Environmental problems

Problems by Petroleum



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The production and use of petroleum has given rise to several environmental problems. Toxic crude oil can be spilled on land or in water, poisoning plants and animals. The burning of fuels derived from petroleum releases toxic gases that pollute the air. Some scientists even believe that the burning of petroleum fuels contributes to global climate change.

Spills and seeps. Petroleum can spill during many stages of its production, transportation, and consumption. Petroleum can leak from wells on land or in the sea. Pipelines can break, causing petroleum to spill during transportation. Oil tankers may collide or sink, releasing huge loads of crude oil into the water. Accidents or disasters can cause toxic petroleum products to spill from power plants, refineries, and even gasoline stations. Some petroleum also seeps naturally from openings in the sea floor.

Spills and seeps release about 15 million barrels of crude oil into the environment each year. This makes up only about /(1/5) of the oil consumed in one day. About 10 percent of this oil seeps naturally from the ocean floor. Petroleum companies spill about 28 percent of this oil during production and transportation. The remaining 62 percent is released in spills during industrial and private consumption.

Although only a small fraction of petroleum produced is spilled, petroleum spills are a major environmental problem. Most of the chemicals in petroleum are toxic to living things. Petroleum spills can poison plants, animals, and even people. They can also be difficult and expensive to clean up. Large petroleum spills, such as those caused by accidents involving giant oil tankers, often provoke public anger at oil companies. Such an angry outcry occurred in 1989, when the tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef off southeastern Alaska, spilling nearly 11 million gallons (42 million liters) of crude oil.

Air pollution. The burning of petroleum fuels generates exhaust gases and particles that pollute the air. Petroleum fuels burned to power vehicles, heat homes and businesses, and generate electric power are a leading cause of air pollution in many countries.

Burning petroleum fuels generates gases, such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. These gases are poisonous to plants, animals, and people. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides can combine with water in the atmosphere, raising the water's acidity. This water can then fall back to the surface, where it can damage property and pollute the environment. This phenomenon is known as acid rain. Since the 1970's, many industries have taken steps to reduce the emissions of these gases. However, these forms of pollution remain a problem in some areas.

In general, burning liquid fuels derived from petroleum produces less pollution than burning an equivalent amount of coal. Burning natural gas creates much less pollution than burning liquid petroleum fuels. Burning natural gas produces no sulfur dioxide and no solid particles.

Global warming. Some scientists consider petroleum use to be a major factor in global climate change. Since the late 1800's, the average temperature of Earth's surface has risen about 0.7 to 1.4 °F (0.4 to 0.8 °C). These scientists believe increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are responsible for some or all of this warming. Greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, trap heat from the sun and hold it near Earth's surface.

Carbon dioxide makes up the largest portion of waste gases produced by burning petroleum. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 30 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700's to the mid-1800's. This was a period when people began burning large amounts of petroleum and coal as power-driven machinery largely replaced hand labor.

Some experts do not believe that human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, have significantly contributed to global warming. They believe that the warming trend may be part of a natural cycle of climate change. Scientists who believe human activities contribute to global warming, however, are concerned that warming will continue or even accelerate if fossil fuel consumption continues to grow.

Source : World Book 2005.


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