Thursday, October 14, 1999

How do fossils energize Texas?

Have you ever wondered how the oil, gas, and coal that power our lives are formed? They come from fossils that were once tiny floating plants and animals that lived in oceans and rivers. When these organisms died, they fell to the bottom of the ocean and mixed with mud and sand sediments. As more and more sediments settled to the bottom of ancient seas, layer on top of layer was formed. Compressed by the great weight of the layers above them, the mud, sand, and plant and animal remains were gradually formed into layers of sedimentary rock. Over millions of years, heat an pressure inside the earth's crust "cooked the tiny bodies of the organisms. The heat converted the carbon and hydrogen in the remains of the organisms into oil and gas. Coal is formed in the same way from trees and other large land plants that lived in swampy areas.

Many people think that oil and natural gas deposits exist in large rivers or lakes beneath the surface of the earth. This is not true. Oil and natural gas are actually trapped inside sedimentary rock formations that have pin-hole-sized open spaces called pores. We remove oil and gas from these pores by drilling into the earth's crust until the oil-and gas-filled sedimentary rock is reached. Pressure from gravity drives the crude oil or gas up the well.

Coal is found in layers within the earth's crust. If the layer is deep, the coal is extracted by underground mining. If coal is found close to the earth's surface, a technique called surface mining is used. Surface mining removes the top layers of earth to expose the coal.

So how do these fossil fuels really energize Texas? Crude oil pumped from the ground is processed into gasoline to fuel our cars, boats, and airplanes. We use natural gas to fuel some vehicles and for cooking and heating. We use coal as a fuel for electric power generating plants that produce electricity for our homes.

Fossil fuels also energize the Texas economy. Texas produces one quarter of the domestic oil and gas, more than any other state in the U.S., and ranks 5th in total coal production. According to the "Texas Natural Resources Study" published by the Railroad Commission of Texas in 1997, the oil and gas industry contributed almost $60 billion to the Texas economy and directly or indirectly provided more than 500,000 jobs in 1996. Coal contributed $1.9 billion to the Texas economy in 1995 and more than 14,000 direct or indirect jobs in 1994.

Crude oil production is a declining industry in Texas because deposits of oil are becoming harder to find and more expensive to drill. On the other hand, natural gas and coal production is increasing because of the large quantities found in Texas and the ever-increasing need for energy resources in and outside of the state.

Fossil fuels are not renewable because we are consuming them faster than the earth's natural processes can create them. Because burning of fossil fuels, particularly oil and coal, releases CO2, a greenhouse gas, more efficient and clean-burning fuels such as natural gas are being increasingly utilized.

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