pump jack mining crude oil with sunset
Unsplash/Zbynek Burival

The Impacts of Oil

Phasing out fossil fuels is crucial for preventing severe climate impacts, saving lives, and avoiding billions in damages.

Table of Contents

Phasing out fossil fuels is crucial for preventing severe climate impacts, saving lives, and avoiding billions in damages.

The United States uses a phenomenal amount of oil—with significant costs to our health, climate, and economy.

Every day, the United States burns through roughly 20 million barrels of gasoline, diesel, and other oil-based fuels—enough to fill more than a 1,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

More than two-thirds of this oil powers our cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains and ships, but it comes at a cost. In the US, transportation is now the largest source of heat-trapping emissions, surpassing the electricity sector, and is heavily linked with serious illness and increased mortality, particularly in vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing health conditions.

To meet our climate targets —and to transition into a cleaner, healthier way of moving people around—UCS has estimated that the US needs to cut the use of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel made from petroleum by half in 2035, and by 85 percent in 2050.

Air pollution and human health

Nearly one in three of people living in the US—an estimated 120 million—are exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution. Much of that pollution comes from cars, trucks and buses, which release particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and other toxic emissions.

The health risks of air pollution are extremely serious. Poor air quality increases respiratory ailments like asthma and bronchitis, and increases the risk of death from cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, as well as cancer. It increases infant mortality, damages the nervous system the brain, and there is growing evidence that it contributes to psychiatric disorders and diabetes. Particulate matter is single-handedly responsible for up to 30,000 premature deaths each year.

These impacts all carry substantial medical costs, both for individuals and the health care system. Phasing out petroleum in the United States is a key strategy to reduce them.

pie chart showing the breakdown of 2021 greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector
The US transportation sector produces nearly thirty percent of all US global warming emissions, more than any other sector. Source: EPA

Vehicles and global warming

The US transportation sector—which includes cars, trucks, buses, aircraft, trains, ships and boats—produces nearly thirty percent of all US global warming emissions, more than any other sector. Cars and trucks account for nearly one-quarter of US emissions, emitting around 500 kg of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every barrel of oil (42 gallons). About 130 kg comes from the extraction, production, and delivery of the fuel, while the great bulk of heat-trapping emissions—370 kg per barrel of oil—comes right out of a car’s tailpipe.

To effectively battle climate change, the United States must phase out its use of petroleum-based transportation fuels by switching to electric vehicles powered with renewable energy.

Drilling and fracking

Turning oil into fuel is a complex process, with environmental and human impacts at every stage. Oil is extracted by drilling, fracking, or mining. Drilling is closely associated with oil spills and accidents, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, while fracking is linked with toxic water and air pollution, methane leaks, and earthquakes.

Once extracted, crude oil is transported via pipelines, barges, tankers, trains, and trucks to processing facilities where it's refined into fuels and other petroleum products. Oil spills during transportation are increasingly common and difficult to clean up, while refining the oil can be very energy intensive.

If we are going to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and provide needed relief to communities who are inequitably burdened by the production and use of oil, we need a fast and fair phaseout.


More than 30 years ago, scientists at ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies considered how climate change should factor into decisions about new fossil fuel extraction. Their concerns echoed the latest science of the time, which showed an increasing link between fossil fuels and global warming.

Instead of acting, the industry engaged in a three-decades-long campaign against climate action. Its tactics included everything from counterfeit science, to the harassment of scientists, to manufactured uncertainty with no scientific basis.

Today, many oil companies and trade associations continue to spread disinformation and obstruct climate policies. All of them are aware of the role their products play in climate impacts.

To effectively combat climate change, and reduce the harmful consequences of oil use, we need to mitigate the political power of oil companies. You can help.

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