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  • Writer's pictureHeidi Harting-Rex

How are fossil fuels involved with climate change?

Fossil fuels are defined as non-renewable sources of hydrocarbons stored in the earth. We call them fossil fuels because they are the products of ancient buried plants and animals. There are three main types: coal, oil and gas. 

Fossil fuels are part of our everyday lives and account for 80% of energy sourcing globally. The amount of force they deliver is unparalleled - a gallon of gas has more energy than a stick of dynamite or a hand grenade (Gates). Consider gas as compared to older methods of work, such as livestock or water mills. Fossil fuels are relatively cheap; a gallon of gas costs less than a gallon of milk or orange juice. 

Large-scale fossil fuel use started around 1880 with industrialized coal burning. Coal was used prior - for millennia - for heating and food preparation, yet it was the shift to an industrial model that established a new pattern of consumption. 

Fossil fuels require extraction, processing, transportation and use - all of which release emissions. Each fuel has its own type of extraction. 

Globally, we burn over eight billion tons of coal per year. Several states have a long history of coal mining, but we also export most of it out of state - and even worldwide. Coal is one of the highest-polluting fossil fuels.   

For oil extraction, there are three methods. The conventional well is what most people envision when they think of oil drilling.  It is a pump system that uses pressure to pull oil from the ground. 

All images copyright John Moore (

We use crude oil to make gasoline. We have over a billion cars globally, and use more than four billion gallons of gas per day. 

Hydraulic fracturing (more commonly referred to as fracking) is another method of retrieving oil from deep beneath the Earth’s surface. It is generally more controversial than wells, since it pumps chemicals and water underground to break shale and release trapped natural gas and oil. This method is sometimes described as an underground pressure washer. Many communities have experienced negative consequences from fracking, both in terms of ground water contamination and chemical exposure.  

Like fracking, tar sands extraction often uses chemicals and steam to separate bitumen from the sand and clay in the soil before it can be pumped. Bitumen is a molasses-like substance mostly used for paving roads or upgrading into synthetic crude oil. This type of oil recovery produces roughly three times the amount of pollution that conventional oil extraction does. Both fracking and tar sands drilling heavily contaminate millions of gallons of clean water per well, per year. 

Natural gas is also a fossil fuel. Usage is high for heating and electricity generation; it accounts for roughly 20% of all energy usage globally. Natural gas is cleaner-burning than coal, yet still a major contributor to climate change given its popularity, extraction methods and emissions. 

While fossil fuels come from the earth, produced over millions of years, their burning is a highly unnatural cycle. Fossil fuel extraction, processing and usage all contribute to climate change because they pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

Climate Change Q/A is produced by Heidi Harting-Rex, an avid climate change reader, and Rosie Ferguson, a graduate of the University of Montana Journalism School with a minor in Climate Change Studies.

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