The oil spill crisis in the Gulf has noticeably turned up the volume on the topic of reducing or ending our dependence on oil. Let’s examine what that would mean.
We have all become much more familiar of late with the technology, personnel and capital required to extract oil from the ground, and from the inherent risks of that process. Millions of dollars are invested in people and equipment to bring a barrel of oil to the surface, where it is transported by tanker and/or pipeline to a refinery. Refineries are another capital intensive stop on the way to delivering products to the consumer. There the oil is cracked into its component molecules, cleaned and blended to formulate fuels, and again transported by pipelines to regions of the country not “cursed” with refineries, and distributed by truck to retail outlets where we fuel our vehicles.
Oil has recently been trading for around $75 to $78 per (42 gallon) barrel, or less than $2/gallon, and despite the voluminous capital investment required to convert it to consumer products, and the expensive logistics of distributing it, we can buy gasoline or diesel for less than $3/gallon, and can rant all the while about the “obscene” profits the oil companies are making. (One wonders how obscenely profitable BP feels these days.)
As familiar as we are with the more obvious uses for petroleum, it appears throughout the economy, often in places where it is completely unexpected. Ed Overton, LSU Professor of Environmental Sciences, was recently quoted by the Associated Press saying
“There’s nothing that we do on a daily basis that isn’t touched by petrochemicals.”
Would you like to forego your automobile and begin walking or riding your bicycle to work and reduce your dependence on oil? Sorry. Your walking shoes contain petroleum derivatives, as do the tires on your bicycle, its paint, the stickers that decorated it, and the glue that holds those stickers on.
Turn off your air conditioner and turn on your ceiling fans so less natural gas will be consumed at the generating plant that provides your electricity? Fine, but bear in mind that those ceiling fans contain a great deal of plastic, again petroleum based, and the deodorant you’ll need more of contains petroleum products, too. It’s in your furniture, your carpeting, and your clothing. It’s in the insulation that makes your home less costly to cool. It’s in your toothpaste, shaving creams, lipstick, and the packaging for those items. It’s in your milk bottles, and those convenient water bottles we’ve all come to take for granted. Other than for a few fragrances, your shampoo and the bottle you purchased it in is petroleum based.
Are you ready to start making lye soap to wash your hair?
Arguably we have become too dependent on plastics for packaging, and could revert to the days of recyclable glass bottles and containers. But how many of those were actually recycled? Milk jugs and soft drink bottles, perhaps, but did you / would you return your ketchup bottles, mayonnaise jars, beer bottles…? And how much energy does it take to produce, or melt and recycle, glass containers? How much of that energy would be from fossil fuels?
How can it be that petroleum has taken over our economy and our lifestyle?
Oil is, at its elemental core, carbon. Carbon, that horrible chemical the governments of the world is trying to outlaw. Carbon, the fundamental building block of life and of modern chemistry. Carbon is a simple atom from which countless molecules can be built. Omit it from everyday use, and we’ll be left with cotton, wool, linen and silk as our primary textiles, glass and paper for packaging, significantly heavier and less fuel efficient vehicles, and a wooden box for your home computer.
On a larger scale, what would be our energy source of choice to power industry, our vehicles, and our homes? Coal is basically the heavier fractions of oil. Natural gas is just the lighter fractions. Wind? Solar? Look what those have done to the economies of Denmark and Spain. Wind and solar power are not economically competitive without receiving subsidies generated by taxes on – you guessed it – oil.
We could lessen our dependency on oil as a fuel source for generating electricity by building nuclear facilities, and as a transportation fuel by converting to compressed natural gas, which is cleaner and less expensive, but is still a fossil fuel.
But let’s face it – we’re addicted to oil. It is the lifeblood of our world’s economy. It is even in the ink those economies use to print their currencies. While we could reduce our consumption of petroleum products, oil isn’t going away. We can produce it here, or we can buy it from our allies and our enemies, but it will continue to be used prolifically for a very long time.