Fossil fuels — a double-edged sword

Fossil fuels are a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, since the discovery and exploitation of fossil-era energy sources such as coal, petroleum oil and, more recently, methane, quality of life has improved dramatically.  Electricity and heating systems in the home, access to fuel for transportation and for the production of food and consumer goods, increased industrialization and many other things, all contribute to lifestyles that require less manual labor, with more time for education, leisure and an increasing variety of “white collar” opportunities.

On the other edge of the sword, however, there are highly detrimental emissions that result from burning these fuels.  One type of emission is dirty, toxic, contributes to smog and pollution, and is known to kill millions of people every year. The second type of emission, called “greenhouse gas emissions”  or ghgs, though not directly bad for health, is slowly choking the life out of our planet: it is comprised of entirely invisible organic molecules like carbon dioxide and methane that accumulate in the atmosphere and cause it to heat up.

The World Health Organization has determined that the toxic emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, wood, biofuels and biowaste, which all contribute to air pollution, is responsible for the premature deaths of an estimated 7 million people a year.  As reported by this Geneva-based organization in 2014, “this finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Reducing air pollution could save millions of lives.”  There is almost no controversy about the existence or impacts on mankind of these emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions have been more controversial.  Scientists have known since as early as 1859 that some gases block infrared radiation and thereby produce a greenhouse effect. Tyndall discovered this in 1859 and was able to speculate that changes in the concentration of the gases would bring about climate change.  By 1896, Arrhenius was able to publish his own calculations of global warming from human emissions of CO2, in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.  For the most part, these predictions were ignored.

Nevertheless, the threat of a heating planet could not be ignored forever.  Scientists working at fossil fuel companies in the early 1970s understood the science and warned about this problem repeatedly.  This  was also true for government scientists.  Warnings increased and, by 1988, the United Nations created the UNFCCC and the IPCC to convene the world’s best scientists to independently review and assess the issue and report back to the nations of the world.  The closer the IPCC came to its eventual determination, that in fact mankind’s emissions are causing catastrophic global warming, the more politicized the issue became. 

Once the rest of the world recognized the problem, the fossil fuel industry decided to fight back to protect their fossil franchises and covered up their own earliest findings.  That action is now the subject of possible action by state Attorneys General.1  They also doubled-down and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns and on political contributions (primarily to Republicans) designed to obstuct political action to prevent climate change.2  They’ve succeeded in convincing many gullible Americans that climate change is a “hoax,” including the current president.  Unfortunately, since it is not a hoax and it is actually a critical problem that has continued to get worse with each and every day, all they have done is postpone the inevitable and make the likelihood of mankind being able to mitigate the worst effects of having our atmosphere warmed up much more unlikely.

Mankind has been burning massive quantities of fossil fuels for well over a century and a half.  We know that doing so is extraordinarily damaging both to human health, environmental health, the health of our climate and life on the planet.  We have already ascertained all the facts that we need to know to recognize that continuing to burn these fuels will be lethal and we can no longer continue doing so, despite how cheap and accessibly they may be.  Fortunately, there are many alternative forms of energy that have vastly better health profiles, lower deathprints and which generate power without creating greenhouse gas emissions, starting with nuclear power, wind power, hydro power, solar power, geothermal and there are more of these “clean energy” sources being developed — largely in response to the climate crisis that we face.  We have the means to power our world without needing fossil fuels.  Now all we need is the political will to stand up to the fossil fuel interests and make the transition to 100% clean energy sources.


The Fossil Fuel Deathprint

Every type of human endeavor and enterprise has risks.  When we think about how to generate the energy that powers our society, looking carefully at the risks to life from the various options is an important consideration, especially considering how much energy must be generated every year.  The name given to this kind of comparison is called a “deathprint” and it involves looking at the number of fatalities that happened in the production of fuel and generation of a set amount of energy for each energy source. 

Across the spectrum of alternative technologies and means for generating energy, the question of how dangerous a form of energy is is not a topic that most people think much about.  Sure, we hear about oil wells exploding, gas leaks that ignite residential communities, coal train derailments, coal miners being killed from falling rocks and even nuclear melt-downs like Chernobyl and Fukishima.  But, for a given amount of power generation, do we know how each of our energy choice’s deathprint compares to the others?  Not usually.

Luckily, this information is now being tracked and tabulated.  Following the recent fatal Oklahoma natural gas explosion accident at an oil and gas well which killed five workers and was the deadliest drilling mishap since the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers in 2010, James Conca of Forbes just released an updated energy deathprint that covers all known energy deaths over the last 40 years (excluding those resulting indirectly from air pollution or climate change), calculated as the number of deaths per trillion kilowatt hour (kWh). Where the averages are the same, the U.S. data is grouped in the global rate.  Where the U.S.’ pollution and safety regulations are stronger, the U.S. data is listed separately.


Energy Deathprint by Energy Source3


Type of Energy Region Mortalities Percent of Energy Usage
Coal China 170,000 75% of China’s electricity
Coal Global 100,000 41% of global electricity
Coal USA   10,000 32% of U.S. electricity
Oil Global/USA  36,000 33% of energy, 4% of electricity
Biofuel/Biomass Global/USA  24,000 21% of global energy, 2% of electricity
Natural Gas Global/USA    4,000 22% global electricity
Hydro Global     1,400 16% global electricity
Hydro USA            5 6% of U.S. electricity
Solar Global/USA       440 less than 1% of global electricity
Wind Global/USA        150 2% of global electricity
Nuclear Global         90 11% of global electricity
Nuclear USA           0.1 19% of U.S. electricity


  1. Think Progress, State AGs Vow To Tackle Climate Change And Fossil Fuel Industry Fraud, Samantha Page, March 29, 2016
  2. Drexel Now, Not Just the Koch Brothers: New Drexel Study Reveals Funders Behind the Climate Change Denial Effort, by Alex McKechnie, December 20, 2013
  3. Forbes, Natural Gas And The New Deathprint For Energy, James Conca, January 25, 2018