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Fossil Fuels

A power station burning fossil fuels

Fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal have been the most popular sources of fuel over recent decades. Many power stations burn these fossil fuels to heat water, which subsequently produces steam that drives turbines to generate the electricity required by homes and businesses.

Whilst this method helps to generate the large amount of electricity demanded, there are two major downsides:-

The first is that the burning process produces harmful gases which are released into the atmosphere and create pollution problems such as global warming and ozone layer depletion/destruction.

The second major disadvantage is that unlike certain types of alternative energy detailed below, these sources of fuel are non-renewable, in that there is only a finite amount, and so once it is depleted it cannot be replaced.

Renewable Energy as an Alternative

Renewable sources of energy include solar, wind, wave/tidal etc. These harness natural occurrences to produce electricity, and so do not rely on the burning of finite resources. The availability of the input will always be available, until the world ends! Not burning fuel means that no harmful gases are released into the atmosphere. However, there are also disadvantages to renewable sources of energy too.

One disadvantage is that these methods struggle to produce the amount of electricity that a fossil fuel burning power station provides. For example, it is estimated that approximately 500 wind turbines are needed to produce the same amount of electricity as one coal fired power station. Also, unlike fossil fuels which are guaranteed to burn and produce the electricity, renewable sources are at the mercy of nature, in that if the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow then solar panels and wind farms will be ineffective.

Another disadvantage, linked to the struggle to produce sufficient quantities of energy, is that the equipment needed to harness the natural forces often needs to be extremely large. This can be extremely controversial and cause major protests by the people who live near a proposed site who have to cope with things such as large wind towers spoiling the natural landscape.


Coal was the main fuel of the industrial revolution and early modern age, when large quantities were burnt in order to produce steam which not only drove the pistons of the machines themselves but also to power the turbines which created electricity to power the light bulbs and machinery of a new electric age.

Advantages of Coal as a Fuel

Coal is abundant in many countries around the earth and can be found quite near to surface level, which means that it does not require that much money to be spent (in comparison to other forms fuels) on extraction or processing. It also burns easily which makes it highly effective as a fuel, and whilst there will be some ash left over at the end of the process, it will not require costly and complicated disposal as will be required from nuclear energy generation for example.

The low costs of extraction combined with the large amounts present meant that coal was an effective fuel which was affordable for both households to use a fuel for their fires upon which to cook and heat their homes, as well as businesses who could afford to purchase it in large quantities and expand their production. It was therefore no surprise that coal was the fuel of choice back in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Disadvantages of Coal as a Fuel

Unfortunately coal gives off a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide and particulates when it is burnt, which is released into the air through chimneys. The carbon dioxide gets trapped in the earth's atmosphere and prevents heat escaping out into space, warming the planet and causing situations such as drought/crop failure and extreme weather conditions including floods and tornadoes.

The particulates contained in the smoke can linger in the air which is breathed in by people and can cause health problems. Many large industrialised cities in the UK such as London and Edinburgh were notorious for being unhealthy, smog-ridden areas from all the chimney smoke of the houses and factories burning coal for heat and power virtually all day every day.

Other Health Risks From Coal and the Coal Industry

It was not just those breathing in the smoke from burning coal that had their health and safety put at risk. Those mining and extracting the coal from the ground were exposed to dark, dirty and dangerous conditions down the mines. The cramped underground spaces and lack of fresh air meant that miners were constantly breathing in coal dust which was bad for their respiratory systems. There was always a frequent danger of explosions and fire occurring in the mine. For those who spent long hours down the mine for many years the lack of sunlight and subsequent vitamin D production resulted in conditions such as rickets and weakened immune systems which made them more susceptible to other illnesses.

Children Particularly Had Their Health and Safety Put at Risk

Large numbers of children had their health put at risk from coal. Not only were boys allowed to work in the mines before they even reached adulthood, and so facing all of the risks that fully grown men faced, but even younger children were employed as chimney sweeps because they were small enough to fit in the small space of a chimney flue and so could clean it of soot much more thoroughly than an adult poking a brush up there could. This led to them breathing in large quantities of soot each day, not to mention the danger of falling from height as they climbed up the inside of the chimney. Even those children who were spared the rigours of working down the coal mine or being forced up chimneys to clean them were still exposed every day to the smoky, polluted air of the big city as they lived and worked in it, which led to many childhood illnesses and mortalities as a consequence.

Oil and Natural Gas

Similar to how coal is formed from the compressed and heated remains of trees and plants from ancient peat swamps, oil is formed from small sea creatures and other organic matter which fell to the bottom of ancient seas and was slowly and gradually compressed over time to form oil and natural gas in the form of methane which was trapped in the seabed and shale rocks.

Oil is an extremely useful substance which can be broken down into various components to produce diesel, petrol and kerosene (aircraft fuel), as well as being used to form products such as plastics and bitumen (used for road building).

Also just like coal however, the burning of oil and natural gas produce carbon dioxide which adds to the layer of greenhouse gases around the earth that prevents heat escaping into space, although natural gas is considered cleaner than coal or oil by many. This means that whilst it is highly useful and important as a fuel source, there are still significant environmental consequences of burning oil and gas.

The supplies of coal remaining in the world are estimated to be approximately 100 years, but supplies of oil are thought to potentially last just another 20 years unless significant quantities are found elsewhere, possibly in environmentally-sensitive areas for wildlife such as Antarctica.

The extraction and transportation of oil and gas can result in large-scale and devastating environmental accidents if something goes wrong. The most common issues regarding oil are from oil spills into the sea either from damaged tanker ships which are transporting it or from damage to undersea wells. As well as creatures living in the sea, the oil slicks can wash up onto the beach, affecting birds and other wildlife over a significant area.

The process of extracting gas can also be damaging to the environment, invasive and put people's health at risk, as this article on fracking shows.

Methane Recovery

Along with the methane produced by living microbes during the decomposition process in biodigesters, methane gas can also be sourced directly from the ground where it has been trapped for millions of years with the coal and surrounding rocks as the coal was formed.

This methane trapped in the ground may one day find itself escaping and being released into the atmosphere. As methane is a greenhouse gas which can trap heat from the sun and prevent it being lost back out into space, an increase in the amount of methane in the atmosphere can cause the average mean temperature of the planet to rise. This has serious implications for the environment and the health and wellbeing of all living creatures as issues including crop failure, extreme weather and coastal flooding through melting polar ice caps causing a rise in sea levels are all consequences of climate change.

Successfully capturing this methane to be used as a fuel source will prevent its future release into the surrounding air and rising up to the atmosphere, which will prevent a future negative impact upon the environment as described in the paragraph above. Not only this, but burning methane and using it as a fuel is cleaner and better for the environment than burning a fossil fuel such as coal or oil, as the harmful pollutants given off as a consequence of the combustion process are of a lower concentration. Burning methane will therefore be far more preferable in terms of preventing damage to the environment than relying upon fossil fuels to generate the required power.

There are disadvantages associated with methane recovery though. For starters, methane gas is extremely volatile in that the risk of explosion is high, and is the reason why landfill sites, even those cleared and used for other purposes such as an industrial estate, need to be carefully monitored to prevent the build up of methane and potential explosions occurring which can put the health and safety of anyone nearby at serious risk.

Along with the possible dangers, methane recovery can be awkward, difficult and expensive to achieve, particularly where newly-developed technologies and processes such as forced carbon dioxide displacement are involved. Not only can these high costs prevent methane recovery processes from beginning at all, but even ones that have started may mind that the costs and difficulties involved soon make the process unviable in the long term. Whilst there will be many who will argue that no price can be put on protecting the environment and safeguarding planet Earth for future generations, when the methane recovery process is being funded by a private company (or even cash-strapped governments!), they will require a financial return and at the very least not be losing money on the endeavour in order to continue with it.

Oil Pollution

Oil pollution is one of the most high profile forms of environmental pollution, usually because oil spills are often large scale events which affect an enormous area and so receive substantial press coverage.

The liquid properties of oil means that any leakage can be difficult to contain, which is why an oil spill can affect such a large area. All living creatures living in the area are likely to be affected including bird life, fish, coral reefs etc, which makes oil spills such environmentally devastating events.

Some of the most destructive examples of oil pollution come from accidental escape from large ships, usually when they become damaged during heavy storms or a collision. Any large ship can leak a lot of fuel and oil into the ocean no matter what their cargo, but if they are actually transporting oil they will have substantial quantities on board which will find its way into the water. The most famous example of this situation is the Exxon Valdez oil tanker incident in 1989 which leaked large quantities of oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska, after striking a reef.

Damage to undersea oil drills can also lead to major oil slicks. Who can forget the Deepwater Horizon incident of a few years ago that not only claimed lives in the explosion, but also resulted in millions of barrels of oil being released into the ocean which affected the water and coastal regions in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pollution from oil is not just an environmental situation caused by companies operating large ships or underwater oil wells though. Just as with other forms of pollution such as air pollution, although large corporations are responsible for the high profile, large scale disasters, the actions of individuals often play an even greater role when their combined effects are totalled. Similar to motor cars pumping out exhaust fumes into the atmosphere, private boats will leak oil and fuel into water, as anyone who has looked at the water in a recreational harbour will be able to testify. This contamination of water can affect the health and wellbeing of fish and other aquatic creatures living in the water or relying upon it for drinking. The health and safety of humans can also be put at risk if they were to swim in the water and accidentally swallow some of it.

Is Oil Pollution a Fire Risk Too?

Whilst it may not be the first thing that a person thinks about when considering the risks to health and safety from an oil spill, it is actually a fire hazard. Oil is extremely flammable and will sit on top of the water rather than quickly dispersing through it. This means that were a spark or flame to come into contact with it, a fire can quickly spread throughout the entire slick on the top of the water. Any boats in the area will be affected and the safety of those on board will be compromised not only from the flames but also the risk of explosion as these boats are likely to have fuel on board in their tanks.

Business Fuel Options and the Environment

Businesses are often far greater polluters than households due to the sheer size and scale of their operations, which can have a substantial negative impact upon the surrounding environment. Whilst a household may only create waste or consume resources based on two or three people for example, a business will be doing the same on an industrial scale. This means that along with households, businesses too have a responsibility for safeguarding the environment and attempting to reduce their environmental impact, arguably to a much greater level considering their potential large-scale effects, and is why environmental training courses like the NEBOSH Environmental Certificate are becoming increasingly popular.

One of many areas in which businesses can cause and create a lot of harmful pollution is through the burning of fuels; whether this is to power a process or for the operating of a mode of transport.

Transporting supplies or finished goods is one of the primary reasons for requiring fuel to be consumed. It is typically burnt in a combustion engine which can produce harmful gas emissions that are released into the atmosphere and contribute to air pollution levels. The biggest polluters where fuel is the source are usually transport and haulage companies who have fleets of vans, lorries and/or aeroplanes which all have engines that burn fuel.

Less Environmentally-Damaging Options

Companies which care about the environment will take steps to reduce their particular impact upon it, not only through providing managers and staff with health and safety courses and qualifications like the NEBOSH Environmental Certificate, but also through investing in alternative fuels to power their machinery. These alternatives can include less polluting options such as fully or hybrid solar powered vehicles, or at the very least fuel sources which are less harmful for the environment than the current ones being employed.

Downside of More Environmentally-Friendly Fuel Sources

Whilst it may be better for the environment, there are often a number of disadvantages for the business of making the switch to more environmentally-friendly sources of fuel. For starters, the conversion of existing vehicles or machinery to run on a different source of fuel can often be prohibitively expensive and cause resistance to such change, especially if there are a large number of vehicles or machines to convert. Also, the cost and availability of the alternative fuel source may be a factor in preventing change, as the increased cost and hassle of a more expensive and scarce fuel may persuade many business managers to stick with what they have already.

Laws and Regulation are Required For Many to Change

Although many people and businesses have voluntarily undertaken training and actions to limit their negative effect upon the environment, legislation is often the most powerful driver of environmental change, as many people will carry on doing the cheapest and most convenient course of action until they are legally required to do otherwise. This is why governments have a great responsibility and power for bringing about real change for the protection and preservation of the environment for future generations, even if their efforts are often met with opposition, particularly in the short-term after laws and regulations are introduced.

Environmental considerations are becoming more and more of an issue to organisations, whether due to legal, financial or moral/brand awareness reasons. For this reasons, a number of health and safety courses and qualifications now include environmental modules on their respective syllabus. There are also specific environmental qualifications such as the NEBOSH Environmental Certificate and Diploma, which are some of the most respected health and safety environmental qualifications available and are extremely sought after by many potential employers.

Related Course

Please see below for more information on the NEBOSH Environmental Certificate:

NEBOSH Certificate in Environmental Management

The NEBOSH Environmental Certificate, or NEBOSH National Certificate in Environmental Management to give it its full title, is an environmental health and safety course which is intended to be taken by managers, supervisors and any other employees who are responsible for managing environmental issues at their workplace.

The NEBOSH Environmental Certificate qualification focuses on UK law, so is really only suitable for those who are based and operate within the UK.

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