Environmentalists and conservationists often share a dystopian view of the challenges that this planet faces. Ask many of them and they will tend to agree. It’s not a simple matter of negative pessimism; but rather a concern for the lacking sense of urgency that we don’t consistently see from governments, manufacturers, and consumers. Breaking fossil fuel dependency is just one in a long line of topics where we see this take place.
So let’s see if we can work together to change that perspective.
This topic is the first in a series that seeks to pull back the veil of negativity and shine a light of hope towards those same challenges that can seem so daunting to solve. In presenting this material, we intend to demonstrate that not everything is a matter of doom and gloom. In fact, tremendous progress is being made all over the place.
With that as our backdrop, let’s dig in on our first topic of the series – breaking fossil fuel dependency.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) the United States meets 67% of its total energy needs through the combustion of oil, natural gas, and coal. The balance comes from a range of sources including nuclear, hydro, and alternative sources, which we will touch on later.
Fossil Fuel Dependency – Crude Oil
Burning fossil fuels is no doubt one the most substantive environmental concerns facing the planet today. While they are a finite resource, the real concern is the toll they take on the environment. Fossil fuels are refined to make gasoline or plastics, burned to produce electricity, or used to heat our homes through natural gas. Each of these processes results in the release of unwanted greenhouse gases to the environment. Those pollutants released by burning hydrocarbons may be a driving force behind climate change; but they are also a driving force behind poor air quality seen around the planet.
According to the EIA, the United States imports roughly 9,000,000 barrels of crude oil every day. Keep in mind that this figure is in addition to what we produce through our own oil exploration efforts. Our need for petroleum products is nearly insatiable; it requires imports from 75 different countries to satisfy it. Our top 15 oil suppliers include:
As you can see from the list, there are a number of questionable trading partners here including a number of hostile Middle Eastern nations and several other countries embroiled by corruption, drug lords, and war.
Fossil Fuel Dependency – Natural Gas
Natural gas is in a different position than crude oil. First off, the bulk of the United States natural gas needs can be satisfied through domestic production. Some measure of importing takes place (as does exporting); however, that is seen more as a matter of suppliers seeking top dollar. If they can sell for more overseas, they do.
Domestic natural gas production has been superficially inflated in recent years through the questionable actions of fracking. As a reminder, fracking comes with a number of environmental concerns. Among those concerns are:
- Groundwater contamination through faulty construction.
- Surface spills.
- Disposal of fracking fluid.
- Air pollution through leakages.
- Greenhouse gas leaks (methane).
Finally, natural gas still accounts for approximately 27% of energy production in the US according to EIA.
Fossil Fuel Dependency – Coal
When it comes to energy consumption in this country, coal is still king. Roughly 40% of all electricity in the US comes from burning coal.
Unfortunately, the combustion of coal is a fairly dirty process and results in a large number of pollutants and greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere.
Additionally, mining coal has left large areas of countryside devastated due to strip mining practices. Some estimates have shown up to 300,000 acres of forested land has been destroyed in West Virginia alone. Sadly, about 60% of coal is mined in this manner in the US.
How We’re Breaking Fossil Fuel Dependency
I started by saying that this was not going to be a doom and gloom article and it’s not. It’s time for the good news – we have made tremendous progress and improvements to help break our dependence on fossil fuels.
There is still plenty of progress to be made; but for context, fossil fuels accounted for over 80% of energy produced in the United States less than 10-years ago. We are now below 70% , which demonstrates that we are moving in the right direction. So let’s dig into how the issues are being tackled.
Many wholesale changes are taking place in the energy industry. The surge in alternative energy production has enabled nations committed to fossil fuel independence to be successful. Costa Rica was able to demonstrate how they could go 75 consecutive days providing power to their citizens solely through alternative energy methods.
Other nations with more sophisticated energy grids are also breaking fossil fuel dependency. Some of those include:
- Germany: Has met up to 50% of their energy needs just using solar.
- China: This nation has stepped up and is now the number one purchaser and installer of solar panels globally. Renewable energy investment in China is double that of the US – they spent over $83 billion in 2014 compared to the US spend of $38 billion.
- Japan: Has invested heavily in solar since the Fukushima plant failure in 2011.
- United States: Solar power production increased 30% in 2014.
Overall alternative energy investment continues to be strong. There were over $138 billion in alternative energy investments in 2014 for developing countries. As a result, 2014 experienced the highest energy production from alternative energy sources. 9.1% of all energy on the planet came from these sources.
With all this investment, many nations are seeking to achieve fossil fuel independence in the coming decades.
Positive news is not limited to the production of more renewable energy. In many cases, the harmful effects experienced from fossil fuel production are being addressed also. Let’s take a look at some of those advances next.
How Natural Gas is Making Sustainable Progress
Many states where natural gas is actively extracted have implemented regulations to address problems with well integrity. This will help mitigate future contaminations with drinking water sources.
States are also improving their regulations requiring exploration companies to disclose extraction problems and leaks.
The EPA has gotten into the game recently by proposing new legislation that limits methane emissions from production and refinement operations. While never regulated before, states are starting to look seriously at methane – Colorado enacted the first state regulation in 2014.
How Coal is Making Sustainable Progress
Many regions are implementing legislation that puts an end to the destructive strip mining process used. Other areas are also evaluating solutions to help mitigate water contamination from coal dust.
Breaking Fossil Fuel Dependency – Are We There?
I can’t tell you that everything is rosy. Sure, there are still plenty of challenges to solve for before we can declare ourselves independent of fossil fuels. The good news, which is also the reality, is that progress continues to be made.
Progress continues as innovators find new ways to make energy production more cost effective for consumers. This includes both the direct-to-consumer solar panel installation market as well as the large scale power plant solutions.
Progress continues as governments come together to find sustainable solutions that benefit all. For example, 195 nations came together in December 2015 in an unprecedented effort to negotiate a climate deal. Climate change was the overarching topic of discussion; however, understanding that energy production is the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions made it a secondary topic.
The Paris Climate Deal sent a clear global message that the time to invest in renewable energy is not down the road – the time to invest is now.
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. – Chinese proverb
There are challenges that still need to be solved in breaking fossil fuel dependency; however, we also have plenty of reasons to be positive about the future of renewable energy production.