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 Fossil Fuels

Fossil Fuels
   • Uses
   • Benefits
   • Limitations
   • Geography
   • Supply and Demand
   • Sources


Fossil fuels are energy resources that come from the remains of plants and animals. These remains are millions of years old. There are three fossil fuels: petroleum oil, natural gas, and coal.

Fossil fuels, like coal, oil, and natural gas, provide the energy that powers our lifestyles and our economy. Fossil fuels power everything from the planes in the sky to the cars on the road. They heat our homes and light up the night. They’re the bedrock we base our energy mix on. But they are a limited resource. What part will fossil fuels play in the future of your energy supply?
Above image courtesy EREN

Providing Electricity
One of the main uses of fossil fuels it to generate electricity. Coal is the number one fuel source for electric generation, accounting for more than half of all resources used. Natural gas and petroleum also contribute their fair share. So when you look at all the different resources used to generate electricity, it’s overwhelmingly fossil fuels doing the work.

Fueling Transportation
Fossil fuels are also overwhelmingly responsible for fueling our transportation system. Petroleum-based fuels are the standard. Our country’s entire transportation infrastructure of pipelines and gas stations is built around fossil fuels. You can drive across the country and find a gas station to fill up your car. That infrastructure is one of the hurdles preventing new fuel sources from competing with fossil fuels. It’s extremely expensive to change a nationwide infrastructure, so to be competitive, new fuel sources must adapt to existing infrastructure.

Heating and Cooling
Heating and cooling are also accomplished mainly through the use of fossil fuels like natural gas and oil. Regions of the country that experience harsh winters rely heavily on these fuels to heat their homes and businesses. Regions that stay temperate don’t have that expense. Air conditioning is a huge consumer of electricity, power that’s generated mainly from fossil fuels.

One of the biggest benefits of fossil fuels is their cost. Coal, oil and natural gas are abundant right now and relatively inexpensive to drill or mine for. In fact, coal is the most plentiful fossil fuel and it is found over much of the world. Because the costs are contained, electricity and fuels for transportation and heating are available to everyone.

Nonrenewable Resource
Fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource. Fossil fuels take millions of years to develop under extreme conditions. Once they are gone, they can no longer be part of our energy mix.

Environmental Impact
Fossil fuels’ downfall is their environmental impact. The burning of fossil fuels is blamed for emissions that contribute to global climate change, acid rain, and ozone problems.

There are new technologies under development that could make burning fossil fuels much more efficient and much cleaner. These technologies could keep fossil fuels in the energy mix for the future. (See the feature on clean coal technologies.)

Geographical Considerations
Because fossil fuels play such an important role in powering our lifestyles and economy, controlling these resources is big business. The United States has large deposits of coal, one of the main fuels for electric generation. The biggest supply of oil is not in the U.S. but in the Middle East. The US is extremely dependent on a steady supply of that imported oil. Any disruptions in that supply or increase in the cost of that supply could have huge effects on our daily lives. Shipping the oil across the ocean can lead to other risks, such as oil spills.

Supply and Demand
The reason fossil fuels are currently relied on so heavily is due to simple economics - supply and demand. Coal is currently an abundant resource, and the US government has worked to keep a steady supply of oil flowing to the United States, which has kept costs down for consumers.

Our supply of fossil fuels can be a limitation. While the US has considerable deposits of coal and natural gas, most oil is imported. Our overwhelming dependence on foreign oil means, as a nation, we are not in control of the price or amounts available, which can lead to problems like the energy crisis of the 1970s. During this time, our foreign sources of oil declined to trade with us for political reasons. Gasoline was rationed. People with odd and even numbered license plates could purchase gas only on certain days. Americans became aware of how much they relied on foreign sources of oil. Since then, our dependence on foreign oil has increased, not decreased.

What do you think?
Does the relatively low cost of fossil fuels outweigh any limitations of this resource? Should fossil fuels remain the mainstay of our energy mix in the US? Is it worth exploring alternatives? What role do you think fossil fuels will play in our energy mix fifty years from now?


  1. Department of Energy. "Clean Coal." (Online) HTTP://www.fe.doe.gov/coal_power/cct/. June 2001.
  2. Department of Energy. "Fossil Fuels Future." (Online) HTTP://www.fe.doe.gov/education/. June 2001.
  3. Department of Energy and National Energy Technology Laboratory. "Clean Coal Technology Compendium." (Online) HTTP://www.lanl.gov/projects/cctc/index.html. June 2001.
  4. Energy Information Administration and Department of Energy."EIA Kid's Page." (Online) HTTP://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/index.html. June 2001.
  5. Energy Information Administration and Department of Energy. (Online) "Official Energy Statistics from the US Government." HTTP://www.eia.doe.gov/. June 2001.




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