Production and Transportation Fossil Energies

Mining for coal and drilling for oil and natural gas have large environmental costs associated with them. Coal mining, which is a very dangerous occupation, is devastating to the land. Coal can be mined in two ways: deep shaft mining and surface mining. Deep shaft mining is used in areas where coal seams are located 100 feet or greater below the surface. This type of mining requires that miners work underground in mine shafts and extract coal by hand. Deep mining is very dangerous to those who work in the mines. Mine shafts can collapse, trapping and killing laborers. Mine shaft explosions can also occur from volatile gas build-up and poor ventilation. Despite numerous safety regulations, this is still a frequent occurrence around the world. Indeed, in countries that lack adequate safeguards, a great number of miners are killed in this manner. China's coal industry is the most hazardous in the world, officially registering 6,000 deaths in 2004 (Watts 2005). In the same year, the United States registered some 28 deaths in the coal mining industry (MSHA 2006). Another hazard posed to miners is risk of black lung disease. This respiratory illness is caused from chronic (i.e., long-term) exposure to mine dust. Although it is not always fatal, black lung disease reduces life expectancy and makes miners more susceptible to respiratory illnesses, including emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis (Cohen 1990, 36).

In addition to the occupational hazards of deep shaft mining, there are environmental problems. Land subsidence, where land sinks down or collapses into abandoned mine shafts, has been shown to occur in areas with numerous shafts. This settling can damage structures and be dangerous to humans if abandoned mines are not marked. It is estimated that approximately 2 million acres above coal mines have subsided (Cohen 1990, 35). Abandoned mines pose pollution problems, too. As water seeps into abandoned shafts, it mixes with the sulfur compounds that are in mining residues, creating acid mine drainage. If the mixture leaches into rivers and streams, it can be very damaging to fish and other aquatic organisms. Waste from the processing of coal also can be hazardous. Coal is often washed after it is removed from the ground. This process results in a black residue that can be toxic. Generally this waste is piled near mining sites or coal processing sites for later disposal, but removing these piles is costly. Eventually the piles create a hazard by leaching toxic chemicals into the ground.

In areas where coal is located closer to the surface, the land is stripped away to reach the coal beds below. While surface mining is safer for miners, it is devastating to the landscape. In addition to removing all vegetation on the land, the top layers of soil (those with the nutrients available for plant growth) are removed. After mining operations are complete, regeneration of the landscape takes many decades. Restoration projects have been implemented in many areas, but many thousands of acres of land remain scarred from strip-mining operations.

Strip mining is especially damaging in the process of mountaintop mining and valley fill operations (MTM/VF), a practice that is widely used in the Appalachian region of the United States. Mountaintop mining is a surface-mining procedure that strips large portions of land off of mountaintops to reach low-sulfur coal veins found below. Valley fill is the rock and debris, or excess spoil, removed from the surface that is often difficult and costly to return to the mountain and so is instead dumped in adjoining valleys. The valley fill procedure has been criticized for its adverse effects on headwater streams. A draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released by several U.S. federal and state agencies estimated that mountaintop removal has directly impacted 1,200 miles of headwater streams and that biological assemblages of fish and invertebrates are often less diverse in watersheds impacted by MTM/VF (USEPA 2003).

Oil and natural gas are often (but not always) found in the same areas; hence development of oil fields often occurs congru-ently with the drilling for natural gas resources. This process can be disruptive to natural environments. The heavy equipment and infrastructure needed to drill and pump oil create erosion problems for fragile ecosystems. Additionally, much of the development of these resources is done offshore along continental shelf regions in the oceans. These areas are very biologically productive, and fishing industries depend on their vitality for harvest.

Offshore drilling involves initial surveying and exploration, development and production of the resource, and final decommissioning of the drilling rig when the well no longer produces oil. All of these stages can be damaging to marine life. Exploration techniques utilize seismic and electrosurveys, which impart physiological damage to marine organisms. Well development involves drilling operations that pollute the surrounding environment. Although some care is taken to minimize pollution, it is estimated that annual worldwide loss of oil at sea during stages of extraction is 7 million tons (Patin 1999, 35). Pollution of hydrocarbon compounds, drilling muds (industrial fluids that lubricate the drilling process), and cleaning fluids can be toxic to marine organisms and hence pose a threat to the fishing industry. When a well does not produce any more oil, it must be capped and the infrastructure removed from the offshore area. Unfortunately, this is an expensive endeavor, and many times the equipment remains in place for long periods.

Pipelines and oil tankers are the two main modes of transport for petroleum. Oil spills are one of the most damaging and highly publicized environmental issues associated with oil. Spills occur both on land and in the ocean and are caused by accidents on oil rigs, grounding of oil tankers, and intentional attacks against oil pipelines. It is estimated that over 45 million tons of oil per year are lost to the environment during the various stages of production and transportation (Patin 1999, 35). While significant losses occur in the ocean and on land, most of this oil (22 million tons) is lost to land spills. Because of the danger of spills, many people oppose the construction of oil pipelines across pristine wilderness areas. For example, in the 1970s, several environmental groups opposed the construction of the Alaskan Oil Pipeline because of the potential damage that a spill could cause to pristine wilderness areas. The oil crisis of the 1970s eventually allowed for the construction of the pipeline, but the debate over Alaska's wilderness area remains. The debate is discussed in greater detail in chapter 3.

Oceanic oil spills are very damaging to coastlines and marine environments. The history of these spills dates back to when companies first began to extract and transport oil, but major oil spills began receiving a greater amount of press coverage in the second half of the twentieth century. Oil spills can occur from blowout accidents on tankers and oil rigs. (A blowout occurs when a sudden and uncontrollable discharge of oil or gas erupts from a well or offshore drilling platform.) Such was the case off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 when a blowout on a well platform released 230,000 gallons of crude oil, polluting Southern California beaches (Rothman 1998, 101). The Santa Barbara spill pales in comparison to a blowout that occurred from the IXTOC 1 well in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979. This incident released 140 million gallons of oil into the sea, the largest amount ever recorded from an accidental release (Gorman 2001, 330).

Human-related accidents have also caused large oil spills. The most publicized of these is the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in Prince William Sound in Alaska. The accident caused some 11 million gallons of crude oil to spill out over 900 square miles into the ocean (Smith 2004, 156). The sound, which was a vital breeding ground for migratory birds, became a precarious and dangerous habitat for the waterfowl. Besides being toxic, the crude coated animals in black residue. The oil suffocated fish by clogging their gills and coated the feathers of birds causing them to drown. Because of the residue, many marine mammals perished from the oil spill and the local fishing industry was devastated. Other human-related oil spills have released larger volumes of oil. The 1967 accident with Torrey Canyon in the English Channel (36 million gallons) and the 1978 breakup of the Amoco Cadiz off the coast of France (65 million gallons) were both larger than the Valdez spill (Gorman 2001, 335). But because it occurred in such a biologically diverse area after oil companies had sworn to adopt higher safety standards, the Valdez spill was a greater devastation in the eyes of the public. It demonstrated that the extreme negative effects of oil pollution and the difficulties inherent in preventing oil spills had yet to be resolved.

As the discussion above demonstrates, many environmental and human health effects arise from the production and transportation of fossil energies. The brief outline only scratches the surface of the intricacies of these problems. It is important to remember that all of the processes and operations involved in the extraction and transportation of coal, oil, and natural gas also require energy inputs. This energy comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, which produces air pollution.

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