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What is a "fossil fuel"?

Fossil Fuels

Terry Tamminen (Author & Environmental Policy Advisor) gives expert video advice on: What is a "fossil fuel"?; How does our use of fossil fuels cause global warming?; What are "carbon emissions"? and more...

What is a "fossil fuel"?

Fossil fuels are typically coal and oil, things that have been laid down over centuries from organic material into the earth and are now extracted for energy purposes. Fossil fules can also include things like natural gas or methane, which is a light fraction of gas that comes off of oil or other deposits like this. Things like methane also come from decomposing materials such as sewage or the materials that are decomposing in landfills.

How does our use of fossil fuels cause global warming?

Fossil fuels are composed almost entirely of carbon, and in the case of oil also composed of a lot of toxic materials that when burned or when the fumes are inhaled are known to cause cancer in humans, and the way they cause global warming is that when you burn them, such as we burn coal for electricity or oil in the form of gasoline and deiesel fuel for trasportation energy, when we burn those things they release that carbon back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, which is a global warming gas, greenhouse gas as it's called, because the CO2 and other kinds of global warming gases from these products act like a blanket over the earth's atmosphere and they trap more heat than would otherwise be trapped in the atmosphere. Of course we want some heat to be trapped in the atmosphere to keep us warm and to be able to inhabit the planet, but if we trap too much then things happen like melting of the Polar ice caps, which results in sea level rise, the oceans become warmer, and things like hurricanes, which are designed to vent warmth from the ocean, become more intense and severe, so for example we saw Hurricane Katrina. That was extremely severe and is undoubtedly the result at least in part of this global warming. So these fossil fuels, when they burn, put these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that act like a blanket and cause this increase in global temperatures.

What are "carbon emissions"?

A carbon emission is the carbon dioxide that is emitted when we burn fossil fuel. And essentially if you think about something like coal or oil as being organic material, trees and plants and dinosaurs, from millions of years ago that were laid down in the earth. That material was basically carbon, just like we are, and when we dig it out of the earth and burn it, one of the gases emitted is carbon dioxide.

What is "oil"?

Oil, or petroleum, is one of these fossil fuels that has been laid in the earth over centuries, from centuries of organic material decomposing and being compressed under pressure in the earth from layer after layer of sediment and rock. Of course, if you keep pressing oil or coal, it turns into things like diamonds, that we like. But if we take it out of the ground in this intermediate stage, as oil or as coal, it has properties that allow us to burn it for energy production.

What is "Nitrogen Dioxide" (NO2)?

Nitrogen dioxide and other oxides of nitrogen, as the name implies, are a gaseous form of nitrogen, which most living things need to live on the earth as a nutrient. But in excess levels can cause problems. Too much nitrogen in the soil, for example, too much nutrient that runs into water can cause algae blooms which consume all the oxygen or other nutrients in an ecosystem. In the case of our atmosphere too much nitrogen dioxideis a precursor of smog and global warming gases.

Which fossil fuels are used to create electricity?

Right now the fossil fuels that are used to create electricity are natural gas, coal, and oil. Pretty much probably the first primary one would be coal, and then natural gas here in California is the primary one here. But depending on where you are in the country or in the world, those three will be the primary sources.

What is a "power plant"?

A power plant is a mechanical device that converts one form of a fuel into usable energy. For example, natural gas is burned in a large furnace that turns a turbine. That turbine generates electricity which goes out over a transmission grid into our homes. The same thing is true if you burn coal or oil at a power plant.

What methods do power plants use to cut down on CO2 emissions?

Right now power plants do not cut down on their Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. There's very few ways that they can separate out Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from other pollutants. So if they're under some kind of a regulatory system that requires them to reduce their overall pollution, which includes carbon dioxide (CO2), they reduce pollution with either process efficiency or by diverting what comes out of the smokestack into some kind of a scrubber or other cleaning device, so they're bound to pick up some of the carbon dioxide (CO2). But there's no technology today that can separate out the carbon dioxide (CO2) from other pollutants.

What is "carbon sequestration"?

Carbon sequestration is the idea that carbon dioxide can be captured and stored, back in the earth, or in some other way. One method of carbon sequestration is taking carbon dioxide and injecting it back into an oil well. It creates pressure in the oil well, which can push more oil to the surface than otherwise might be able to be recovered, and at the same time, it stores the CO2. Another method of carbon sequestration is to pump CO2 into an aquifer, or underground lake, which is where, in many cases, we get our drinking water from. But some aquifers are very saline, very salty, and can't be used for human drinking purposes, and so that might be an appropriate place to pump carbon dioxide (CO2), as a way of storing it, or sequestering it.

Does carbon sequestration really work?

Carbon sequestration has been experimented with for a number of years, and it works in the laboratory, but we're not 100 percent sure how well carbon sequestration works in real life, because it could be many years before we see some of that carbon we think was sequestered escaping back into the atmosphere. So, unless we have studies that cover many decades, we'll never know if the sequestration works. There are various methods that we think work better than others, but until we have long-term studies, we won't know for sure.

What are the risks of carbon sequestration?

The risk of carbon sequestration is that if we are trying to reduce our greenhouse gases as a society, as a country and we think one way to do it is by allowing power plants to emit CO2 but then directing that CO2 into the ground as a way of sequestering it or capturing it, this CO2 may not stay sequestered in the ground. We think we've done something good for the planet and reduced our greenhouse gases by carbon sequestration, but in fact all we've done is delayed their release into the atmosphere and we've avoided real reductions in carbon emissions from new technology or moving to renewable fuels.

Will the planet run out of fossil fuels?

The planet will certainly run out of fossil fuels at some point. There's disagreement as to when we're going to run out of oil or coal. A number of estimates say we'll run out of oil in 40 to 60 years, coal in about 200 years, based on the current levels of consumption of fossil fuels and projected business as usual, assuming that nothing changes, and we continue with population and industrial growth as we have it today.