CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Fossil Fuels, Forever Is a Long, Long Time... by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

Having studied the facts ourselves, we don't think SUVs are completely useless. They do meet the needs of some people. But we do think that there are serious downsides to them. And we think that many people, who buy them, don't need them.
Tom and Ray Magliozzi - NPR's Car Talk

On the way to my daughter's school this morning, I encountered the usual L.A. rush-hour road rally of elephantine sports utility vehicles, many flying American flags. Taking the cake was a massive SUV proudly sporting half a dozen -- one on each window and two on the bumper. My first thought was, how patriotic! My second was, how much more patriotic it would be to trade in the gas-guzzling leviathan for something that sips, rather than chugs, at the gas pump.
Arianna Huffington - Support Our Troops, Dump That SUV [Nov 2001]

I generally believe in full disclosure when it concerns the courses I teach. To that end, the other day when I began a discussion on fossil fuel use, I told the class that I drive a Sport Utility Vehicle. I barely finished the sentence when one student in the back of the lecture hall yelled something to the effect of "Oh my gosh! How can you do that? You're the environmental science teacher for gosh sakes!" I felt a little bit guilty; but only a little bit.

Recent national debate as to whether or not SUVs are bad tends to focus on the amount of fossil fuel that SUVs consume, but it completely misses one important point. The important question that should be asked is, what impact does driving an SUV have on the environment? Many people live in parts of the world that get more than their fair share of snow in the winter; places where SUVs are necessary to safely transport passengers. But is it wasteful to have an SUV in places where it isn't important to be able to move easily through snow? What is the impact of driving an SUV? The answer is, it depends. Let's look at a fairly typical example.

I live in the city in which I work and drive my SUV about 150 miles per week. My friend and colleague lives quite a few miles outside of the city in which he works and drives his subcompact car about 400 miles per week. On average my SUV gets about 15 miles per gallon of gasoline, which means I use about 10 gallons of gasoline every week. My friend's subcompact car gets about 40 miles per gallon of gasoline, which means he uses about 10 gallons of gasoline every week. In other words, both my friend and I use the same amount of gasoline every week, even though we drive vastly different vehicles in terms of mileage. If we only look at gasoline consumption, we could say we both have about the same impact on the environment due to our use of fossil fuel. Therefore we are either equally bad for the environment or equally good. So what is the impact? It has to be more than just how much gasoline we use.

In fact, the impact of fossil fuel use on the environment is enormous. From the process of getting fossil fuels out of the ground to the process of burning them in our cars, fossil fuels affect us every day. We slice off tops of entire mountains in our quest for coal and drill countless holes in the earth searching for oil and natural gas. When we burn coal in huge smoke-belching powerplants to indulge our lust for electricity, we generate billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, as well as millions of tonnes of sulfur dioxide and mercury. When we refine oil into gasoline and other fuels and subsequently burn these fuels in our cars, we again generate carbon dioxide as well as nitrogen oxides and volatile hydrocarbons. So many of our problems are a result of fossil fuel consumption: habitat destruction, acid mine drainage, global warming, acid deposition, and photochemical smog.

It sounds as if we should stop all fossil fuel use and that might be the easy answer but implementation of such a plan would be much more difficult. Fossil fuel use is so intertwined with everything we do that to suddenly end all fossil fuel use would undoubtedly be disastrous for our economy. The other side of the coin though is that to continue to blindly go forward with our fossil fuel use would also be disastrous. Fossil fuels will run out. When they're gone they're gone forever and forever is a long, long time. There are alternatives to fossil fuels. I guess maybe I do need to find a car that uses an alternative form of energy.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. How many gallons of gasoline do you consume every week?
  2. How could you reduce your consumption?
  3. How can the United States lessen its dependence on foreign oil? Does your consumption play a big part in this dependence?
  4. How long can we continue to use fossil fuels before we have to look elsewhere to find alternative sources of power?
  5. Should we continue to develop alternative sources of power or should we concentrate our efforts on using the fossil fuels we have more efficiently?
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Arianna Huffington - Support Our Troops, Dump That SUV [Nov 2001]
    Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated commentator and author. Her once conservative political leaning has given way to a more liberal viewpoint. This article at her website addresses many of the issues.
  • "Click and Clack" Tom and Ray Magliozzi, NPR's CarTalk
    If you've ever listened to CarTalk on National Public Radio, then you know that Tom and Ray Magliozzi, better known and Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, have many opinions on many subjects. This portion of there website has everything you could ever want to know about Sport Utility Vehicles.
  • Fossil Fuels
    A website devoted to the importance of fossil fuels. This site is very much in favor of the use of fossil fuels. Many links included.
  • DOE Fossil Fuel Website
    This is the education section of the U.S. Department of Energy's site on Fossil Energy. According to DOE we have a lot of oil left in the ground, we just need to find out where it is.
  • Fossil Fuels: The nonrenewable resources
    The World Resources Institute site on energy and climate change outlines some of the adverse effects of fossil fuel use.
  • Fossils Into Fuels - The Institute of Petroleum
    This is the Institute of Petroleum's primer on fossil fuels. Coverage includes sources of fossil fuels, processing and transportation and a look into the future.
  • Insatiable Appetites - National Geographic's EarthPulse
    As always, National Geographic does an excellent job of outlining many of the concerns associated with fossil fuel use in its "EarthPulse" section.
  • Clean Fossil Fuel Energy in the United Kingdom
    The United Kingdom's Department of Trade and Industry website gives an excellent description of Clean Fossil Fuel technology. This site, together with the U.S. site shown next, should give anyone enough background to become well versed in Clean Energy.
  • Clean Coal Technology - U.S. Department of Energy
    This is an excellent site that discusses the use of Clean Coal technology. It works form the assumption (right or wrong) that fossil fuels will be around for some time to come.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003