This blog covers a selection of processes which are currently applied to extract fossil fuels, and identifies how these methods of extraction affect our environment.
Fossil fuels have been an essential source of energy for the Western world since their inauguration during the industrial revolution. Extraction of these fuels has previously involved a significant workforce of labourers engaging in mining and smelting, but through advances in technology extraction has become easier and increasingly time-efficient for economically developed nations. Methods such as fracking, drilling (on/offshore), and oil sand extraction have become conventional methods of contemporary extraction. However, in recent years’ fossil fuel exploitation has become a hugely controversial issue, due to the extensive environmental damage caused by over-exploitation. This includes ecological destruction such as mass deforestation, wildlife habitat loss and water intoxication.
Hydrological fracking is the process of extracting gas and oil from shale rock, which is done by fracturing the rock with powerful high-pressure injections of water.
This method of extraction has been used within the US for at least 50 years, and is a very recent development within the UK. Lancashire and Yorkshire are currently undergoing test fracking, among other parts of the UK which have been granted planning applications. Extraction via fracking enables an increase in economic security for the globally diminishing oil and gas reserves.
The practice is controversial, as fracking is thought to be associated with tremors. For example, in 2011, two earthquakes of magnitudes 1.5 and 2.2 occurred near Blackpool, and were considered to be the result of local fracking tests. Fracking has also been linked with the release of carcinogenic chemicals into groundwater supplying drinking water. On top of this, a very high volume of water is required for the fracking process, which not only requires the transport of water (adding to environmental concern) but raises the issue of the upcoming water crisis, and the extent to which water is both misused and mis-managed.
Oil drilling is usually executed through oil wells and rigs, enabling the extraction of sub-surface oil both onshore and offshore.
This method of extraction can be extremely costly, more so for drills required to reach larger depths. Onshore rigs can cost around $25 million to $40 million, whilst offshore rigs cost an average of $560 million, with the largest drill, the ‘Perdido’, costing $3 billion. Although they are widely seen as environmentally-unfriendly, offshore rigs are often adopted by sub-marine wildlife and can double up as an artificial reef.
The depth to which oil rigs drill, and the intricate processes required for extraction creates a potentially dangerous hazard. Although drilling disasters are rare, the consequences are significant enough to cause loss of life, and pollution on a massive scale. Deepwater horizon was an offshore oil rig that faced tragedy in April 2010 after several security measures malfunctioned, leading to the death of 11 of its crew, and what came to be the largest oil spill ever seen by U.S. waters, and causing an environmental catastrophe.
Also known as bituminous sands, these petroleum deposits are naturally forming and are found in many countries, but is found in extremely large quantities in Canada.
The oil is extracted from the sands in numerous different ways, including mining, steaming and more recently, toe to heel air injection. The latter method of extraction involves ignition of the heavier bitumen into lighter oils. The concept of oil sand extraction has been controversial, due to the land degradation as a result of the process. Mass deforestation is a major problem for many Canadian landscapes, and is leaving the land in desolation. Extraction from oil sands has also resulted in problems concerning waste management, as the extensive amount of surplus material such as topsoil and sands must be relocated. On top of this, it was found that rainfall surface runoff in close proximity to oil sands contained carcinogenic chemicals that leak into nearby rivers, and are significantly toxic to aquatic wildlife.
At present, our current fossil fuel energy reliance is not only a significant pointer to anthropogenic climate change, but is evidently destroying our environments, our connection with wildlife, and the fundamental carbon sinks which allow natural regulation of the air we breathe. By no means is it possible to make the sudden switch to cleaner, renewable energy on a macroscopic scale, but raising awareness of the destruction caused by fossil fuel extraction, and providing information sustainable energy sources, is arguably the first step to a brighter tomorrow.
 Kelly, E., Short, J., Schindler, D., Hodson, P., Ma, M., Kwan, A. and Fortin, B. (2009). Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(52), pp.22346-22351.