This is a guide outlining the pros and cons of fossil fuel energy (coal, oil and natural gas), both now, and into the future.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Fossil Fuel Energy
- Fossil fuels provide many economic and also social benefits, and developed countries have built their economies on the back of them
- But, they are also a finite resource, and they can have significant environmental drawbacks
- Even ‘clean coal’ technology has not provided feasible results environmentally, considering the cost and unreliability, by many measures
- The reality is that some countries, such as China, are locked into fossil fuels like coal because of existing investments, existing infrastructure, and a range of other factors
- Countries like the US began their transition from coal to natural gas and oil a while ago, although coal still produced 27% of electricity there in 2018)
- What is becoming clearer is that natural gas is usually cleaner than coal from an eco perspective, and nuclear and renewables are cleaner than natural gas. Based on this, eco supporters may want to see a push towards these cleaner technologies
- Climate change is a major issue which could greatly impact the energies of our future – possibly speeding up the transition from fossil fuels to nuclear and renewables
- Cost (per unit of electricity) and logistical factors (such as infrastructure, technology development and capability, variability, power output/density, and so on) will also play a role
- Energy for the conventional electricity sector vs the transport sector (where conventional cars with oil are competing with hybrid and electric cars) obviously has some different variables and factors to consider
*Note – the mix of energy sources that make up each country will differ. The final set of pros and cons of fossil fuels in each country can also differ because of variables. Each country and even city may need to compose their own set of pros and cons of their energy mix, including and excluding fossil fuels from that mix.
The summarised list point pros and cons are:
- Cheap/affordable, and accessible
- Good for jobs and income
- Infrastructure already well set up
- Can help provide energy independence
- Can meet baseload, and provide backup or complimentary power source to renewables
- Fossil fuels themselves can be used to make other products
- Finite supplies
- Costs money to extract, refine and use fossil fuels (compared to solar or wind energy for example)
- Air pollution
- Greenhouse gas emissions
- Mining and drilling
- Waste by products
- Amongst the most harmful and dangerous energy sources
- Can create energy dependence on other countries
- Can be the source of inequality and wealth battles in some countries and regions
- Pricing can be questionable at times
- Clean coal technology isn’t proven to be cost effective or reliable
- Less efficient than renewable energy
Pros Of Fossil Fuels
- Cheap/Affordable & Accessible – it’s usually a cheap and affordable source of energy and electricity for consumers when considering the price per unit of electricity.
- Profitable – it’s generally very profitable for companies and suppliers, which encourages more investment and energy (although this can turn into a conflict of interest and encourage corruption too).
- Provides Jobs & Income – mines, power plants, electrical suppliers and oil and gasoline related companies provide a significant amount of jobs and income for individuals. They can also single handedly support small mining towns.
- Infrastructure Already Set Up – power grids, gas pipes, and oil supply lines are already set up to deliver and supply fuel and energy where society needs it. It can comparatively be harder and more costly to set up new renewable energy infrastructure in some places.
- Can Provide Energy Independence – coal provides energy independence in some European countries, where without it, they would be relying on Russian natural gas.
- Can Meet Baseload, & Provide Backup Or Complimentary Power Source To Renewables – renewable energy, because of it’s variability, can struggle to meet baseload energy requirements at times. Fossil fuel can provide a good backup or complimentary power source in this instance.
- Fossil Fuels Can Be Used To Make Other Products – for example coke coal is used in steel production, and oil is used for plastic. The plastic in solar and wind equipment is made in part from petroleum. Although, some companies are making bio solar panels – made without petroleum plastic.
Cons Of Fossil Fuels
- Finite Supplies – all fossil fuels have finite supplies as far as we know. This means they will run out or become extremely expensive to mine at some point. Renewables on the other hand are almost infinite.
- Fossil Fuels Cost Money – the actual fuel that is used to generate electricity with fossil fuel costs money to mine, process, refine etc. Comparatively, sunlight or wind for sun or wind energy is free.
- Air Pollution – fossil fuels are responsible for a significant amount of air pollution such as particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Air pollution decreases air quality and is linked to a range of health problems and a higher mortality rate in humans.
- Carbon Emissions – fossil fuels are responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions. This obviously has a bigger bearing on climate change and global warming.
- Mining & Drilling – mining has many potential negatives, such as land degradation, water pollution, air pollution, contamination, and more. All fossil fuel need to be mined. Drilling for oil can also cause severe environmental issues – both on land and at sea.
- Fracking – a process used to extract oil and natural gas. Much has been written of the potential issues with fracking, such as the release of methane in the air (a greenhouse gas), water pollution issues, and possibly increasing the risk of earthquakes.
- Water Use – mining using water, power plants use water in their cooling towers, and water is used for other fossil fuel related activities like oil refinement. Other forms of energy might use far less water – which is a good thing, as fresh water is becoming a scarce and precious resource.
- Waste – fossil fuel energy produces waste, which can be harmful. If we take coal waste for example – coal ash can contain heavy metals, and is actually one of the main types in the waste stream in countries like Australia.
- Among The Most Harmful & Dangerous Energy Sources – Coal, oil and gas are among the most harmful fossil fuels in large part because of air pollution, accidents and other factors being responsible for deaths per unit of electricity produced
- Can Create Energy Dependence On Other Countries – some countries can be, or are heading for dependence on Russia for natural gas.
- Can Be The Source Of Inequality & Wealth Battles In Some Countries – for example oil. Some families and groups of people have monopolies on fossil fuel ownership, creating massive wealth inequalities.
- Pricing Can Come Into Question – particularly for oil. Some argue that the price for oil can be artificially inflated or reduced for various reasons. This is more of a subjective opinion held by some though.
- Clean Coal Technology Isn’t Always Cost Effective Or Reliable – CSS in particular has has had various problems becoming a feasible system to reduce carbon dioxide.
- General Safety Concerns – for example with natural gas pipes, and the possibility of leaks and explosions. There’s also the working conditions of some fossil fuel mines around the world, as well as power plant accidents. Jobs such as working on oil rigs, are among some of the most dangerous in the world.
- Less Efficient Than Renewable Energy – fossil fuels have to be processed, and the conversion process to turn fossil fuels into electricity involves a lot of waste. As a result, they can be an inefficient energy source compared to renewable energy which has very little waste and can actually produce more energy than the original input.
More Resources On The Pros & Cons Of Different Fossil Fuel Energy
- Coal Energy Pros and Cons
- Pros and Cons Of Clean Coal Technology
- Oil Energy Pros and Cons
- Natural Gas Energy Pros and Cons
- How Much Fossil Fuels Are Left, & When Will We Run Out?