Nonrenewable resources are used worldwide to create electricity, heat homes, power vehicles and manufacture goods. Resources are considered nonrenewable if their quantities are limited or if they cannot be replaced as fast as they are used up. Some nonrenewable resources have been formed over millions of years and will eventually be depleted altogether. (See References 1)
Oil, or petroleum, comes from the liquified, fossilized remains of plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago; once oil sources are depleted, they cannot be replaced. Oil is an energy source that the U.S. is very much dependent upon. It is used to create fuels, such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. It is also used in the manufacturing of plastics and industrial chemicals. Much of our oil is imported, creating a dependency on sources that are unpredictable and costly. The environmental impacts of mining oil include threats to waterways, plants and wildlife due to oil spills and increased infrastructure in natural areas. The impacts of oil combustion include air pollution, smog and increased greenhouse gas emissions. (See References 1)
Coal is the most plentiful nonrenewable resource in the world and is used to create more than half of the electricity used in the U.S. Coal is made when plant material has been compressed in bogs for millions of years. (See References 1) The extraction of coal from surface and sub-surface mines creates numerous problems for humans and the environment. Sub-surface mines are dangerous for miners as tunnels can collapse and built-up gas can explode. They also create subsidence, meaning that the ground level lowers when the coal is removed. Surface mining, or strip-mining, causes erosion and water pollution and decreases biodiversity by reducing plant and animal habitats. Additionally, the combustion of coal contributes to air pollution and global climate change and creates a toxic ash as a byproduct. (See References 1)
Natural gas is the result of decomposing plants and animals that were trapped beneath rock millions of years ago. This gas is drilled from the ground or extracted using dynamite and then processed and piped through thousands of miles of pipelines for cooking, heating homes and fueling vehicles. (See References 2) Though natural gas is considered to be a relatively "clean" fossil fuel, the environmental impacts of extracting it and installing pipelines include severe disruption of wildlife habitat and groundwater contamination. (See References 3)
Although nuclear energy is often held up as a viable alternative to coal and oil, it is not a renewable energy source. Nuclear power requires uranium, a radioactive metallic element that must be mined from the earth and is not quickly replenished. Nuclear energy does not create air pollution though combustion like fossil fuels. It does, however, produce radioactive waste, which must be disposed of and which can cause problems for humans and ecosystems for thousands of years. Additionally, accidents and leaks from nuclear power plants can have catastrophic effects on the entire planet. (See References 4)
Hailing from Austin, Texas, Beth Berry has been writing since 1995 about sustainable farming, fiber arts and parenting. She brings expertise in organic gardening, landscape design and domestic arts to her writing. Berry holds a Bachelor of Science in environmental science from Abilene Christian University and is a master seamstress.
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