Understanding Modern Energy 2 – The wonder and dreadfulness of Fossil Fuels – A reality check.

The fossil fuels (FFs) – Coal, Oil, and Thermogenic Natural Gas (tNG – also called Methane) – are all fossils in the sense that they are made of compressed remnant anaerobically (without oxygen) decayed material from ancient organisms 100–500 million years in environments that existed at the bottom of the ocean, in deep lakes, and in swamp sediments.  All were converted to a substance call Kerogen and depending on the conditions in which they formed deep underground became the FFs we extract from the ground.  That’s the basics.  A key feature to think about is that these FFs were mostly photosynthetic organisms, i.e. they grew by extracting carbon dioxide from the air as do modern plants to form high energy sugars and other compounds used to build the plant’s structure.  The high energy chemical bonds were maintained and concentrated over the time they were transformed into Kerogen.  As a transportable energy source they had much more energy per equivalent mass than say wood.  Since ancient times, wood burning had been a major source of energy for humankind.  As populations grew so the forests shrank rapidly, since trees need many years to grow and mature and forest management was not thought about until the mid-1800s with extensive forest depletion in Europe.  About that time large exposed surface layers of coal had been discovered and coal became the natural fuel to use for the growing technology of the industrial revolution.  While swamp gas and tNG had been known about for centuries, commercial gas wells started in the 1820 and it was mainly used for lighting streets.  It wasn’t until safe gas lines could be built that it was finally piped into homes for heating and cooking in the early 1900s.

The FFs have been around for nearly 200 years so now everyone takes them for granted and as always having been there.   What we often forget is the pollution that occurs with FFs.  Until the 1970s the intense primary pollution has always been a problem and the reason for many respiratory deaths and lung problems over the many decades since their introduction.  Yes, they are a highly convenient form of energy, but the drawbacks were obvious with the frequent, intense, and dangerous smogs.  The black sooty pollution also coated everything in a black grime and acidic deposition (rain/snow) that also ate away at stone buildings.  And in case we think extracting FFs is benign, the mining and extraction jobs in these industries are some of the most dangerous in the world.  Accidental explosions and fires from extracting FFs are a common hazard as are the transportation and processing of these sources.

The other consequences of burning the FFs are that when we extract and release the energy, the carbon dioxide and other chemicals that had been stored underground for millions of years is released back into the atmosphere.  The thing most people seem to forget is that this trapped carbon dioxide is now added back to the atmosphere approaching levels that once existed in an ancient past.  Ancient periods (e.g. the Carboniferous period), in which the bulk of the Carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere during the creation of the FFs, had an atmosphere in which the planet was like a hot swamp all over (including the poles during the summers) where lots of surface swamp Natural Gas was also being produced.  (Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide.  The greenhouse effect is a normal process of how the planet stays warm anytime.)  Scientific evidence shows that the planet at the time of the Carboniferous period may have been 10-15oF hotter than it is today.  To be fair, some of that heat was also a result of an ‘equatorial circumventing thermohaline ocean current’ rather the ‘polar thermohaline circulation’ we have today.’  Another consequence of a warmer planet and denser vegetation is the increased movement of water (Water Cycle – evaporation, condensation, and evapotranspiration) into the atmosphere with increased clouds and atmospheric water vapor, which also increases the heat trapping ability of the atmosphere.  Yet, to ignore the consequences of how much heat trapping ability that carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor have is to ignore the scientific realities of atmospheric change outside anything natural happening.

In a nutshell, we are fast creating atmospheric conditions that resemble the carboniferous era but fortunately without the circumventing equatorial current’s additional effects of pre-35 million years ago.  (About that time, continental drift caused North and South America to meet up and Africa to connect with Europe and Asia Minor forcing the thermohaline current to move south under Cape Horn, South Africa and then north towards Greenland thus incrementally cooling the planet as the ocean waters cooled nearer the polar regions.)   Thank heavens for small mercies.  If we continually burn all the FFs the released gasses, that have been stored for hundreds of millions of years, may eventually give us a 10-12oF raise in temperature.  The planet will readily adapt – it always has, but can human society adapt to a radically different world in which mass energy will be need to survive but most of the FF energy sources have been used.  Ah, I hear some say, won’t we have renewable energy options – yes, but……

Just in case we forget, by only focusing on the heat trapping ability of atmospheric chemicals, the immediate problem of FFs pollution is also growing exponentially with the increased extracting of FFs over the last several decades.  Despite the 1970s clear air act, we are still increasingly bathed daily in Acid Deposition, Photochemical Smog, Ground Zone, Nitrous Oxides, Peroxyacyl Nitrates (PANs), and a host of other toxic and irritant pollution resulting from burning of FFs.  Health problems and deaths from FF pollution is on the increase globally.  As I said in the first blog post, what is bad about carbon?  What is good about pollution?

Now if you were to only listen to politicians and the FF energy sector bosses you might think that we had endless supplies of FFs.  The reality is that there is only a finite amount of organic organisms that were made in to the FFs.  All the easy to find FFs have long been discovered and already extracted.  (I have heard some non-scientists insist that these FFs are an ongoing process today, if not much slower process, but besides the pollution and heat trapping atmospheric gasses we have only to wait a few tens of millions of years for them to be ready to tap.)  No, another big problem that most people seem to be ignoring is the speed at which we are using these FFs, and it is exponentially growing usage.  To explain exponential usage, imagine you were stranded in the desert and had 10 gallons of water to drink.  If you rationed yourself to one pint a day the water would last 80 days.  If, however, there were two of you, the water would only last 40 days.  If four of you, 20 days.  If eight of you, 10 days.   You get the obvious idea; The more of you there are, the faster the water will be used.   That is happening with the FFs because the rest of the world is also consuming FFs as fast as we have been in the westernized world for the last two hundred years.  All the data from the energy companies, governmental sources, wherever, all show signs of serious depletion of FFs.  We are running out of large sources of FFs.  And the timeframe is a couple of decades, not a century or more.  So the FFs were wonderful in helping us to create our modernized world, but dreadful with the massive pollution consequences and exponential usage fast reaching depletion in the near future.