The fossil-fuel industry – part of chapter 2 of research study

To state that contemporary society uses a lot of oil, coal and gas, would be something of a ridiculous understatement: in a 2009 article at phys.org1, University of Aberdeen’s John Jones is attributed with saying that at least 135 billion barrels of oil have been used since 1870; worldcoal.org2 puts the figure of coal used in 2012 alone at 7831 million tons; and needtoknow.nas.edu3 lists the global natural gas use for 2006 at 104 trillion cubic feet. These are astronomical quantities of fuels, the extraction and use of which, as will be seen below, is diabolically damaging to the environment.

In the extraction of the listed fossil-fuels from the earth, concerted mechanised and chemical efforts by a variety of industrialists have “devastating results to the landscape”4. In Science magazine’s October 2013 issue, nine Australian scientists are listed as authors to an article entitled ‘Biodiversity risks from fossil fuel extraction’. The article lists some of the effects of the extraction of fossil-fuels:

Direct effects include local habitat destruction and fragmentation, visual and noise disturbance, and pollution. Indirect effects can extend many kilometers from the extraction source and include human expansion into previously wild areas, introduction of invasive species and pathogens, soil erosion, water pollution, and illegal hunting. Combined, these factors lead to population declines and changes in community composition.

The article continues to describe other devastating post-drilling ecological factors, specifically when it comes to the transportation of oil and gas. Most often these other factors are “deforestation, water contamination, and soil erosion”. Obviously, the phenomena occur when roads are built, and fossil-fuel corporations increasingly drill in ecologically sensitive areas – recently, for example, the Yusani Rainforest in Eastern Ecuador5. There is no uncertainty about what happens to a naturally biodiverse area when such drilling gets underway: Peru’s Amazon rainforest, for example, as reported by livescience.com6, “is extensively contaminated from decades of oil and gas drilling, researchers reported [on 12 June 2014]… at the annual Goldschmidt geochemistry conference.”

In the case of drilling for oil and gas offshore, authors of the most recently cited Science magazine article point out that oil spills “in marine environments can have severe environmental impacts over wide areas”. Consider first that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency7, “14,000 oil spills are reported each year”! Second, some of these oil spills are beyond ‘severe’, as in the case of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010, the US’s biggest on record. According to dosomething.org8, “more than 200 million gallons of crude oil was pumped into the Gulf of Mexico for a total of 87 days”; “16000 total miles of coastline have been affected”; a “method of treating the oil spill [was] “in-situ burning” or burning oil in a contained area on the surface of the water, which has [further] negative effects on the environment”; over “8000 animals (birds, turtles, mammals) were reported dead just 6 months after the spill, including many that were already on the endangered species list.” Clearly, the BP oil spill alone caused an ongoing environmental disaster; collectively, as already evident from the information in this sub-section, the acquisition of this fossil-fuel from the environment is an ecological catastrophe.

When it comes to coal, as explained in the Clean Air Task Force’s (CATF) ‘Cradle to Grave: The Environmental Impacts from Coal’9, from “mining to coal cleaning, from transportation to electricity generation to disposal, coal releases numerous toxic pollutants into our air, our waters and onto our lands.” In the ‘Cradle to Grave’ document, the CATF provides extensive information on the ecologically destructive methods of coal mining – they point out, for example, that one method of attaining coal known as surface or strip mining, where the layers of earth covering coal deposits are completely ‘stripped’ away, has left “hundreds of thousands of acres” of land deeply scarred. A different source, the ‘Strip Mining Handbook’10, corroborates the CATF’s concerns: strip mines “severely erode the soil or reduce its fertility; pollute waters or drain underground water reserves; scar or altar the landscape; damage roads, homes, and other structures; and destroy wildlife. The dust and particles from mining roads, stockpiles, and lands disturbed by mining are a significant source of air pollution.”

The drilling for natural gas – hydraulic fracturing – also known as ‘fracking’, is “a water-intensive process where millions of gallons of fluid — a mix of water, sand, and chemicals, including ones known to cause cancer — are injected underground at high pressure to fracture the rock surrounding an oil or gas well. This releases extra oil and gas from the rock, so it can flow into the well.11” Fracking, as explained by popularmechanics.com12, involves (for as start) the known release of large quantities of methane; methane is a greenhouse gas that, pound for pound, has a “comparative impact… on climate change… over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.”13 Often, the methane leaks uncontrollably, as indicated in a study of July 2014 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences14; it is even reported to be the case that natural gas wells “are leaking up to 1,000 times more methane than the Environmental Protection Agency estimates, a dirty secret that could potentially wipe out all climate benefits touted by natural gas proponents.”15

Fracking, as explained by the above source, requires massive amounts of energy: “Drilling is an energy-intensive business. It relies on diesel engines and generators running around the clock to power rigs, and heavy trucks making hundreds of trips to drill sites before a well is completed.” Of course, similar phenomena as those involved with oil and coal acquisition occur when a site is ‘fracked’16: roads must be built, areas are often deforested, wildlife is accordingly displaced, and pollution is unavoidable. One of the more concerning pollutants from fracking is known as ‘fracking liquid’ or ‘fracking fluid’, a concoction of chemicals released into the ground in order for drilling to work. The cited popularmechanics.com17 article states that fracking liquid consists of

“known and suspected carcinogens, including benzene and methanol. Even if these chemicals can be found under kitchen sinks, as industry points out, they’re poured down wells in much greater volumes: about 5000 gallons of additives for every 1 million gallons of water and sand. A more pressing question is what to do with this fluid once it rises back to the surface.”

It is also pointed out in the article that in a short period of 2 years, “a series of surface spills, including two blowouts at wells”18 at a site in the USA, released 8000 gallons of fracking fluid and contaminated groundwater in the region. This is not an isolated occurrence – according to Cornell University engineer Anthony Ingraffea, who has studied the non-linear science of rock fractures for three decades, “[f]luid migration from faulty wells is a well-known chronic problem with an expected rate of occurrence.”19

The fuels in question – oil, coal, and gas – are the main ones combusted globally (but not exclusively) in massive quantities to power contemporary society’s power stations, cars, trucks, trains, aeroplanes, ocean tankers, construction vehicles, heating and cooling systems, etc; these are indeed a few of the plethora of ‘products’ of the fossil-fuel industry that simultaneously have been built by the industry and rely on the industry for their continued use. The manufacturing of even one car, truck, aeroplane, etc. obviously requires the extraction and processing of large amounts of raw materials. Commenting on the difference between 1970 and 2000, Kovel (2002: 3) points out that the “global motor vehicle population had almost tripled, from 246 million to 730 million”, and that air traffic “had increased by a factor of six”. By 2013, the number of cars had increased to over a billion20 (excluding off-road and construction vehicles), and air traffic, since 2000, has continued to grow at 5% per year21. Cars and air traffic are just two examples of subsidiaries of the fossil fuel industry that continue to grow; this is alongside the obvious accompanying global increase22 of fossil-fuel usage.

The associated annual increase23 of the release of carbon dioxide by the products of the fossil-fuel industry is one obvious outcome of the extensive continued usage of these fuels and the accompanying technologies touched upon above. Such greenhouse gas emission is explored in section 1.1.2 above – as shown in that section, without any doubt, the anthropogenic release of CO2 has accelerated global warming and climate change to high-alert status, seeing as the effects of the pollution are only beginning to be seen and will continue to synergise towards ecological ‘melt-down’ for centuries into the future24. A second outcome is the ecological destruction that accompanies, for example, the development of roads for cars and industry – deforestation, loss of topsoil, and water contamination, which have been alluded to in this sub-section and discussed in previous sub-sections, result from the continued and accelerating expansion of systems as per the approach of fossil-fuel technology. Third, the pollution of the environment beyond the obvious CO2 emissions, for example, the thousands of oil spills that occur annually, as already mentioned above, is undeniably part and parcel of the industry.

To conclude this sub-section, a telling April 2014 article from the Harvard Magazine25 – as in Harvard University Magazine – will be quoted; its relevance is obvious:

“JUST THREE DAYS after President Drew Faust outlined Harvard’s role and actions in combating climate change, nearly 100 faculty members called on the president and the Harvard Corporation to do more. The signers of an open letter calling for divestment include leading atmospheric scientists, distinguished professors from a wide range of academic departments, affiliates from nearly every school at Harvard, several department heads, and members of the scientific community. They emphasize the overwhelming evidence of fossil fuel as a primary cause of climate change”…

“Our sense of urgency in signing this letter cannot be overstated,” the authors write.

“Humanity’s reliance on burning fossil fuels is leading to a marked warming of the Earth’s surface, a melting of ice the world over, a rise in sea levels, acidification of the oceans, and an extreme, wildly fluctuating, and unstable global climate. These physical and chemical changes, some of which are expected to last hundreds, if not thousands, of years are already threatening the survival of countless species on all continents. And because of their effects on food production, water availability, air pollution, and the emergence and spread of human infectious diseases, they pose unparalleled risks to human health and life.””