Fossil Fuels & The U.S: The Past, Present, and Future.

There is no question, fossil fuel combustion has powered and propelled the United States into one of the world’s most influential economic powers. The cheap cost, funded through government subsidies and private investments, has made fossil fuel combustion incredibly appealing to businesses and corporations. And at first glance, one might agree that the use of fossil fuels is the most economically-friendly solution.

But what about the price on the environment? The cost of global temperatures rising 2, 3, or 4 degrees celsius over the next 100 years? How can one ignore the price that thousands of those living on island nations will pay, being forced to leave their homes and becoming refugees of our changing climate. These are the hidden costs, the calculations ignored when deciding to support fossil fuel investments.

The Suspects Involved: A Brief History

Before the American industrial revolution in the mid-19th century, the primary source of energy for most families was from wood, a renewable source. Yet by the turn of the 20th century, most businesses had quickly transitioned to coal-fired energy production, accounting for over 70% of total energy consumption at the time. Over the next century, the use of petroleum and natural gas increased, whereas renewable energies accounted for less than 5% of total energy consumption. By 2000, renewable energy consumption (nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind) had begun increasing, and accounted for nearly 10% of total consumption in 2014. However, fossil fuels continue to dominate the energy sector, accounting for over 80% of the total energy consumption in the United States today.

graph of share of energy consumption in the United States, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Before we can discuss who is responsible for the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, we must understand the effect they have on our environment. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are the major culprits behind the warming, as they absorb radiation emitted from the Earth’s surface, creating an effective blanket warming the Earth’s atmosphere. This is known as the greenhouse effect. And as corporations continually extract and burn their fossil fuel reserves, more and more of these gases are sent into our atmosphere, knowingly changing, and warming our climate.

Stacked area graph showing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions for each year from 1990 to 2013, broken down by gas.
Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Now, who is responsible for the combustion of all of these fossil fuels? The answer is quite simple: all of us. Consumer demand for our current high quality of life in the United States has driven the supply and extraction of fossil fuels on behalf of large corporations such as Exxon Mobil, Shell, and British Petroleum. The economic growth associated with this everlasting need for supply and demand has generated enormous government subsidies in the fossil fuel industry, annually amounting to over $17 Billion in the U.S.

Where We Stand: And What The Future Holds

In anticipation of the historic talks in Paris, President Obama pledged to reduce total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28%, from 2005 levels, by 2025. A majority of these reductions will come from carbon related emissions, which account for over 80% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, CO2 emissions have fallen nearly 12% below 2005 levels, a result of recent increases in natural gas-fired energy production.

Line graph that shows the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions for 1990 to 2013. The total greenhouse gas emissions steadily increased from just over 6,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 1990 to over 7,000 million around 2000. Between 2007 and 2009, the greenhouse gas emissions decline to about 6,600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, followed by a slight rebound in 2010 and 2011 to around 6,800 million metric tons and a slight decline in 2012 to around 6,500 million metric tons. In 2013, greenhouse gas emissions rose to just below 6,700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents.
Source: EPA – Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions 1990-2013

Unfortunately, a simple transition from coal to gas-fired energy production will not solve our emissions problem. In 2015, President Obama released the Clean Power Plan, establishing national standards to limit carbon pollution for the first time in our nation’s history. Aligning with Obama’s pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 26-28% by 2025, the plan aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide from power plants by 90% from 2005 levels by 2030, along with other harmful air pollutants. However, most promisingly, the plan quantifies and promises climate and health benefits, of $20 and $14-34 Billion, respectively, while also substituting increased electricity generation from renewable energy sources for reduced generation from existing coal-fired power plants.

However, the government alone cannot solve all of our problems. Climate change is so deeply connected to all aspects of our society, and it requires tremendous support from the individual, local, and state level. This is where you step in.

How Can You Get Involved?

Simple. Do some research. Ask your local grocery mart for their energy budgets, and analyze their percentage of fossil fuel energy consumption. Write a petition within your community, to demand for the reduction of carbon emissions in your region over the next five years. Organize a rally and call for the divestment of fossil fuels at the state level. The opportunities are plenty. Know who is representing you on the local, state, and federal level. Remember that although decisions come from those within government positions, it is the citizens’ responsibility to elect those who represent the citizens’ ideals.

The path to a greener future is cloudy, but entirely feasible. The cost of renewable energies like solar and wind are cheaper than ever before, and with nations across the world converging on a universal agreement in Paris to keep warming below 2 degrees celsius, there is much hope for our future. The only question that remains is: Can we divest from fossil fuels before the repercussions are too great?

Source: United Nations – World leaders celebrate the historic adoption of the Paris Agreement.