Coal, oil and natural gas are fossil fuels derived from plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. These fuels are extracted from land and below the sea to provide heat and power throughout the world. But supplies of fossil fuels are limited and one day they will run out.
Coal, created over millions of years ago from dead plants and trees, was the main source of power to drive the industrial revolution in the 20th century. Hundreds of coal mines were spread across the UK and they were a source of employment for thousands of people. Communities were established around the coal mines and generations of families worked ‘down the pits’. The coal was used to heat our homes and factories and to generate electricity to power machines. In the latter part of the 1900s the use of coal declined as it became increasingly uneconomical to mine. The discovery of oil and natural gas in the North Sea, piped to the UK mainland, gradually led to a switch to these fuels and the decline of the coal industry. Mines closed and communities had to adjust to new forms of employment.
Many power stations around the world still use coal to heat water to make steam to power the turbines that generate electricity. About 35% of the UK’s electricity is still generated from coal and the largest coal-fired power station in Europe is Drax in Yorkshire. It produces 4,000 megawatts of electricity – enough to supply electricity to 4 million homes. As well as being an important strategic national asset, Drax is also vital to the local economy. Drax power station employs some 625 people and supports many other local jobs indirectly. It is also a major customer for the UK's remaining coal mines.
The worldwide demand and use of coal is increasing through the rapidly growing economies of countries such as China and India. They are going through their own industrial revolutions and need coal to generate the electricity to power the thousands of factories that are being built. Currently China with vast reserves of coal is opening a new coal-fired power station every 10 days and India is the world’s third largest producer of coal with over 300,000 coal mines. Mining industries in these countries often use British expertise to help develop the coal mines and send their workforce to the UK for training.
Oil is another fossil fuel that is essential to our modern world. It was formed from the remains of microscopic plants and animals and provides fuel for transport and is used in the manufacture of plastics and other synthetic materials. The global oil industry is a huge business – eight of the top fourteen highest earning companies in the USA are in the oil business. Average oil production is around 2.5 million barrels a day (a barrel of oil is equivalent to 159 litres) and demand for oil is ever increasing.
The discoveries of oil in the North Sea in the late 1960s and early 1970s provided a major boost to the UK economy. Many thousands of people found employment in the extraction and production of the oil, the servicing of the off-shore oil rigs, the refining of the oil and in the production of chemicals. Towns like Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland became a major hub for the industry and nationally the UK Government reaped huge financial benefits from its share in North Sea oil
As is the case with fossil fuels the extraction of oil from the North Sea is declining as supplies diminish. There are still untapped sources of oil in the North Sea but presently many of these are uneconomic to develop as the geology of the sites make extraction difficult. It may be that at some point in the future when the price of oil reaches a certain level that some of these sites will become economically viable and the industry and employment will be sustained.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel that was formed just like oil. Often where there is oil there is natural gas. It is a mixture of the flammable gases methane, ethane, propane and butane and is the main fuel for heating in the UK. In the late 1900s many of the UK’s power stations switched to using natural gas to generate electricity because of its availability from the North Sea and because the combustion of gas produces far less carbon dioxide than the burning of coal. In other words, it is a cleaner fuel and less likely to contribute to global warming. Natural gas is now responsible for generating about a third of the country’s electricity needs.
Sometimes natural gas is compressed so that it can be bottled. In its compressed form there are now examples of it being used in vehicles in place of petrol. Natural gas can also be liquefied and transported in tankers around the world and then converted back into a gas.
Careers in Coal, Oil and Natural Gas
Careers in the coal, oil and natural gas industries are wide ranging and can provide global opportunities for young people. The range of careers includes exploration and production, research and development, marketing and distribution and commercial services.