We have a strange relationship with petroleum. On one hand we love it. We rely on it to get us from A to B in a car or aeroplane; it heats and lights our homes; and provides much of the energy that makes our everyday life comfortable. There’s no doubt that without it our lives would be much poorer. But it demands a high price in return. It pollutes the environment, we fight wars over it, it’s dirty and dangerous to remove from the ground, and it will eventually run out. Why does it continue to dominate our energy supply?
The oil industry developed in the mid 1800s as kerosene became widely used for oil lamps. It really took off with the invention of the internal combustion engine, and it since then it’s just kept growing and growing.
It’s this longevity that is part of the reason for its success. Over the past 150 years a massive infrastructure has grown up around oil. We have plenty of refineries to process the crude oil, transport networks to move it around continents, and storage facilities aplenty. Oil wouldn’t still be being used unless it worked. And it does work, extremely well. It’s packed with energy, making it very efficient. We understand its chemistry, its physical properties; in short, we know how it works.
And there’s plenty of it. Although it’s difficult to accurately assess how much oil is still left in the world, even the most conservative estimates still give us a few more decades at least. 150 years has given us plenty of experience in finding it, even in the deepest waters and most inhospitable environments.
Because we’ve used oil for so long, our technologies are intimately linked to it. Power stations, combustion engines, they’re all designed to run on oil. If it ran out tomorrow we haven’t got an immediate replacement to step up to the plate and take its place.
But as we know our reliance on oil has made us pay a heavy price. Burning it pollutes the atmosphere and is likely to contribute to global warming. The process of extracting it damages the environment, especially when it leaks – witness the recent Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster off the Gulf of Mexico. And don’t forget the human cost as well, in terms of lives lost. Even transporting it is dangerous; there have been enough oil tankers washed onto rocks in storms to remind us of this. The Exxon Valdez, which ran aground off Alaska in 1989, dumped (at a conservative estimate) 11 million gallons of oil into a pristine wildlife habitat, blighting it for years.
One day, oil will run out. It’s a finite resource and as resources become scarce, prices will rise. Many large oil reserves are in politically unstable areas of the globe, making us dependant on some often unsavory regimes. We are finding alternatives, albeit slowly. Let’s hope the replacements for oil have more pros than cons.