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Fossil Fuel Formation

Fossil fuels are created when organisms are buried quickly and altered by intense heat and pressure.

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Carbon Out, Carbon In

Carbon Out, Carbon In

Credit: David Eickhoff
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dweickhoff/5187732979/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Plants take carbon out of the atmosphere. When those plants are burned – as plants or as fossil fuels – they put the carbon back into the atmosphere.

Why It Matters

  • Fossil fuels formed more than 300 million years ago, from plants and animals that lived mainly during the Carboniferous period.
  • The organisms were buried by thousands of feet of sediments. The dead plants decomposed into organic materials and formed fossil fuels.
  • Underwater organisms long ago that were burried in river or ocean sediments created fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil that we use today.
  • Credit: Fossil Energy Office of Communications
    Source: http://www.fossil.energy.gov/education/energylessons/gas/index.html
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    Today, natural gas formations can be found in Canada and the U.S. [Figure2]

  • The fossil fuels we use were formed hundreds of millions of years ago. We are using up all of those resources in a few hundred years.

Explore More

With the links below, learn more about fossil fuel formation. Then answer the following questions.

  1. What were conditions like during the Carboniferous that led to the formation of fossil fuels?
  2. What three things affect what type of fossil fuel forms?
  3. Why is some coal dirty with sulfur and some is clean?
  4. When we burn fossil fuels, where did the carbon come from?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: David Eickhoff; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dweickhoff/5187732979/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: Fossil Energy Office of Communications; Source: http://www.fossil.energy.gov/education/energylessons/gas/index.html; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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