Physical Damage From Extraction Of Fossil Fuels

The environmental damage from fossil fuels begins with the mining or extraction. Fossil fuels are found in a variety of geological formations. These range from surface deposits of coal, oil shale and tar sands to oil pools kilometers below the bottom of oceans. The recovery of all categories of fossil fuels results in damage. Some recovery processes are more damaging, some are less, but the effects are similar. The damage from the recovery of fossil fuels is a worldwide problem; however, this chapter focuses on conditions within the United States. Conditions in other places may differ in detail and degree, but the harmful effects of fossil fuel recovery are similar throughout the world.''2'3'4

Coal is produced by strip mining or underground tunnel mining depending on the depth of rock or soil covering the deposit. In strip mining, the soil that covers the coal deposit is striped from the coal. The coal is then broken up by mine equipment or explosives.

Surface strip mining of coal destroys the native vegetation at the mine site. The topsoil is sufficiently disturbed that it is difficult to rehabilitate the site and re-start the native growth pattern. Oxidation of waste coal and mine residues produces sulfuric acid and releases toxic materials such as arsenic, selenium and beryllium. These leach into the ground water and drain into streams and lakes. At a minimum, these materials strongly alter the types of plant and animal life able to survive in their presence. At the worst, they kill all life near the mine.

The environmental damage caused by strip mining is extremely variable. It can range from slight, in well-managed mines recovering coal with low sulfur content, to almost total in slovenly operations recovering high sulfur coal where destruction of the surface is so complete that rehabilitation will take hundreds of years.

Atwood, Genevieve, "The Strip-Mining of Western Coal","Scientific American ", Vol. 233, No. 6, December 1975, Page 23

2 Butler, James N. "Pelagic Tar", "Scientific American ", Vol. 232, No. 6, June 1975, Page 90

3 de Nevers, Noel, "Tar Sands and Oil Shale", Scientific American, Vol. 214, No. 2, February 1966, Page 21

4 Reid, Robert, and Drake, Elisabeth "The Importation of Liquefied Natural Gas", Scientific American, Vol. 236, No. 4, April 1977, Page 22

In a shaft-mine, a tunnel is dug to reach the deposit. As with strip mining the coal is broken up with equipment or explosives. The small pieces are carried to the surface. At he surface of either type of mine the broken coal is loaded into trucks or rail cars and transported to the customers.

Underground mines damage a smaller area of the surface than do surface strip mines. The non-fuel rock taken from the mine is contaminated with bits and pieces of coal. It is usually placed in large piles in a limited area. Around these piles, the toxic mine residues are concentrated and little or no plant life can survive. This effect lasts for a long time. These areas are smaller but often more toxic than those produced by strip mining. In many respects, the surface effects of strip and underground mines are similar in kind and only differ in degree.

When the underground mines are abandoned, the tunnels remain. The tunnels yield two long-range problems. First, the mines occasionally catch fire. Once started, mine fires are extremely difficult to extinguish. As the coal burns, the toxic combustion products leak out of the original shaft and through cracks in the ground produced by the heat from the fire. The fire is usually oxygen starved. This starvation maximizes the production of toxic fumes at near the maximum possible from the combustion of coal. Where the fumes leak from the mine they kill vegetation. When weather conditions are unfavorable animals, as well as plants, are killed by the fumes.

The second problem is the slow collapse of the underground tunnels. This collapse destroys anything located above the old mine. In the State of Pennsylvania, people have been driven from their homes and towns by the combined effects of mine fires and tunnel collapse. Farmland has been rendered useless.5 The coal mining regions of England and Europe have severe problems with mine collapse.

A recent example of the mine collapse problem is found a few kilometers from the author's home. The May 7, 2001 the Alliance, Ohio newspaper (The Review) contained the following notice. "Next week when inspections begin, highway crews hope to maintain two lanes of traffic in each direction at a collapsing mine under Interstate 77. Detours will be in place, if safety concerns arise about the mine. In 1995, vehicles plunged into a sinkhole along Interstate 70 east of Cambridge. Twenty-eight Ohio counties contain 4,200 known mines and perhaps 2,000 others according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources". Ohio is not known as a major coal mining state. Think of the problems that exist in places that are known for extensive mining.

Like coal, surface or shaft mining can be used to recover shale oil. The method depends on the location of the deposits. 6 There are deposits of potential economic value in all parts of the world. In the United States, most attention has been directed at processing the enormous deposits of the high grade Green River formation in northwestern Colorado and contiguous Utah and Wyoming. Shale recovery presents less of a toxic drainage problem than coal because it is relatively low in sulfur and other toxic elements. The problem with recovery of shale oil is the large amount of rock that must be mined and the mineral waste that remains after the oil is extracted. Good western shale contains about 20% oil by weight. The product oil has about half again as much energy as coal on a weight basis. Consequently, it is necessary to mine about three metric tons of shale to obtain the energy equivalent to one metric ton of coal.

For every metric ton of shale oil recovered, there is about 4 metric tons of spent shale. The major environmental challenge in the recovery of the shale oil is the disposal of the large amount of spent

Davis, S. N. and Marsden Jr., S. S., "Geological Subsidence", Scientific American, Vol. 216, No. 6, June 1967, Page 93

6 Dick Richard A., and Wimpfen, Sheldon P., "Oil Mining", "Scientific American ", Vol. 243, No. 4, October 1980, Page 182

shale. The spent shale is a fine powder with modest concentrations of toxic elements. The toxicity of the spent shale is less than coal residues but there is so much of it that the environmental hazard of the two wastes is similar.

The fine fluffy spent shale has a much larger volume than the original compacted shale. It greatly over fills the cavity produced by the mining. Because of the large volume, most disposal plans include piling it up near the place it is produced. The areas where Green River Shale deposits are found are of relatively low value for farming or forestry but have great scenic beauty. The accountants find it difficult to apply a dollar value to the damage caused by the huge mounds of spent shale that will result from the recovery of shale oil. This may tempt us to go ahead and use the shale and, as with other fossil fuel damage, pass the cost on to future generations.

When the Green River Shales are depleted, consideration will be given to mining the lower quality Ohio River Valley shales. Recovery of oil from these shales will cause far greater damage because the land under which they are found is far more valuable and the amount of waste produced is much larger. Dependence on shale for future energy has the potential to be very hazardous to the health of the earth.

The recovery of liquid oil is performed in a different manner than the mining of solid fuels and it produces a different set of concerns. Oil is recovered by spontaneous flow from pressurized fields or pumping if the pressure in the underground formation is low. As the oil is removed the underground formation slowly, or occasionally rapidly, collapses causing subsidence of the surface. In Texas California, and the Middle East the subsidence of the ground has resulted in the advance of the sea into previously dry land. The course of rivers has been changed and salt water has penetrated aquifers that were once sources of fresh water.7

Oil spilled on the ground causes damage. Lightly contaminated soils will recover from oil spills in 5 to 15 years. Microbiological activity oxidizes and consumes the oil rendering the soil fit for plant life. In areas with heavy contamination, the oil prevents penetration of air and moisture needed by the microorganisms; recovery takes a long time. Near wells where much oil has been recovered or in processing facilities where much oil is handled, heavy contamination takes place. The result of heavy ground contamination is dead vegetation and contaminated surface and ground water. In the heavily contaminated areas, the ground can be sterile for as long as 50 years.8

The shipment of oil by tanker and the recovery of oil from offshore deposits have resulted in many spills in the ocean. The ocean oil spills near shore have ruined beaches, killed birds, and aquatic mammals. The spills poison the shallow ecosystems along the shoreline where many sea creatures breed and their young mature. The EXXON Valdez spill is estimated to have killed 500,000 birds. Virtually everyone agrees that oil spills hear shores are environmental disasters.

The effects of the spills far from shore are less well documented or understood. Fragmentary evidence shows Open Ocean spills can kill sea life and alter the environment in undesirable ways. Fortunately, the ocean has a remarkable ability to recover and while the immediate results of oil spills are severe, in the longer term they appear to have a less permanent effect than spills on dry ground. The cumulative chronic effects of incessant oil spills in the oceans are almost totally unknown. The relatively short-term effects of ocean spill leads to the tentative conclusion that permanent damage will be caused only

7 Menard, William H., "Toward a Rational Strategy for Oil Exploration", Scientific American, Vol. 244 No. 1, January 1981, Page 55

8 de Nevers, Noel, "The Secondary Recovery of Petroleum", Scientific American, Vol. 213, No. 1, July 1965, Page 34

if we continue to spill oil at current or increasing rates. Discontinuing the wide scale shipment of oil will stop oil pollution. If oil spills are stopped, the oceans will likely recover their pristine state in a period of 5 to 20 years.

All of the damage caused by the recovery of fossil fuels will stop when, and only when we stop using fossil fuels for the generation of energy. Be assured, we will stop using fossil fuels. We will stop either because we are sensible and want to protect the earth or because we have used the entire supply of fossil fuels that are available at a cost we are willing to pay.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) based in Paris believes the peak of oil production is in sight. This analysis includes the oil that can be recovered in the Caspian Sea area. They believe that the peak in production, 80 million barrels per day, will occur some time between 2010 and 2020. After the peak, oil production will steadily decline. They forecast that after the peak, the price of oil would dance around wildly while we build the infrastructure to manufacture oil from shale and coal. When this investment and work is completed, the price will settle down at a more stable but higher level.

These analyses were based on methods developed by Shell Oil's M. King Hubbert in 1956. Mr. Hubbert predicted that the production of oil in the lower 48 states would peak between 1965 and 1972 and decline thereafter. At the time, the critics thought he was mad; however, production within the 48 states peaked on schedule in 1970 and has declined ever since. A new book, "Hubbert's Peak" by Kenneth Deffeyes (ISBN 0691090866) on this subject is appearing this fall. Pre-release reviews indicate that when Hubbert's methods are applied to the current world oil supply the peak in world production will occur some time between 2004 and 2008.9

Other petroleum recovery experts made projections regarding worldwide oil supplies. 10 These are shown in Table 1.2. These estimates include the use of the most advanced methods of recovery. They are arranged from the most pessimistic to the most optimistic. All predictions are for the peak to occur in the near future.

Expert Data Source

Year of Prediction

Date of Peak Production

F. Bernabe, ENI SpA


2000 - 2005

C. Campbell & J. Laherrere, Petroconsultants


2000 - 2010

J. MacKenzie, World Resources Institute


2007 - 2014

OEDC's International Energy Agency


2010 - 2020

J. Edwards, University of Colorado, Boulder



DOE'sEnergy Information Administration



Table 1.2 World Oil Production will Peak and then Décliné

The Middle East and Caspian Sea oil reserves may last another 50 years. If the United States, the European Union and Japan continue to increase their dependency on these sources it will bring substantial political risk.

9 Bumhill, Tim, "Not Much Left", New Scientist, Vol. 172, No. 2313, October 20, 2001, Page 56

10 Kerr, Richard A., "The Next Oil Crisis Looms Large-and Perhaps Close", Science, Vol.; 281, No. 5380, August 21 1998 Page 1128

The United States, European Union, China and Russia have large reserves of coal, the dirtiest fuel and the one that produces the most carbon dioxide. Coal supplies will last a long time, but coal's use will cause greater damage to the earth than does the use of oil.

After Middle East Ask oil is consumed, what will our descendants use for energy and petrochemicals? Eventually we will be forced to stop using fossil fuels because of depletion and the environmental damage. The sooner we stop the better for us and our descendants. Our descendants and we will appreciate halting the environmental damage and reserving the chemicals for their higher value uses.

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