Currently, the United States and most of the world is locked into what could be called the fossil fuel economy. Our automobiles, trains and planes are fueled almost exclusively by petroleum products like gasoline and diesel. A huge percentage of our power plants use oil, natural gas and coal for their fuel.
If the flow of fossil fuels to the United States were ever cut off, the economy would come to a halt. There would be no way to transport the products that factories produce. There would be no way for people to drive to work. The whole economy, and in fact the whole of western society, currently depends on fossil fuels.
While fossil fuels have played an important role in getting society to the point it is at today, there are four big problems that fossil fuels create:
Air pollution - When cars burn gasoline, they would ideally burn it perfectly and create nothing but carbon dioxide and water in their exhaust. Unfortunately, the internal combustion engine is not perfect. In the process of burning the gasoline, it also produces:
- Carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas
- Nitrogen oxides, the main source of urban smog
- Unburned hydrocarbons, the main source of urban ozone
It is bad enough now that, in the summer, many cities have dangerous levels of ozone in the air.
Environmental pollution - The process of transporting and storing oil has a big impact on the environment whenever something goes wrong.
Supertankers being loaded with oil in Saudi Arabia
An oil spill, pipeline explosion or well fire can create a huge mess. The Exxon Valdez spill is the best known example of the problem, but minor spills happen constantly.
Global warming - When you burn a gallon of gas in your car, you emit about 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of carbon into the atmosphere. If it were solid carbon, it would be extremely noticeable -- it would be like throwing a 5-pound bag of sugar out the window of your car for every gallon of gas burned. But because the 5 pounds of carbon comes out as an invisible gas, carbon dioxide, most of us are oblivious to it. The carbon dioxide coming out of every car's tailpipe is a greenhouse gas that is slowly raising the temperature of the planet. The ultimate effects are unknown, but it is a strong possibility that, eventually, there will be dramatic climate changes that affect everyone on the planet. For example, if the ice caps melt, sea level will rise significantly, flooding and destroying all coastal cities in existence today. That's a big side effect.
Dependence - The United States, and most other countries, cannot produce enough oil to meet demand, so they import it from oil-rich countries. That creates an economic dependence. When Middle East oil producers decide to raise the price of oil, the rest of the world has little choice but to pay the higher price.