What Are Some Problems Of Using Non Renewable Energy Sources?

Fossil Fuels are Finite Resources

What are some problems of using non renewable energy sources?

Fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal are nonrenewable resources that will eventually run out. According to data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, at current production levels proven global oil reserves are estimated to last around 50 years, natural gas reserves about 53 years, and coal reserves around 112 years https://eco-info.net/fossil-fuels/. However, many experts believe we are nearing or have already reached “peak oil”, the point at which maximum extraction is reached and production begins to decline. New discoveries and advanced extraction techniques may extend reserves but fossil fuels remain finite resources.

Environmental Damage

The extraction, refining, and burning of fossil fuels has had severe environmental consequences. Burning fossil fuels emits sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, leading to acid rain and smog which damages forests, lakes, buildings, and harms human respiratory health. Oil spills from offshore drilling operations and pipeline leaks can devastate marine ecosystems. The Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska dumped nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals.

Coal mining techniques like mountaintop removal have buried over 2000 miles of streams across central Appalachia, destroying habitats and polluting waterways with mining waste. Fracking for natural gas and oil has been linked to groundwater contamination. Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are the primary driver of climate change which is drastically altering ecosystems around the world through rising temperatures, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and extreme weather events.

Climate Change Contribution

Burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas emits large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases like CO2 trap heat and are the dominant cause of climate change, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 2018, approximately 89% of global CO2 emissions came from extracting and burning fossil fuels.

Global CO2 levels have risen over 50% since pre-industrial times, reaching 415 parts per million in 2021 according to UN Climate Change. This dramatic rise in greenhouse gases is causing global temperatures to increase at an alarming rate. Since 1880, the Earth’s average temperature has gone up by 1.5°F.

Climate change impacts from the burning of fossil fuels include melting glaciers and ice sheets, rising sea levels, more extreme weather events like storms, floods, droughts, and heatwaves. These effects threaten human health, food and water security, infrastructure, and natural ecosystems across the planet.

Extraction Dangers

Extracting fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas can be extremely dangerous work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fatality rate for the oil and gas extraction industry is over 3 times higher than the national average. The coal mining industry is even more dangerous, with a fatality rate that is nearly 6 times higher than the all-industry rate [1].

Coal mining in particular carries high risks for injuries and fatalities. Coal miners are constantly exposed to dangers like collapsing mine structures, methane and coal dust explosions, and respiratory illness. From 1900 to 2017, over 100,000 coal miners lost their lives in mining accidents in the United States [2]. While safety regulations have reduced accidents and fatalities compared to early last century, coal mining deaths still regularly occur. In 2020, there were 20 recorded coal mining fatalities in the US.

Extracting oil also carries risks for workers. Offshore oil rigs can explode or sink, like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 which killed 11 workers. Fracking operations involve exposure to silica dust and high pressure equipment. Transporting fossil fuels via truck, rail, pipelines, and marine tankers leads to thousands of accidents annually resulting in spills, explosions, and injuries.

Energy Dependence and Geopolitical Issues

Many countries rely heavily on imported fossil fuels from other nations to meet their energy needs. For example, the United States imports significant amounts of crude oil from countries in the Middle East, Africa, and South America (Geopolitics of Energy – Council on Foreign Relations). This dependence on foreign energy sources creates geopolitical vulnerabilities and risks.

Relying on imported fossil fuels means that countries are subject to unpredictable energy prices and supply disruptions. Global conflicts, trade disputes, changes in leadership, and other factors can cause energy exports to shift abruptly. This happened in the 1970s with the OPEC oil embargo, leading to price spikes and shortages (The Geopolitics of Energy: From Security to Survival – Brookings). Such volatility can severely impact national economies and security.

Importing fossil fuels also means that countries may face pressure to align with the foreign policy interests of exporting nations to ensure stable access. This can limit their autonomy in international relations. Heavy reliance on imported energy is seen by some as a strategic vulnerability that can be exploited for geopolitical leverage.

Transitioning to renewable energy sources produced domestically can potentially reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels and improve energy security. However, the geopolitical dynamics around energy are complex and will continue to shift in the coming decades.

Transition Challenges

Shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources faces many challenges. Significant infrastructure and workforce changes will be required. Much of the current energy infrastructure like pipelines, refineries, and power plants is built around fossil fuels. Retraining the workforce and transitioning to new jobs is another hurdle. Estimates show that worldwide, over 15 million fossil fuel workers may need assistance transitioning to clean energy jobs. According to a World Bank report, the transition requires “carefully managing trade-offs and unintended consequences” [1]. Policymakers will need to ensure displaced workers are supported and new renewable energy jobs are created to avoid economic distress.

Health and Environmental Justice

Fossil fuel extraction and combustion disproportionately impact the health of marginalized communities, raising environmental justice concerns. Low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be located near coal mines, oil and gas wells, refineries, incinerators, and power plants (1). This proximity leads to higher rates of respiratory diseases like asthma, cardiovascular disease, cancer, birth defects, and premature death from fossil fuel pollution exposure (2).

The concept of environmental justice recognizes that no group should bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harms. However, poor oversight and discriminatory zoning has concentrated toxic pollution in certain neighborhoods. African American children are twice as likely to die from asthma related to air pollution than white children (3). Tribal nations also experience elevated health risks from activities like fracking on their lands.

Transitioning to clean energy is an environmental justice imperative. It would improve public health while reducing emissions that drive climate change, which also disproportionately harms marginalized groups. However, the transition must be just and equitable to avoid reproducing past harms.

(1) https://www.eesi.org/papers/view/fact-sheet-climate-environmental-and-health-impacts-of-fossil-fuels-2021

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5800116/

(3) https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/new-study-fossil-fuels-disproportionately-impact-black-brown-indigenous-and-poor-communities-throughout-the-supply-chain/

Subsidies and Market Distortions

Government subsidies for fossil fuels have been especially high for many decades. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), direct fossil-fuel subsidies globally were over $465 billion in 2019, whereas renewable energy consumed around $150 billion in subsidies (IEA, 2020). This distortion results in artificially low prices for fossil fuels, which in turn drives higher consumption.

Heavy subsidies for fossil fuel production and consumption encourage inefficient energy use and constrain the growth of cleaner energy sources. For example, the IMF estimates that eliminating post-tax subsidies in 2015 could have reduced global carbon emissions by 28% (Timperley, 2021). However, fossil fuel subsidy reform continues to face political barriers due to vested interests and worries about impacts on energy prices.

Opportunity Costs

Continuing to invest in fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas has tremendous opportunity costs when it comes to the development of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. According to a report from Environment America, the United States could expect to spend over $30 trillion on fossil fuels between 2010 and 2030 if prices continue increasing (The High Cost of Fossil Fuels). These investments delay the transition to cleaner forms of energy and forgo the social and economic benefits that come with them.

An analysis by the IMF shows that globally fossil fuel consumption subsidies were over $5 trillion in 2015, predominantly going towards oil and natural gas (Fossil Fuel Subsidies). These enormous subsidies prop up the fossil fuel industry and reduce investments in renewable energy research, development, and deployment. According to a study by Solability, not investing more in renewables by 2020 could cost an additional $500 billion compared to a scenario with stronger investments in wind and solar (Fossile vs. renewable energy: The opportunity cost of the transition).

The longer countries wait to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the more they forgo potential economic growth, job creation, and environmental benefits from clean power. Investing in renewables now would accelerate their development and make the energy transition happen faster. The opportunity costs of continued investments in finite fossil fuels are enormous compared to the potential of “fuel-free” wind and solar energy.


In conclusion, it’s clear that our continued reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuel energy sources like oil, coal, and natural gas has led to many problems that we must address. Finite supplies mean these resources will eventually run out. The extraction, production, transportation, and burning of fossil fuels damage local environments and ecosystems. Most critically, the greenhouse gas emissions released accelerate climate change, already resulting in rising sea levels, increases in extreme weather, and disruption of natural systems. There are also geopolitical problems caused by dependence on imports from unstable regions. The health and environmental justice impacts of pollution from fossil fuel infrastructure disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Market distortions by subsidies and lack of accounting for externalized costs encourage overconsumption. The opportunity cost of not transitioning sooner to sustainable energy also rises each year. Given all these drawbacks, it is imperative that we rapidly transition our energy systems and economies to Renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal to build a cleaner, healthier and more just world.

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