“Guilty As Charged”– Fossil Fuels Should Rest in Peace

by S. Tom Bond on August 19, 2015

Is your money doing good things?

The Hydrocarbon Rap Sheet:  Fossil Fuels Have Been Indicted & Found Guilty

From S. Tom Bond, Retired Professor of Chemistry & Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV

A “rap sheet” is a police list of a person’s convictions. Coal, oil (petroleum) and natural gas, are powerful figures in today’s world. But they have been “indicted” of some pretty serious stuff by science and common sense. The jury is now back and the verdict is “guilty as charged.”

One of the biggest advantages of petroleum propelled vehicles was – no deposits in the street. Horse drawn carriages are rarely seen anymore. Instead a hot gas came out the exhaust of mechanical vehicles, disappearing magically in the atmosphere. Voila! No problems.

That is, until after World War II. Then it was discovered that the atmosphere, which had been considered an infinite sink, if thought of at all, contained a considerable amount of carbon dioxide. It had been known that the temperature of the earth depended on the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere for decades, and it was rising as a result of burning carbon buried in the earth for hundreds of millions of years, both petroleum and coal. A friend tells me he studied this in an environmental science course in the 1960′s.

It was inevitable that the temperature of the earth would rise also, because removal of the carbon dioxide by plants on earth is slow, hundreds of years. Had world development not happened, it might have taken many decades, but world development and increase in population did occur, and we are now experiencing serious effects of this way of getting energy.

Coal produces many other pollutants as well as carbon dioxide, because it is solid and carries many other elements that form pollutants in gas or suspended in air when it burns. There are too many to list here. Oil contains fewer polluting elements because it is liquid and they have settled out. The energy from burning hydrocarbons comes almost entirely from oxidation of carbon and hydrogen, producing carbon dioxide and water vapor.

Natural gas, a gas because its molecules are smaller, has still fewer pollutant elements, but low and behold, it is a pollutant itself! It warms the earth far more than carbon dioxide. There is a considerable dispute between those who claim higher efficiency in production of energy with gas and those who say gas is even more serious a pollutant than carbon dioxide, and how much of it goes into the atmosphere. Coal contributes to the methane budget, because some methane is trapped in the coal seams that must be removed from active coal mines to avoid explosions. Also, methane is generated in garbage dumps (landfills), from the earth’s herbivorous animals, sewage and many other sources.

There is plenty of hydrocarbon energy to raise greenhouse gases above levels where it would seriously damage the earth even using conventional extraction methods, but fracking with a whole battery of new technologies results in several other kinds of pollution in addition to the escaped methane and the resulting carbon dioxide. Toxic chemicals are used and radioactive drill cuttings are freed up.

Fracking is ideal for financial return to the investor when pollution, health damages, property devaluation and esthetics can be ignored or externalized onto other people. So, it started with a bang in the early 2000′s, but now is in the doldrums. The answer, according to the industry, is to export gas to other places, and continue to disregard the consequences here. The result would be even more environmental destruction.

The major obvious effect of carbon dioxide from burning hydrocarbons is heating the air, raising ambient temperatures. However, air is in contact with the surface of the earth, which is warmed, and with the ocean, which absorbs over 90% of the heat originally present in the air, because it has far more heat capacity (the heat absorbed per degree temperature change). This is circulated, over time, to deeper layers in the ocean and replaced with cool water. It also goes into melting ice, which requires much heat. Melting ice with no temperature change takes enough heat to warm an equal weight of water by 144 Fahrenheit degrees. You can follow the melting of the Arctic Ice here.

The Antarctic ice is cut off from sea surface water circulation by a current in the ocean that goes all the way around it, and by a wind belt. Most of it is also very high above the surface, as much as two miles, so the cooling effect of being high in the atmosphere makes the surface colder, and Antarctic ice continues to grow, because of falling snow. However, the West Antarctic glacier is melting from the bottom up, due to warm currents which come up from the deep.

There are many pictures available of the melting glaciers of Greenland, all of which takes place above sea level.

Melting glaciers are causing the level of the oceans to rise. As the waters warm they expand slightly, but the ocean is miles deep, so the expansion of the water causes the ocean level to rise, too. Since much of the shore line is densely inhabited, millions will be forced to move. Whole island chains will be submerged, along with parts or all of most port cities, such as New York, London, New Orleans, Shanghai, Singapore, Rotterdam and many, many more. This means trillions of dollars of infrastructure will become unusuable as well. Huge land areas would be put under water – including much of Florida, Bangladesh, Holland and adjacent areas.

Only a fraction of the carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere. Most is dissolved in the oceans. Carbon dioxide combines with water to make carbonic acid. Thus the ocean is acidified. In other words the pH is lowered. This affects the ability of animals to make the calcium carbonate shells that protect so many of them. The acidity also affects other shellfish like crab and shrimp, and coral bleaches. The flora and fauna of the earth’s oceans will be altered. Much of it will become extinct.

Another effect of warming is the movement of plants and animals north of their usual range. This effect is observed both on land and at sea. Some organisms are able to make the move, many cannot adapt. There are familiar pictures of polar bears on land, and claims that many have drowned at sea, because ice is reduced in the Far North in some places where they live. They can’t go further north.

Another use of petroleum is to make plastics. The ethane and propane of natural gas are better fuels (higher energy content) than methane, but these chemicals are extracted from “wet” gas for the chemical industry to make ethylene and propylene, and from them plastics are made. That’s what makes “wet” gas more valuable. Do polyethylene (the common black or clear plastic we use so much) sound familiar? Polyvinylchloride? Polystyrene? Polypropylene? Most common plastics come from this source.

The problem with them is that they don’t decompose! They fill our landfills, they wind up along the roadside, and I even find them in my hay and pasture fields, far from the road! A huge amount of them goes into the sea, where they float. Eventually they get ground up into smaller and smaller pieces, where they get eaten by the wildlife, often killing this wildlife indiscriminately. They are ground up smaller and smaller, so even the very tiny creatures get some. When small enough, they have no tendency to settle, and all layers of the ocean are polluted in this way.

Another problem with plastics in the environment is that plastics have other ingredients, plasticizers, and stabilizers (or destabilizers, to make them break up in the sunlight) and so forth, which are not chemicals from the biological realm. Many are endocrine disrupters, having adverse effects in very small amounts on living things. Advanced agriculture is a very large user of plastic.

The answer would be to make biodegradable plastics from naturally occurring raw materials. There is work being done on that right now. A very good article on the contamination problem and the state of research to solve it is here.

As you can see, the Rap Sheet on fossil fuels is long. Fossil fuels stand “indicted” and have been found “guilty.” They have served the human population well, but we have outgrown them. The time is short when the problems will overwhelm us, but we must move on and let fossil fuels rest in peace. The solution comes from the same source as recognition of the problem: science and technology. We MUST adopt new technology provided by science, or the human race will surely perish.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Hapgood's "Rap" 1903 August 19, 2015 at 2:46 pm

The origin of the meaning of “rap sheet”, so far as we know it to be:

The sense of rap meaning the crime itself appears in publication in 1903—although it undoubtedly was used in thieves’ cant earlier than this. From Hutchins Hapgood’s Autobiography of a Thief from that year:

“What makes you look so glum?”…”Turned out of police court this morning.” “What was the rap, Mike?” “I’m looking too respectable. They asked me where I got the clothes.”


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