From the cars we drive daily to natural gas for cooking to generating electricity to heat our homes, the dependence on fossil fuels goes back centuries. Yet it’s impossible to turn on the TV or read the news and not see a story that’s part of a swelling chorus about the urgent need to reduce, or even eliminate, our dependence on fossil fuels.
Many of the reasons given are valid. Coal-fired power plants release harmful toxic emissions including mercury, sulphur dioxide, and soot. Contaminating the air, water, and soil, these emissions lead to myriad health issues, from breathing problems like asthma to coronary heart disease (CHD), lung cancer, higher rates of infant mortality, developmental delays, and diminished brain function, and even ischemic stroke.
Oil and gas spills can create irreparable damage to humans, animals, and the environment, including damage to the brain and liver. Burning fossil fuels, especially coal, can cause acid rain, while using oil and natural gas for heating, generating electricity, manufacturing, and transportation creates carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, a leading cause of global warming.
So why, with all the knowledge we have about the damage caused by coal, oil, and gas, do we remain tied to fossil fuels?
Despite the problems with fossil fuels, even the most ardent opponent couldn’t dismiss the benefits petroleum has brought. Without coal to produce the heat for steam engines, the Industrial Revolution might never have happened the way it did. Manufacturing processes would be very different. We might be very different.
Dirty as it was, coal was affordable and widely available for heating homes. And not so much a luxury as a matter of life and death.
Long before basements became rec rooms or ‘man caves,’ they were strictly utilitarian, with massive ‘octopus-type’ furnaces using gravity to heat air, which rose upwards through asbestos-insulated arms to warm houses. Coal was delivered to basements through cast iron coal chutes leading into cellars, which were standard until the 1940s.
Even today in America, coal is responsible for 21.8 percent (899 billion kilowatt hours [kWh]) of utility-scale electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)
In the manufacturing world, oil-based products changed everything, from how we store leftover food to making the cars we drive lighter and safer.
Vulcanized rubber, which made possible the pneumatic tire that transformed automobiles, was invented by Charles Goodyear in 1839 when he accidentally dropped sulphur-treated rubber onto a red-hot stove. Other inventors—notably British chemist Alexander Parkes and, later, American inventor John W. Hyatt—synthesized a plastic called pyroxylin for photographic plates, and camphor and nitrated cellulose to create celluloid.
Early uses for these and other forms of plastics included billiard balls, umbrella handles, and dental plates. In 1934, chemicals company DuPont changed clothing forever when it introduced nylon, a man-made product stronger and more elastic than silk.
Today, plastic is omnipresent. With its products everywhere—from those making the world safer, such as child safety seats and automobile airbags, to medical instruments, helmets, electronics, and tamper-proof drug packaging, it’s hard to remember a world without plastics.
Still, despite recycling programs, the amount of plastic in our lakes and oceans is rising every year. And unlike products sourced from organic materials, plastic doesn’t degrade—it breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic. Recent estimates say we are polluting the world’s oceans with some 12.7 million tonnes of plastic annually, irreparably harming marine and human life.
To combat waste, over 80 countries have implemented full or partial bans on one of the worst pollutants, single-use plastics. In 2017, Kenya banned plastic bags after reports that they were found in the stomachs of over half of the republic’s cattle.
Other countries, states, and cities have also banned single-use plastic bags, including New York State and California, while Canada recently announced sweeping regulations on plastics including ring carriers, straws, and stir sticks.
As much as environmental groups and politicians say we need to reduce our use of plastics, the biggest lightning rod to the emotions of environmental groups remains our love affair with the car, which goes back to the boom years following World War II.
While there were previous attempts made to connect cities and states, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, and later the Federal Highway Act of 1956, saw billions of dollars spent on building thousands of miles of highways for future growth.
In the years to come, this gave rise to Route 66, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Interstate 80, and other highways. This ease of access, along with cheaper vehicles, meant one no longer had to live in a major city, but could instead buy an affordable suburban house half-hour or so from downtown. Workers no longer took streetcars, subways, or buses to work, school, or shopping, choosing instead to drive, often in single-person vehicles.
Today, many cities are re-examining automobile use and introducing urban planning considerations, such as limiting road access to cars, choosing instead to install bike lanes, treed or grassy medians, and wider sidewalks.
As well-intentioned as these initiatives may be, they are not always practical, especially in some North American cities where old streets had narrowness built in.
Even with growing investment and innovation in renewable energy, 81 percent of power in the U.S. still comes from fossil fuels. Despite all the knowledge we have about the detrimental impact on humans and the environment, oil, gas, and coal remain widely used.
Two years ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, some pundits predicted that a drop in automobile usage with stay-in-place orders would signal the death of the internal combustion engine and the disappearance of vehicles based on that form of power. Although there were fewer cars on the road for some months, the demise of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles was exaggerated.
Unlike solar and wind-generated power, which relies on favourable weather, gas, oil, and coal are extremely reliable, provided that supply chains are not interrupted.
Owing to Russia’s war on Ukraine and fears over gas availability, Germany has backed off plans to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and made the “painful but necessary” decision to temporarily fire up coal plants, which were planned to be mothballed by 2030, and phased out by 2038. To date, all 15 coal-fired plants scheduled for closing are back online.
In the world of transportation, gas-powered internal combustion has been continually refined over the decades. In the mid-1970s, harmful exhaust elements were reduced with the invention of the catalytic converter applied to exhaust systems on cars, buses, ships, motorcycles, and other vehicles.
Then, of course, to further reduce our global footprint and dependence on fossil fuels, we should simply use less of them. Drive less, walk more. Plan trips better. Use public transport, and use a bike. Consume less. Often, the most common-sense ideas are the best ideas.
Renewables undoubtedly have a future, as do electric vehicles. While some environmentalists believe we can simply turn off the switch, this is completely unrealistic. As polluting as fossil fuels can be, they are the lifeblood of the global economy and have also enabled humanity to live, work, and travel.
To suddenly expect the public to “abandon their cars” (as one politician suggested) in their driveways is foolish and unrealistic, as is flippantly saying “Buy an electric vehicle.” Costing an average of $50,000 U.S., this price tag alone makes EVs out of reach for many consumers.
There is also the matter of convenience. Filling a car with gas takes just minutes; charging the battery of an electric vehicle takes about eight hours with a Level 2 charger, and a staggering 40 hours with a Level 1 charger, which plugs into an ordinary 120-volt household electric outlet.
Although the sun is slowly setting on fossil fuels, they have proven themselves a dependable source of energy, from heating our homes to fueling our cars. While the world will see more renewables in the future and more EVs on the road, our love affair with oil, gas, and coal is far from over.