What Are the Environmental Problems With Oil?

The drilling and production of oil puts a strain on the environment, contributing to global warming.
The drilling and production of oil puts a strain on the environment, contributing to global warming. (Image: Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Modern society is completely dependent on oil. From the transport of goods and services, to freeways jam-packed with morning and evening commuters, to staying warm in the winter, people have become reliant on this fossil fuel. The rate at which the world consumes crude oil is quickly exhausting the resource. Consumers, however, are not only faced with problem of depletion. There are also environmental ramifications for the use of oil. Oil puts a strain on ecosystems and causes many environmental problems.

Global Warming

Oil consists largely of carbon and hydrogen, expelling carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and causing a rise in greenhouse gases. Elevated greenhouse gases contribute to global warming. The 20th and 21st centuries have proved to be warmer than the 19th century at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was less than 280 parts per million. In 1958, that number had jumped to 315 ppm, and by 1986 it was 350 ppm. As people continue to burn oil, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to climb. As the planet warms up, you can expect negative impacts on the food supply, increased flooding, drought and disease, as well as rising sea levels that will threaten coastal cities.

Acid Rain

Acidity kills plants, animals and damages water supplies. Oil contains small amounts of sulfur. Burning oil creates sulfur dioxide, which mixes with oxygen in the atmosphere, thus producing acid rain. Acid rain permeates the soil and ground water, affecting plants, rivers, lakes and streams. Rising acidity levels kill aquatic life and destroy forests. Water droplets and acidic moisture in the air from burning oil can also harm people. The sulfur dioxide in oil is known to cause increased respiratory problems and diseases, including asthma, cancer and emphysema.

Oil Spills

Perhaps the biggest risk to the environment in the use of oil is spills. Oil spills are detrimental to the marine ecosystem, resulting in the death of countless animals, plants and aquatic life that are poisoned by the oil. The BP Gulf oil spill in 2010 was one of the worst oil spills in American history, larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. The devastation from this disaster was unimaginable, affecting local economies, health, wildlife and the marine ecosystem. Oil spills result from negligence and accidents aboard oil tankers. But they may also be the result of war or natural disasters.

Offshore Drilling

Excessive drilling poses a problem for the environment. As companies dredge the ocean floor, seeking out new oil pipelines, they create pollution that poses a problem for the marine ecosystem. “For every well that is drilled, about 8,000 square feet can be covered by as much as a meter thick of drilling waste, which can remain in the environment for at least two years,” according to Santa Clara University's School of Engineering website. In the event of a hurricane, this waste can remain in the environment up to 40 years. Offshore drilling rigs create pollution from debris, dredging and the use of explosives, forming toxic substances that can spread thousands of miles from the oil rig.

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