Fossil Fuels

Oil along the Louisiana Coast, Summer 2010

For over a hundred years, we have been generating electricity and moving vehicles by burning fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels are the remains of dead plants and animalsexposed to intense heat and pressure inside the Earth over millions of years.  Like fossils, they have to be dug or sucked out of the ground.  When we use them, they’re gone.  They don’t replenish.  They’re not renewable.

Coal, oil, and gas are the fossil fuels producing the majority of the world’s human-generated greenhouse gases with coal — any kind of coal — emitting the most carbon dioxide per unit of energy.

The extractive processes such as blasting off the top of a mountain, known as mountain top removal, to get at coal or drilling deep into the ocean to reach oil, often damage natural systems.

New methods, designed to reach new sources, have caused recent, bitter controversy.  Oil companies want to drill in the Arctic because oil elsewhere is being used up but some scientists say there are too many unanswered questions about what happens when oil spills into the valuable Arctic ecosystem.

Gas companies want to fracture rock deep underground to release the gas, though some scientists and opponents say doing so has the potential to contaminate drinking water.

Fossil fuel costs accrue in everything from guarding oil tankers to invading countries for secure access to oil to the pollution that damages human health.

Who pays?  We do, citizens everywhere.  We pay in taxes for the military, in health costs, and in the loss of valuable natural services.

But people who benefit from the money fossil fuels generate fight tirelessly to preserve every cent, often even at the expense of the health and well-being of people.  Exxon Mobil alone made over $40 billion in 2010, and was among the top three highest contributorsto oil and gas industry lobbying from 2003-2011 while contributing more than any other company from 2006-2009.

Overall, the oil and gas industry spent $148 million in 2011 to support fossil fuel legislation and to ensure that legislation designed to fight climate change stalled or failed.  From 2005 to 2008, Koch Industries, one of the largest fossil fuel conglomerates in the world, paid $37 million to groups that deny climate change.

Front groups, think thanks, and non-profits like the Cato Institute and the Americans for Prosperity were founded and are funded by the Koch Brothers to spread doubt and denial about climate change in direct opposition to innovation and progress toward a clean energy future.

Meanwhile, in Germany, clean energy is a growing industry.  Feed-in tariffs are the primary stimulus promoting unprecedented solar installation and wind development.  Feed-in tariffs are guaranteed fair market prices for the energy that will be generated.

In 2011, 27 gigawatts (GW) of solar power capacitywere added to the world with Italy and Germany accounting for over half. By comparison, 25 gigawatts powers about 6 million average American homes.

In China, the government proactively makes clean energya significant part of its energy future through policy and government spending.  China spent more than any other country on renewable power — $52 billion — in 2011, which supports the country’s plan to achieve 20 percent total power from renewable energy by 2020.

3 things you can do to burn less fossil fuel:

1. Conserve fuel and electricity at work and at home.
2. Support clean energy businesses.
3. Get involved in local and regional clean energy initiatives.

Other great ways you can make a difference.


Gas Overview – Environmental Protection Agency
What is Your Fuel Mix? EPA Tool

Coal Overview – EPA

Petroleum Overview – EPA

Fossil Fuel Emissions – US Department of Energy

Climate Change Resources – New England Aquarium

New York State Plans Health Review as it Weighs Gas Drilling, New York Times
The Billionaire Koch Brothers War on Obama, New Yorker