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Burning Fossil Fuels

Using fossil fuels for energy isn't problematic in itself; it's the side effects of burning fossil fuels that cause all the problems. Listed below are the principal emissions resulting from the combustion of these specific fossil fuels.

    Natural Gas

  • Methane - a very potent greenhouse gas. It leaks from coal mines, oil and gas wells, and natural gas storage tanks, pipelines, and processing plants are the source of 25% of total U.S. methane emissions and 3% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.


  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) - greenhouse gas and a source of climate change
  • Carbon monoxide (CO) - reacts with other chemicals to produce smog
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2) - causes acid rain, which is harmful to plants and to animals that live in the water, and causes respiratory illnesses and heart diseases
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOX) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) - contribute to ground level ozone, which irritates and damages the lungs
  • Particulate matter (PM) - results in hazy conditions in cities and scenic areas and also contributes to asthma and chronic bronchitis, particularly in children and the elderly. Very small or "fine PM" is thought to cause emphysema and lung cancer.
  • Lead and various air toxics such as benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and 1,3-butadiene - can have severe health impacts, especially in children, and are known carcinogens


  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2) - contributes to acid rain and respiratory illnesses
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOX) - contributes to smog and respiratory illnesses
  • Particulate Matter (PM) - contribute to smog, haze, and respiratory illnesses and lung disease
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) - greenhouse gas emission
  • Mercury and other heavy metals - linked with both neurological and developmental damage in humans and other animals. Mercury concentrations in the air usually are low and of little direct concern. However, when mercury enters water — either directly or through deposition from the air — biological processes transform it into methylmercury, a highly toxic chemical that accumulates in fish and the animals (including humans) that eat fish.
  • Fly ash and bottom ash - residues created when coal is burned at power plants. In the past, fly ash was released into the air through the smokestack, but by law much of it now must be captured by pollution control devices, like scrubbers. In the United States, fly ash is generally stored at coal power plants or placed in landfills. Pollution leaching from ash storage and landfills into groundwater has emerged as a new environmental concern.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Although fossil fuels can be burned to produce significant amounts of energy, they produce around 21.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Because carbon dioxide absorbs and emits radiation within the atmosphere, it's classified as a greenhouse gas and contributes to climate change. It is estimated that the earth can only absorb half of the carbon dioxide produced via fossil fuel combustion through natural processes, so there is a net increase of over 10 billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide every year.1

The impact of climate change on the environment is extensive. Climate change is responsible for causing: rising sea levels, reduced water levels in lakes, changing ocean currents, increased insect outbreaks, a larger number of wildfires, a heightened frequency of heat waves, and an increase in year-round precipitation, among other things.2 Conditions like these will have a negative impact on numerous ecosystems around the world and affect our agricultural production.

1 Fossil Fuel
2 Climate Change - Health and Environmental Effects