As global energy demands continue to rise, the finite reserves of fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas become harder and harder to extract. Drilling and mining techniques are becoming more invasive across the globe, and the environmental impacts from fossil fuel pollution are rapidly increasing in regions that have the highest concentrations of fuels. There are multiple effects of mining fossil fuels. Drilling and mining practices take a substantial toll on local water sources, biologic life and natural resources through pollution, degradation and direct damage.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
There are multiple environmental impacts of fossil fuel extraction including acid mine drainage, oil spills and marring the landscape.
Acid Mine Drainage
Even careful mining practices can take a hefty environmental toll through secondary pollution effects like acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage, or AMD, occurs when sulfide-rich rocks that contain target ores like gold and copper are exposed to water and air. The sulfides form sulfuric acid, which dissolves surrounding rock, releasing harmful metalloids into the groundwater near the mine. This pollution can spread through streams and rivers to contaminate drinking water sources. AMD can also harm biologic life around the mine; the drainage from the Questa molybdenum mine in New Mexico has had a deleterious effect on 8 miles of the Red River.
Strip Mining and Surface Mining
When coal-rich veins are discovered near the surface of a body of rock, mining operations often occur above ground to reduce costs and improve extraction efficiency. Unfortunately, this strip or open-cast mining can have a significant impact on the ecosystem. When a strip mining operation occurs, the biologic life on the surface of the rock body is virtually eliminated. This loss of vegetation can cause soil erosion, especially in forested areas, since there's no vegetation to stabilize the rock layer. The consequences of mining can be severe. An area that has been strip-mined can take decades to recover without remediation. Strip mining makes up 40 percent of coal mining operations worldwide.
Extracting oil poses several serious environmental risks, but the most egregious environmental consequences occur from uncontrolled oil spills. Spills can occur during several stages of oil extraction, including drilling and transport. Bodies of water are especially susceptible to harm; the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is one of the most notable examples of the impact of a large-scale oil spill, requiring billions of dollars in environmental remediation over thousands of miles of open ocean and coastline. "Scientific American" reports that over 4.9 million barrels of oil were leaked over a 3-month period, killing thousands of seabirds, marine mammals, fish and crustaceans that make up the Gulf's ecosystem.
Impacts from mining and drilling can be indirect and unintentional. The complicated nature of using drilling techniques in unstable areas means the impact can't always be accurately predicted. Underneath a Louisiana bayou, the Napoleonville salt dome extends 30,000 feet beneath the surface of the Earth, with huge pillars of salt reaching upwards from the main dome. Texas Brine Company sank a well to extract salt in 1982, hollowing out a huge cavern which was capped in 2011. This cavern is now thought to be the culprit for the Bayou Corne Sinkhole, which was 325 feet across as of September 2013. This sinkhole has decimated the local community and continues to belch forth flammable methane gas.
- Earthworks: Acid Mine Drainage
- Greenpeace: Mining Impacts
- National Resources Defense Council: Risky Gas Drilling Threatens Health, Water Supplies
- The Advocate: Environmental Team to Look at Long-Term Impact of Mining
- NOAA: Where to Find NOAA Information on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
- Scientific American: How Much Damage Did the Deepwater Horizon Spill Do to the Gulf of Mexico?
- NY Times: Ground Gives Way, and a Louisiana Town Struggles to Find Its Footing
About the Author
Max Roman Dilthey is a science, health and culture writer currently pursuing a master's of sustainability science. Based in Massachusetts, he blogs about cycling at MaxTheCyclist.com.