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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.
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 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.