Overview - Fossil Fuels

The United States currently consumes about 19 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum products per day. Roughly 5.8 million barrels of this oil is domestically extracted. The rest needs to be imported, largely from OPEC nations. This crude oil is the end result of millions of years of geophysical processes acting on biomass entombed under fairly specific conditions—it is not replenishing itself at 19 million barrels per day. Sooner or later, this oil will run out. Estimates vary as to when, but run out it will. When it does, economies that have not shifted away from dependence on it will suffer. Furthermore, the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions produced by fossil fuels are well known, as are the many ecological impacts of its extraction. Many strides have been made in recent years in the technologies of crude oil extraction—improvements which greatly reduce the impact such activity will have on the terrestrial and marine ecosystems where it is practiced. Nevertheless, it remains a highly intrusive process and few ecosystems that have been subjected to oil and gas exploration have not suffered irretrievably.

Fossil fuel use raises many social questions as well—questions of values and priorities. The United States is currently the single largest consumer of fossil fuels on Earth, yet we are nowhere near its largest population share. In fact, though we comprise barely 4.6 percent of the world's population, we consume almost a third of its natural resources and generate over 20 percent of its pollution—that in a world where over 2 billion people live on less than one American dollar per day, and half of the human race lives on less than two dollars a day. Much of this consumption is due to our fascination with gas powered toys, many of which are owned not out of necessity, but because of socially determined preference.

SUV's alone account for single digit percentages of America's fossil fuel consumption—enough to virtually eliminate any perceived need to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Yet the large majority of SUV owners are urban or suburban motorists who have no real professional or lifestyle need for sport or utility capability, and own these vehicles simply because they are perceived as fashionable or "cool". Values such as these speak directly to our need to reconsider our priorities—to think about the implications of our materialism and profligacy for the future viability of our economy, our impact on others around the world, and the future of our many irreplaceable natural treasures.


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