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LostInParadise's avatar

Do coal and oil recycle in nature?

Asked by LostInParadise (30429points) 1 month ago

If there were no humans, would coal and oil recycle? Would the total amount be at an equilibrium? Or would the total amount keep increasing? In that case an argument could be made that burning fossil fuels is necessary, though at a much reduced rate, in order to maintain equilibrium.

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15 Answers

elbanditoroso's avatar

No, they don’t recycle. That’s why there are such huge deposits of them underground – they take millions of years to create, and once oil exists, it simply sits there. Same with coal. That’ss how we have the energy options that we use today.

JLeslie's avatar

I’ll be interested in the answers from the scientists in the group. I think I had 9 weeks of geology in school. Basically nothing.

I don’t think it would be an “equilibrium” but rather most of it would stay imbedded in the earth as part of the earth’s strata.

A guess from me: some of it would probably catch fire and burn away when it becomes exposed. Possibly, over long periods with tectonic shifting that could happen, but it is pretty deep below the earth, and I do not know if it is along fault lines?

Some of the coal becomes diamonds when under very special conditions.

I think the biggest problem is we use it way faster than it is created. The environment needs specific conditions to develop coal and oil..

Seems to me we should be able to figure out a way to synthesize oil and be less dependent on digging it out of the ground.

Entropy's avatar

My guess is that the answer would be ‘sort of’. First, understand that all of this is over geologic time frames and none of it is fast. But over those time frames, the oil and gas and coal deposits will move through different conditions randomly and unpredictable as the continents move and geologic processes continue. Some might come to the surface and decompose, some might encounter more pressure and become diamonds. Some might break up and be used by biological processes.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably predict the fate of them because it depends so much on chance. But there’s no reasonable argument that we need to use fossil fuels to prevent the planet from turning into a giant blob of oil or anything. And besides, we’re using the stuff WAY faster than it’s being replaced and WAY faster than our climate system can handle the waste products.

LostInParadise's avatar

If coal and oil do not recycle and new coal and oil are created at a constant rate, then eventually all the carbon atoms will be in coal and oil. My guess is that they do recycle, at a rate proportional to their mass, but the rate is still very slow and requires a large amount of coal and oil to achieve equilibrium.

RocketGuy's avatar

@LostInParadise – coal and oil form from organic stuff buried in the ground. As long as organic stuff accumulates they will keep (slowly) forming. But not all carbon at the surface of the Earth will get consumed by organisms, so not all carbon will become coal and oil.

LostInParadise's avatar

There is a carbon cycle for the carbon that forms organisms. It the formation of coal and oil is a one-way street, carbon is removed from the cycle and eventually the only carbon remaining is the carbon not consumed by organisms, which would eliminate organisms. There must be a way for coal and oil to release their carbon.

RocketGuy's avatar

I’ve heard of peat bogs and natural gas vents naturally catching fire, then those materials become CO2. Maybe naturally oozing oil could too.

HP's avatar

Recycle? That’s a word for sheer confusion. Let’s talk about the carbon cycle. Because that is a process with or without man. That recycling thing occurs one way or another whether man is involved or not. There have of course been several epochs in the history of the world when the levels of carbon compounds in our oceans and atmosphere far exceeded the levels that now loom to threaten our extinction. There is every chance that even a geologically brief period of busy volcanoes might be the end of us. In fact, prior to the proliferation of life as dominant in regulation of the cycle, vulcanism was pretty much it for the ups and downs. The question for us and our survival is about the sinks available for the concentration of carbon and the percentages alloted each. Again, it’s going somewhere. Living organisms themselves (along with their remains) sequester a formidable percentage of the carbon. A whole lot of it is locked up in the rocks, which is why volcanoes are so good at liberating it to another great sink, the atmosphere. And the final sink-the one with the capacity to allow us some wiggle room ahead of our extinction—the final sink is the oceans. We have and are upsetting the balance among those sinks through extracting the carbon from previously living life forms and discharging it into the atmosphere. We’ve been lucky that in the natural cycle of things as saturation levels of carbon dioxide rise, the excess is taken up by the oceans. But we are now at a point where the carrying capacities of the oceans themselves approach levels threatening untold extinction of marine fauna as well as the efficiencies of the oceans to soak up the excesses from the atmosphere. So, recycling is happening one way or another. It’s a question of where you put it, and how much you must remove or LOCK OUT of the cycle.

RocketGuy's avatar

When CO2 gets absorbed into the ocean, the water becomes more acidic. That makes life difficult for shellfish. That will disturb the food chain.

Blackwater_Park's avatar

Recycle? yes and no. Coal, oil and natural gas are mostly remnants from past life deposited in anaerobic conditions. Coal is essentially from decaying plant matter in peat bogs that get transformed over time as it moves deeper into the strata until it becomes that familiar black anthracite people think of when they picture coal. There are a bunch of intermediate forms between that and peat. Oil is essentially plankton that is deposited and transformed over time in much the same way. There have been several alternative theories about oil coming from the earth itself but even if that was true, the vast bulk of it came from plankton. This carbon is sequestered. We know it’s ancient because there is basically no carbon14 in fossil fuels. Carbon 14 forms in the atmosphere with a little chemistry thanks to our sun. Active carbon has a level of carbon 14 in it that decays predictably. The earth itself can emit carbon through volcanic activity and some natural oil release. I doubt it’s a 1:1 ratio between what is naturally released and sequestered. That likely varies over time. What is very different now is that we have artificially been releasing previously sequestered carbon. We are recreating the atmospheric effects of previous cataclysmic events like the great dying as we continue down this path. That particular event is thought to be from ocean acidification from carbon released by volcanic activity.

wearemiracles's avatar

“Although coal is known from most geologic periods, 90% of all coal beds were deposited in the Carboniferous and Permian periods, which represent just 2% of the Earth’s geologic history.” – wikipedia

Carboniferous period: 358.9 Mya to 298.9 Mya
Permian period: 298.9 Mya to 251.9 Mya

Mya means million years ago

“The use of coal damages the environment, and it is the largest anthropogenic source of carbon dioxide contributing to climate change. Fourteen billion tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted by burning coal in 2020,[7] which is 40% of the total fossil fuel emissions[8] and over 25% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.[9] As part of worldwide energy transition, many countries have reduced or eliminated their use of coal power.” – wikipedia

wearemiracles's avatar

Supposedly fossil fuels take millions of years to form and the two most significant carbon sinks are vegetation and the ocean. So logically the first thing to do would be to stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible and then get to work on Afforestation to try to clean up some of the damage that’s been done. While others use innovation to do the rest of the work which is a big job. I saw a documentary on climate change recently that attempts to depict the scale of the problem and that seems to be the biggest problem. Is that people are still not really convinced. In any case I’m not an expert and don’t know anything for sure.

LostInParadise's avatar

Given that all that coal was deposited in a relatively short period, why is there so much of it still around? If it recycles naturally, it must take a real long time. I don’t question the need to cut down on greenhouse gases. I am just curious about all that coal.

RocketGuy's avatar

Earth used to be really warm, with lots of CO2 – until plants came along and converted it to tons and tons of O2 and plant material.

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