Traditional energy resources

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Traditional energy resources, also known as nonrenewable energy resources, are those that cannot easily be replenished or grown as can renewable energy resources or biofuels. Traditional energy resources include oil, coal and natural gas.[1]

Traditional energy resources have dominated energy consumption in the United States for over the last century. Since the environmental movement began making policy advances in the 1970s, however, there has been increased attention on the environmental and health impacts of fossil fuels. These impacts are increasingly shifting public opinion towards an energy economy that relies more heavily on renewable energy.


An ariel view of oil and natural gas wells in Texas

Fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and other traditional resources make up the majority of the world's energy use, though they are limited in supply. Fossil fuels have been a driving force in large-scale industrial development, replacing the combustion of wood and water-driven mills. Coal became the first widely used resource, and coal mining during the late 19th century helped make the United States a major coal exporter after the discovery of vast coal reserves. Natural gas was also commonly used as a lighting fuel until the invention of the electric light bulb.[2]

Oil extraction in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio became more successful and widespread in the late 19th century. After the internal combustion engine was invented alongside the automobile, petroleum emerged as the dominant traditional energy resource because of its low cost and availability. Refined crude oil quickly went into widespread use and helped transform the United States into an industrial society, fueling factories and helping make transportation cheaper and more efficient.[3][4]

What's the difference between crude oil, petroleum and oil?
The terms crude oil, petroleum and oil are often used interchangeably, which makes it difficult to know the differences among these three types of hydrocarbons. Crude oil is a liquid mixture of hydrocarbons found in natural pools under the earth. It is called crude oil because it must be refined, after which it can be made into petroleum products such as plastic, vitamin capsules, nail polish and detergents. Petroleum is used synonymously with oil; both are broad categories that include "crude oil and petroleum products."[5][6]

Types of traditional energy

Three commonly used traditional energy resources are coal, natural gas and petroleum.

  • Coal is composed of plant materials that have slowly been shaped by pressure and heat under the earth's surface to become a black or brown rock. It can be found both on the surface and underground. After coal has been mined, it is "readily combustible," so it can be used as an energy sources without any refining. Once coal is received, it is then burned in a boiler and the steam produced from this boiler turns a turbine that generates electricity.[7][8]
  • Natural gas is composed of gaseous hydrocarbons, the primary compound being methane. It is used to generate electricity and produce heat. Additionally, chemicals derived from natural gas, such as hydrocarbon gas liquids, are used to produce plastics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Nearly 50 percent of American homes use natural gas, mostly for space and water heating, as well as for appliances like ovens, stoves and lighting fixtures.[9][10]
  • Petroleum is a name for a broad group that includes many mixtures of liquid hydrocarbons and is formed in sedimentary basins by the organic matter left behind by receding oceans. Petroleum can be found in semisolid, liquid or gas form. Crude oil and products created from refined natural gas are included in this group. Petroleum is a key ingredient in gasoline, detergent, plastic, jet and diesel fuel, synthetic rubber and other consumer products.[11][12]


As of 2012 the United States had 11,884 million barrels of proven crude oil reserves and 110,351 billion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. Six thousand feet of natural gas equals about one barrel of oil (42 gallons), which equals about 19 gallons of gasoline and 12 gallons of diesel.[13][14][15]


Coal basins in the United States

The United States has the world's largest supply of coal and is a net exporter. There is enough coal in the United States to meet current electricity needs for more than 200 years. In 2013, 90 percent of the just less than 1 billion short tons of coal mined in the United States was used in domestic power plants. There were more than 560 coal-fired plants in the United States that generated 39 percent of the nation's electricity in 2013.[16]

Five states produced 70 percent of the coal in the United States in 2013: Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Illinois. The map to the right shows the major coal basins in the United States.[16]

The table below shows the top five natural gas-producing states in the United States in 2013.

Top five states for coal production (2013)
Rank State Total production (thousand short tons)
1 Wyoming 387,924
2 West Virginia 115,925
3 Kentucky 80,380
4 Pennsylvania 50,870
5 Texas 42,851
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Annual Coal Production 2013," January 2015

Natural gas

Total U.S. natural gas production between January 2010 and July 2014.

The United States had proven natural gas reserves of 354 trillion cubic feet (TCF) in 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.[17]

The table below shows the top five natural gas-producing states in the United States in 2013.[18]

Top five states for natural gas production (2013)
Rank State Total production (trillion cubic feet)
1 Texas 6.86 TCF
2 Pennsylvania 3.23 TCF
3 Louisiana 2.37 TCF
4 Oklahoma 2.00 TCF
5 Colorado 1.52 TCF
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Which states consume and produce the most natural gas?," accessed April 2, 2015


See also: Crude oil
Crude oil production in the United States from 1920 to 2014.

Petroleum is a broad category that includes crude oil and petroleum products. In 2014, U.S. crude oil production reached its highest level since 1987, producing nearly 8.5 million barrels per day in July 2014. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that in 2015 crude oil production will be the highest annual average level of crude oil production since 1972.[19]

The table below shows the top five crude oil-producing states in the United States (as of July 2014).[20]

Top five states for crude oil production (July 2014)
Rank State Crude Oil Production

(thousand barrels)

1 Texas 96,168
2 North Dakota 34,430
3 California 17,101
4 Alaska 13,091
5 Oklahoma 10,946
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Rankings: Crude Oil Production, July 2014 (thousand barrels)," accessed November 11, 2014

Economic impact

Economic modeling
IMPLAN and REMI are two econometric modeling systems used in both the private and public sectors to predict economic outcomes of policy changes. While these systems are widely used and highly respected, their results are theoretical and may not be universally accepted.

Economists often use forecasting models, such as IMPLAN and REMI, to predict the impact increased fossil fuel extraction is having on the economy. These studies usually measure both direct impacts, i.e., the jobs and income being added within the oil and gas industry, and indirect impacts, i.e., jobs created throughout the supply chain. These studies also include induced impact, i.e., jobs created through increased spending due to growth in the industry.[24]

The use of traditional energy resources helped spur industrial revolutions, and their use has occurred alongside increases in life expectancy and quality of life since the 19th century. The availability, portability and easy combustion of fossil fuels make traditional energy resources an affordable and efficient source of energy for ordinary consumers. Power plants that rely on fossil fuels have been constructed at an affordable cost in exchange for large amounts of energy produced at a single location. Traditional energy resources also help fuel the vehicles and aircraft used for transportation and commerce.[25]


According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, there were more than 14,000 mining operations in United States in 2012. These operation mine for "coal, metal ores and non-metallic minerals." The following economic impacts are from a study done by the National Mining Association, a mining trade group, on the impact of those mines.[26]

Impact of mining on the U.S. economy
Direct impacts Indirect impacts Total
Employment 634,600 1,268,800 1,903,440
Labor income (in billions) $46.2 $71.9 $118.2
Contribution to Gross Domestic Product (in billions) $102.1 $123.0 $225.1
Taxes paid (in billions) $18.9 $26.9 $45.8
Source: National Mining Association, "The Economic Contributions of U.S. Mining (2012)," September 2014

Oil and natural gas

Oil pumps in California

Much of the data on the economic impact of traditional energy resources focuses on crude oil and natural gas. The following table shows the predicted economic impact to the United States of oil and natural gas activity for 2012 from a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC), a research consulting firm, for the American Petroleum Institute. The "Operational impacts" and "Capital investment impacts" include indirect and induced jobs. For more on these data, see the Employment section below.[24][27] For more information, see "the economic impact of fracking in the United States."

Impact of oil and natural gas on the U.S. economy
Direct impacts Operational impacts Capital investment impacts Total impacts Percent of U.S. total
Employment 2,590,700 5,854,500 1,388,100 9,833,200 5.6%
Labor income (in billions) $203.6 $311.8 $82.8 $597.6 6.3%
Value added (in billions) $551.0 $522.5 $135.8 $1,209.4 8.0%
Source: PricewaterhouseCooper LLP, "Economic Impacts of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry on the US Economy 2011"

Environmental impact

Energy consumption and carbon emissions by fossil fuel type

As with any type of energy extraction there are environmental impacts. Additionally, the extraction of energy requires its own set of resources, such as land, energy and water. How these environmental impacts are mitigated depends on the type of energy, technology, federal, state and local regulations, attitudes towards energy development and economics. The extraction of oil, natural gas and coal has known environmental risks that include air pollution, including VOCs and methane, known carcinogens and carbon (CO2) emissions.[28][29][30]


An example of water that has been polluted through contact with the mining industry (known as acid mine drainage)

As coal is mined, cleaned and transported, methane is typically vented for safety purposes, which releases carbon dioxide (CO2). Additionally, when coal is burned it emits carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, acid gases and heavy metals. These pollutants have been linked to health issues, smog and acid rain.[16][7]

Water is needed to clean coal after it has been mined, to produce the steam that turns the turbine and to keep machinery cool during operation. This water, if discharged, can pollute clean bodies of water. Some coal companies have permits to discharge this water; these permits are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Water Act. Rain can also come in contact with coal and carry pollutants from the coal to other bodies of water.[7]

As coal is burned to generate electricity it creates coal ash. The coal mining and cleaning processes generate additional solid waste. Traditionally this waste was disposed of in abandoned mines and landfills. Because of technological advances, however, some of the waste can be recycled into cement and building materials.[7] Surface mining has a larger impact on the land than underground mining does. Both types of mining can contaminate soil, which can make the reclamation of abandoned mining sites difficult.[7]

Natural gas

When natural gas is used to generate electricity in power plants, it produces fewer carbon emissions than coal-fired power plants. According to a 2014 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "as a result of the increased use of natural gas, CO2 emissions from U.S. fossil-fuel power plants were 23% lower in 2012 than they would have been” without the increase in natural gas use.[31] During the extraction process, however, methane is emitted, and methane actually traps 20 times more carbon dioxide than other greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), CO2 emissions in the United States dropped by 3.8 percent in 2012, due in large part to the "increased availability of natural gas, linked to the shale gas revolution."[32][31]


When crude oil is extracted from the earth methane, a greenhouse gas, is emitted. Methane can be emitted several times throughout the crude oil extraction and use process. First, emissions are emitted when crude oil is extracted, and by the equipment used to extract crude oil. Large quantities of water are needed when drilling wells, and at oil-fired power plants to create steam and for cooling purposes. Emissions also occur when oil is burned to produce electricity. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane, and mercury compounds" can also be released when oil is burned for electricity.[33] On average, 1,672 pounds of carbon dioxide, 12 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 4 pounds of nitrogen oxides are emitted per megawatt hour of electricity produced.[33] Water is also used during the refining process, after which this water becomes wastewater and requires treatment because it contains pollutants. The EPA regulates the release of polluted water through its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program.[33]

See also


  1. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Glossary, N” accessed January 29, 2014
  2. Ecology Global Network, "Fossil Fuels vs. Renewable Energy Resources," September 6, 2011
  3. Science Daily, "Fossil fuel," accessed March 27, 2015
  4. Institute for Energy Research, "Encyclopedia Entry: Fossil fuels," accessed March 27, 2015
  5. U.S. Energy Information Administration, "What is the difference between crude oil, petroleum products, and petroleum?," December 8, 2014
  6. Ranken Energy, "A partial list of products made from Petroleum (144 of 6000 items)," accessed April 6, 2015
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Coal," September 25, 2013
  8. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Glossary, C” accessed January 29, 2014
  9. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Glossary, N” accessed January 29, 2014
  10., "Uses of Natural Gas," accessed November 11, 2014
  11. U.S. Geological Survey, "Organic Origins of Petroleum," December 5, 2013
  12. Gas Oil Energy Magazine, "Top 16 uses of petroleum," April 7, 2010
  13. U.S. Energy information Administration, "Petroleum & Other Liquids," accessed April 10, 2014
  14. U.S. Geological Survey, "World level summary of petroleum estimates for undiscovered conventional petroleum and reserve growth for oil, gas, and natural gas liquids (NGL).," 2000," accessed April 23, 2014
  15. U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Frequently Asked Questions," May 30, 2013, accessed March 18, 2014
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 U.S. Energy Information Administration, "What is the role of coal in the United States?," June 2, 2014
  17. U.S. Energy Information Administration, "U.S. natural gas reserves increase 10% in 2013 to reach a record 354 Tcf," December 4, 2014
  18. U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Which states consume and produce the most natural gas?," accessed April 2, 2015
  19. Reuters, "U.S. crude oil production in July highest in 27 years: EIA," August 12, 2014
  20. U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Rankings: Crude Oil Production, July 2014 (thousand barrels)," accessed November 11, 2014
  21. IMPLAN, "IMPLAN€'s History of Expert Economic Data," accessed September 17, 2014
  22. REMI, "About Us," accessed September 17, 2014
  23. REMI, "Clients," accessed September 17, 2014
  24. 24.0 24.1 PricewaterhouseCooper LLP, "Economic Impacts of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry on the US Economy 2011," July 2013
  25. Conserve Energy Future, "Advantages of Fossil Fuels," accessed March 27, 2015
  26. National Mining Association, "The Economic Contributions of U.S. Mining (2012)," September 2014
  27. U.S. Department of Energy, "Natural Gas From Shale: Questions and Answers," accessed June 25, 2014
  28. Stanford Law School Student Journals, "Local Government Fracking Regulations: A Colorado Case Study," January 2014
  29. University of Oklahoma, "Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Resources," accessed March 15, 2014
  30. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Natural Gas Extraction - Hydraulic Fracturing," accessed March 10, 2014
  31. 31.0 31.1 Cooperative Institute for Research Environmental Sciences,, "New study: U.S. power plant emissions down," January 9, 2014
  32. International Energy Agency, "Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map," June 10, 2013
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Oil," September 25, 2013