rail, or trucks. These all present the potential for accidents, leakage, and spills. When transported by rail or truck, energy must be expended, and pollutants are generated. Processing petroleum, gas, and coal generates various emissions and wastes and utilizes water resources. Energy production at power plants results in air, water, and, often, waste emissions. Power plants are highly regulated in the United States by federal and state law under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates nuclear power plants.

Geopolitical Challenges of Fossil Fuels

Figure illustrates that the United States imported over half of the crude oil and refined petroleum products it consumed during 2009.
Figure 2. Sources of United States Net Petroleum Imports, 2009 Figure illustrates that the United States imported over half of the crude oil and refined petroleum products it consumed during 2009. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Petroleum Supply Annual, 2009, preliminary data.

Using fossil fuels has allowed much of the global population to reach a higher standard of living. However, this dependence on fossil fuels results in many significant impacts on society. Our modern technologies and services, such as transportation and plastics, depend in many ways on fossil fuels. If supplies become limited or extremely costly, our economies are vulnerable. If countries do not have their own fossil fuel reserves, they incur even more risk. The United States had become increasingly dependent on foreign oil since 1970 when our oil production peaked. The United States imported over half of the crude oil and refined petroleum products we consumed in 2009. Over half of these imports came from the Western Hemisphere (Figure 2).

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC; Figure 3) is the major holder of oil reserves. As of 2018, there were 15 member countries in OPEC: Algeria, Angola, Congo, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. OPEC attempts to influence the amount of oil available to the world by assigning a production quota to each member except Iraq, for which no quota is presently set.

Pie chart shows proven oil reserve holders.
Figure 3. Proven Oil Reserves Holders Pie chart shows proven oil reserve holders. Source: C. Klein-Banai using data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2010)
Overall compliance with these quotas is mixed since the individual countries make the actual production decisions. These countries have a national oil company but also allow international oil companies to operate within their borders. They can restrict the amounts of production by those oil companies. Therefore, the OPEC countries greatly influence how much of world demand is met by OPEC and non-OPEC supply. A recent example is the price increases in 2011 after multiple popular uprisings in Arab countries, including Libya.  This pressure has led the United States to develop policies that would reduce reliance on foreign oil, such as developing additional domestic sources and obtaining it from non-Middle Eastern countries such as Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria. However, since fossil fuel reserves create jobs and provide dividends to investors, a lot is at stake in a nation with oil reserves. Oil wealth may be shared with the country’s inhabitants or retained by oil companies and dictatorships, such as in Nigeria before the 1990s.
The two charts show the relationship between fuel type and carbon emissions for U.S. energy consumption in 2010.
Figure 4. Fuel Type and Carbon Emissions The two charts show the relationship between fuel type and carbon emissions for U.S. energy consumption in 2010. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration


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Introduction to Environmental Sciences and Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Emily P. Harris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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