Below we list the potential pros and cons of fossil fuel energy, such as coal, oil, and natural gas.
We also include provide comparisons to other energy sources where relevant.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Fossil Fuel Energy
The summarised lists of potential pros and cons are:
Fossil fuel energy is still the predominant source of energy worldwide
Has been an affordable energy source
Has been profitable in some countries
Has potential economic and social benefits
Infrastructure is already set up and well established
Has good energy density
May provide a level of energy independence in some countries
Some fossil fuels may offer backup energy capability to variable energy sources
Fossil fuels are used across many uses in society
Alternatives to fossil fuel energy sources and products may still have their own drawbacks to consider
Is finite and not renewable
It costs money to extract and refine fossil fuels
Emit greenhouse gases
May contribute to air pollution
Mining and drilling may result in several issues
Can be water intensive across some measures
Waste and waste by-products sometimes need to be managed
Some fossil fuels are amongst the most ‘harmful’ energy sources across some measures
Some countries may be somewhat dependent on other countries for some fossil fuels
Can be a factor in inequality in some countries
May lead to less jobs across some metrics compared to some renewables
Pricing can sometimes come into question
Clean coal technology may have it’s own issues
General safety concerns
May be less efficient than renewable energy across some measures
Overall, fossil fuel energy has some clear potential benefits and also drawbacks.
On one hand, fossil fuels have provided affordable, high energy density, widely accessible energy that has helped us build economies, and ultimately delivered us a range of economic and social benefits.
One the other hand, they are considered a finite resource, are responsible for greenhouse emissions, and may contribute to a range of other environmental issues.
In terms of the future of fossil fuels and other energy sources:
– Some countries like the US have begun a ‘transition’ from some energy sources like coal to other energy sources like natural gas (although, coal still provides a notable amount of energy in the US)
– Countries like China may be locked into a certain amount of coal use in the short to medium term future for a variety of reasons
– New technologies like ‘clean coal’ may have so far underwhelmed in their performance and still have drawbacks and issues to consider
– Renewables and nuclear are some of the alternative energy sources that are mentioned as consideration for the future of energy, with hydrogen being another.
Other Energy Considerations
Cost (per unit of electricity) and logistical factors (such as infrastructure, technology development and capability, variability, power output/density, and so on) will play a role in the future of energy
Energy for the conventional electricity sector vs the transport sector (where conventional cars with oil are competing with hybrid and electric cars) obviously has some different variables and factors to consider
The information in this guide contains broad generalisations.
Ultimately, each source of energy in each geographic location around the world has it’s own variables to consider, and requires it’s own individual assessment.
Potential Pros Of Fossil Fuel Energy
Fossil Fuel Energy Is Still The Predominant Source Of Energy Worldwide
Fossil fuels still provide most of the world’s primary energy (and have done so throughout history), as well as most of the world’s electricity
Has Been Affordable As An Energy Source
Fossil fuels have traditionally been a cheap source of energy or electricity in some countries
This may have especially been the case in countries where there are abundant domestic supplies available
Has Been Profitable In Some Countries
On the producer/supplier, fossil fuels have been profitable in some countries
This has encouraged investment, and ultimately economic growth as flow on effects
Although, some reports indicate that some of the profitability of fossil fuels in some countries in the the past has been in part because of subsidies and protectionism
Has Potential Economic & Social Benefits
– Value To The Economy
The different fossil fuel industries, as well as the industries that work with the fossil fuel industries, still provide significant value to the economy – both globally, and in different countries
– Employment & Income
The various fossil fuel industries like coal, oil and natural gas employ millions of people directly worldwide.
There’s also all the people that are employed indirectly through the fossil fuel industries, and in the industries that rely on fossil fuels.
There are flow on social benefits from the employment and income that comes from fossil fuel industries.
– May Be Less Labor Intensive
Some renewable energy sources are more labor intensive than some fossil fuel energy sources
The potential drawback here though for investors and producers is that fossil fuels can be more capital intensive.
Infrastructure Is Already Set Up & Well Established
Infrastructure is already set up and well established worldwide for the various fossil fuels.
For example, power grids are well set up for coal and natural gas energy.
And, pipelines, gas stations, and other infrastructure are set up for petroleum based fuels for transport.
Comparatively, the installed capacity of renewables in some countries may experience power loss and other issues due to not having adequate infrastructure set up for integration.
Hydrogen energy and hydrogen fuel may also currently lack the infrastructure in many places worldwide.
Has Good Energy Density
Several fossil fuels generally have good energy density
This is a measure of the amount of energy they have in them per unit
May Provide A Level Of Energy Independence In Some Countries
Countries with abundant fossil fuel resources may have a level of energy independence when using those resources domestically.
As just one example, coal may provide a level of energy independence in some European countries.
As another example, Russia may have abundant natural gas resources.
Some Fossil Fuels May Offer Backup Energy Capability To Variable Energy Sources
Some renewables like solar and wind may be variable energy sources that may struggle to meet base load energy requirements for a power grid at times.
Natural gas may be one energy source that can ramp up and down quickly enough to help provide backup energy for variable energy sources, and deliver adequate power to the power grid.
Fossil Fuels Are Used Across Many Uses In Society
Fossil fuels are used widely across society.
Fossil fuels are estimated to be be used across 1000’s of products in society, and are used across almost all industries and sectors in the economy.
Coal is used heavily for electricity generation.
Oil is used heavily for petroleum based transport fuels
Natural gas is used heavily for electricity generation, and different industrial uses
Alternatives To Fossil Fuel Energy Sources & Products May Still Have Their Own Drawbacks To Consider
Although some groups may label fossil fuels as as a problem, the reality might be that the alternatives to fossil fuel energy sources and products may have their own issues to consider.
As a few examples:
– Renewable energy sources may have a range of potential drawbacks
– Electric cars may have a range of potential drawbacks
– And, even materials that try to reduce or eliminate fossil fuel as a feedstock (such as bioplastics) may have their own drawbacks to consider
Potential Cons Of Fossil Fuel Energy
Is Finite & Not Renewable
Fossil fuels are considered to be finite resources
They are not considered to be renewable like other energy sources such as solar and wind might be
We’ve put together guides on how of each of the fossil fuels might be left:
How Much Oil Is Left, & Will We Run Out?
How Much Coal Is Left, & Will We Run Out?
How Much Natural Gas Is Left, & Will We Run Out?
How Much Fossil Fuels Are Left, & When Will We Run Out?
It Costs Money To Extract & Refine Fossil Fuels
Before fossil fuels can be used for energy, they have to first be extracted, and then they have to be refined/processed.
In comparison, once solar panels or wind turbines have been set up, sunlight and wind is available directly and freely from the environment (without extraction or refinement required)
Emit Greenhouse Gases
Fossil fuels may have the highest emission rates of carbon out of all energy sources.
Coal in particular can be one of the highest emitting fossil fuels and energy sources.
In comparison, other energy sources like renewables and nuclear may rate much lower in emission rates.
May Contribute To Air Pollution
The combustion of fossil fuels may be one of the main sources of air pollutants, such as particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide.
Air pollution may result in degraded air quality, and may have links to various health issues and premature deaths.
Mining & Drilling May Result In Several Issues
We’ve previously written about some of the potential issues caused by mining.
Land degradation, water pollution, air pollution, contamination, displacement of local communities, and other issues may be some examples.
Drilling for oil or natural gas may have their own unique issues to consider too.
For example, offshore drilling at sea may contribute to marine issues.
Fracking or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas may have unique issues to consider too.
Can Be Water Intensive Across Some Measures
What may not get mentioned as often as it should is the amount of water that different fossil fuels can use.
Water is used:
– During mining
– During refinement and processing
– At thermal power plants for cooling
Sometimes the water is returned to the environment at some stages of the energy generation process, which is the case at some power plants.
However, some fossil fuels like coal may generally be one of the most water intensive forms of energy overall.
Natural gas may be less water intensive across some water use measures.
Waste & Waste By-Products Sometimes Need Management
Some fossil fuel energy produces waste or waste by-products
This is the case at coal power plants, where coal waste like fly ash and other waste they may contain heavy metals may need to be treated and/or managed
Coal ash might be noteworthy in the waste streams of some countries like Australia.
Some Fossil Fuels Are Amongst The Most ‘Harmful’ Energy Sources Across Some Measures
Coal, oil and gas might be amongst the most harmful fossil fuels across some measures
This may in large part be because of factors like air pollution, accidents, and other factors being responsible for deaths per unit of electricity produced for the different energy sources
Some Countries May Be Dependent On Others For Some Fossil Fuels
This may be the case for some countries with their dependence or reliance on Russia for natural gas
Can Be A Factor In Inequality In Some Countries
Oil may be an example of this.
When a small number of groups or companies own or produce most of the world’s oil, essentially having a monopoly, the power and profits that come along with this are distributed to a smaller amount of people.
This may be a factor in inequality.
May Lead To Less Jobs Across Some Metrics Compared To Some Renewables
Some fossil fuels might be less labor intensive and more capital intensive than some renewables (across some metrics), and this might lead to less jobs where these fossil fuels are used in place of these renewables.
Having said this, some groups may say this is actually a benefit of fossil fuels – those labor resources can be directed elsewhere in the economy.
Pricing Can Come Into Question
Particularly for oil.
Some argue that the price for oil can be artificially inflated or reduced for various reasons at times
This might be more of a subjective opinion held, or subjective claim made by some though.
Clean Coal Technology May Have It’s Own Issues
Clean coal is technology that has been developed in an attempt to make coal energy more sustainable.
However, we’ve written about some of the potential problems experienced by clean coal to date.
CCS and new types of coal power plants in particular have had cost and performance (such as ineffectiveness and being unreliable) related issues.
General Safety Concerns
Fossil fuels may have some general safety concerns.
– The mining of fossil fuels has been questioned for workplace safety in some parts of the world, or at some mines
– Working on oil rigs and in some other fossil fuel related professions have sometimes been labelled as some of the most dangerous jobs in the world
– Pipelines for natural gas may be subject to the risk of leaks, explosions and fires at times
May Be Less Efficient Than Renewable Energy Across Some Measures
– Energy Efficiency
Some reports indicate that some fossil fuels are less efficient than some renewable energy sources across some measures
Fossil fuels have to be processed, and the conversion process to turn fossil fuels into electricity involves a lot of waste.
As a result, they can be an inefficient energy source compared to renewable energy which has very little waste and can actually produce more energy than the original input.
– Land Efficiency
Some renewable energy sources may also use land more efficiently than some fossil fuels when accounting for upstream and downstream infrastructure, and also the different ways some renewable can utilise land and even water.
Potential Pros & Cons Of Individual Fossil Fuel Energy Sources
Pros and Cons Of Clean Coal Technology
Natural Gas Energy Pros and Cons
Potential Pros & Cons Of Renewable Energy
For some contrast and a different perspective to the information above, it might be worth reading about the potential pros and cons of renewable energy too.
1. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ guides