Hydraulic fracturing method of collecting natural resources. (via WIS)


Countries all over the globe are consuming vast amounts of energy, most of which is provided by fossil fuels. The processes of extracting oil (shale, crude, heavy crude, tar sands, etc.) and other fuels including natural gas, coal and even uranium for nuclear power can have long-lasting damaging effects on humans as well as the environment. The levels of those effects are dependent on what process is used to extract the fuel as well as where it’s being extracted. Technology has certainly played a huge roll in drilling and mining operations by making it easier to locate those fuels sources as well as making the extraction processes more efficient, thereby lessening the overall damaging impact on the surrounding environment. Drilling, mining and hydraulic fracturing are the current methods used to extract those fuels from the earth but is any one method better than the others when it comes to negative environmental impact? Let’s go through a few and see how they stack up against each other in terms of damage prevention and what technology is helping to curb both the short and long-term effects.


Coal: the most abundant fossil fuel on the planet.


Remote Joy HM21 Continuous Miner. (via impacts of coal mining)


One of the most abundant fossil fuels on the planet is coal and it can be found on almost every continent. Its use began in the 18th century at the start of the industrial revolution and coal is still widely used for fuel today, however the methods of mining the material have been dramatically reformed since then. Gone are the days of using a pick and shovel to extract the coal by hand, which were replaced by coal-cutting machines in the 1880’s, which in turn, by 1912 were replaced by steam shovels powered by the coal itself for use in surface and underground mining. As it stands today, coal mining in more developed parts of the world has acquired updated technology, such as continuous mining machines (among a host of others) and conveyors that allow workers to chew through 5 tons of rock per minute (the same amount mined in a day back in the 1920’s). Safety standards have also improved with modern mines now using sophisticated ventilation systems that lessen the risk of coal-dust explosions. Natural gas/methane detection and ventilation systems are now in place as well, which not only lessens the chance of explosions but also can be reclaimed to power gas engines that generate electricity. Workers also have specialized equipment such as coal-mining dust masks that reduces or eliminates altogether the issue of ‘black lung’ (pneumoconiosis) disease acquired while working in the mines over long periods. While coal may be abundant, the excavation and mining process of the fuel has significant impact on the environment. Surface mining destroys the soils genetic profile, eliminates any vegetation, destroys wildlife habitations, drops air quality in the immediate area and permanently changes the topography (erosion) of the area mined. Ground water and aquifers are also affected with directional flow changes, poor water quality due to mine drainage and toxic elements leaching into the water sources. There is also the possibility of underground fires that can rage for years or even decades (Centrailia, Pennsylvania for example) and leave cities uninhabitable. Burning the fuel is another matter altogether, as it causes air pollution, which has recently been linked by the WHO to both global warming as well as cancer.



Uranium: mined for nuclear power plants and reactors.


Steam rising from the Susquehanna nuclear power station. (via Nuclear Power)


In many respects, uranium mining for use in power stations and reactors is similar to that of coal mining. Like coal, uranium is mined using several techniques including open-pit, underground and other methods such as heap and in-situ leaching (chemically extracted uranium). Much of the same technology used in coal mining is employed for uranium as well, including massive excavators and cargo vehicles but depending on the grade of the uranium, technology that is more sophisticated is used. In open-pit operations where high-grade ore is present, the concentration of radon gas and particles are higher than normal and therefore require the use of ‘suppression and dampening systems’ using water to keep dust levels down (not so high tech) along with radiation-proof shacks workers can use to keep radon exposure to a minimum throughout the work day. In more extreme cases where ultra-high grade ore is mined, robotic ROVs are used for mining purposes. Most open-pit and underground mining operations also have an on-site mill where the ore is crushed and chemically treated with sulfuric acid to separate the ore from other rock and minerals. The waste rock is then dumped back into the pit or cavern when mining operations are completed, so there is a reduced impact to the environment over traditional mining of metals. Uranium mining isn’t without its faults however, as some workers contract lung cancer (due to high levels of radon particles) at higher rates than those in coal mining operations. The environmental impact is also high, water (now irradiated to some degree) tasked for dust dampening is usually pumped back into nearby rivers and lakes, which contaminates the surrounding soil as well. Underground uranium operations vent radioactive particles and radon gas into nearby areas, which can have adverse effects to residences living nearby. The refined uranium fuel rods that power nuclear plants and reactors can have devastating effects over large-scale areas when damage occurs, as recently demonstrated by Japan’s Fukushima breached reactors. The long-term effects of which are still unknown but could be devastating not only to land-based environments but to sea life as well rendering local regions uninhabitable.



Oil: the fossil fuel that makes the world go round.


Modern oil drilling rig. (via oil well drilling)


Oil is the one fossil fuel that has been in demand since the beginning of time. The earliest known modern approach to drilling and tapping this resource was done in China around 347 CE. The wells were drilled to an astounding 800 feet using drill bits attached to bamboo poles. Fast-forward to the 21st century and those bamboo rigs have since been replaced with computerized systems that allow for drilling both on land and off shore. Detecting the fuel was typically done by using exploratory drilling (still widely used today) denoted by geologists who look for the ‘right’ conditions where oil may be found. Thanks to technology upgrades, those geologists now have access to sophisticated devices to search for oil, such as gravity meters and magnetometers that can detect oil by measuring micro-changes in the Earth’s magnetic fields. Satellites are often used to look for geological formations that have the telltale signs that the fuel is present, unless, of course, the oil is under water, in which case hydrophones are used. Air guns are also employed when exploring in water, which ‘shoots’ pulses of air into the water that produces a seismic shockwave that can be measured for density. New developments in drilling lessen the overall wells needed to siphon off the oil deposits, which includes horizontal drilling that allows more oil to be extracted from a single well. Drilling isn’t without its problems however, as exploration can divert wildlife from their natural migration paths as well as destroying their habitats resulting in diminished populations. Toxic chemical runoffs due to the ‘mud’ used for drilling can destroy the water quality of nearby rivers and lakes, however the biggest problems come with offshore drilling operations. As an example consider the BP oil spill back in 2010 where 200 million gallons of oil was discharged into the Gulf of Mexico. Efforts were taken to contain the spill using controlled burns (causing air pollution), floating booms and Corexit oil dispersant. The results of the damage caused is still under debate, however it is clear that extensive damage was caused to marine life in the Gulf, which in turn affected commercial fishing. The chemical Corexit (made up of over 50 separate chemicals) is thought to be a cancer-causing agent with five of those chemicals being carcinogenic. The chemical also destroyed all plankton in the area, which is vital to marine life and the Gulf food chain. Tthe full extent of the damage caused by the Depp Water Horizon spill and what effects it caused in nature may never be known.



Hydraulic Fracturing: a revamped process of an old technique for fuel extraction.


Halliburton fracking chemical mixer and well injector. (via hydraulic fracturing)


While some may think hydraulic fracturing to access fossil fuels is a new technique, it was actually demonstrated in 1947 and put in wide-scale use in 1949. The process of harvesting oil and natural gas using the ‘fracking’ method involves pumping fluids at high pressures to fracture rock and shale to access those fuels. The chemicals are usually mixed with sand, which allows the crack formations to remain open allowing for a more efficient extraction of fossil fuels. Three different types of chemical makeup are used depending on the type of fuel being harvested, including a foam, gel and slick-water based proponent. The most popular, slick-water, is comprised of hydrochloric acid (for dissolving rocks), guar gum, biocides, emulsion breakers/emulsifiers as well as radioactive tracer isotopes to determine fracture locations. To determine the fuel’s precise location, geologists use 3D and 4D seismic imaging software that creates a detailed picture of where the fuel is located as well as how much of it there is. Fiber-optic sensors are also employed to measure temperature and pressure information, which helps maximize the extraction process. The potential environmental problems associated with fracking are extensive and include chemical runoff that can destroy ground water and aquifers in the surrounding areas, causing sensory, respiratory and even neurological damage in wildlife as well as humans. Runoff and waste fluid is often left in open-air pits to evaporate, which release volatile organic compounds into the air, creating acid rain and ground-level ozone making it difficult to breath. An estimated 300,000 barrels of oil and natural gas are produced on a daily basis in the US, making the process inefficient compared with other methods especially when factoring in the damage caused. Fracking seems like a desperate attempt to wring out the planet. Desperation leads to pursuing the goal “by all means necessary,” and crushing the environment in the process is the result. 



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