Our recent Friday evening meeting brought to light some interesting queries. The one I want to focus on is the question of how dependent we are on oil, especially within our own homes. A question mark seemed to have been raised over the reality of our dependence, which I think is a serious misjudgement. Just look around your house and see what things are actually made out of oil first of all. The obvious place to begin is with plastic. In my flat I can see a telephone, a computer, printer, loudspeakers, all the wiring, plug and lamp sockets, lampshades, plugs, clock, DVD player, DVDs and CDs, a/c, kettle, toaster, recharger, washing-up bowl, dish-drainer, containers for various household cleansers and bathroom liquids, fridge, kitchen utensils, kids’ plates and cups, kids’ toys, piano, rubbish bins, toilet seat, mobile phone, flowerpots, and so on and so on. The list is virtually endless. That’s just plastic. Then there’s make-up, nail polish, lipstick, hair dye, pen ink, medicines, candles, milk cartons, polishes, frozen food packaging, soapless detergents, synthetic rubber on bikes and shoes, curtains, mats, some clothes (synthetics like nylon, acrylic, polyester), food additives, plasters, rope, paint, gums, crayons, solvents, lubricating oils, rubbing alcohol…..This is by no means exhaustive, but it only deals with what is actually made of oil. The real problem lies in the fact that virtually everything in the flat, including the building materials were transported here by oil. Very few things nowadays come from the local area; everything comes from afar, and it’s not just that your computer was made a certain number of kilometres away, but that each of the components in it came from a wide range of different countries. I read recently – I can’t remember where – someone saying we all know about the 1,500 km salad, but we should be talking about the 15,000 km computer. 95% of all transport fuel is oil, be it gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, or bunker fuel, so getting to work and going on holiday can’t be done by most of us without oil. Extracting coal, uranium, gas and oil itself, as well as ores and minerals needs oil. Fertilisers and pesticides, irrigation of farmland, farm equipment for ploughing, planting, and harvesting, and then transporting the harvest to factories to be processed all requires oil; refridgeration and transportation around the world, and the consumers driving to the supermarkets to buy the produce all takes oil. And, of course, the manufacture of renewable energy systems requires oil. Oil really is the lifeblood of modern industrial civilisation.
So, how much of the stuff is left? Well, that’s not actually the most useful question to ask. There are possibly vast amounts of oil, or stuff that can be converted into oil, under the ground, but the important thing is the rate at which you can extract it, and the amount of energy it takes to extract it in relation to the amount of energy you get once you’ve extracted it. This is Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI) and it is hardly ever mentioned by any of the enthusiasts who say we’ve got billions of barrels under the ground. As for the rate of extraction, if we imagine a swimming pool full of oil but we can only extract it by using a straw, and if dozens of people want some of this oil all at the same time, then it becomes clear that they’re going to have to wait a long time before they get what they want, which will make a lot of people very angry. This is something like the situation we are heading into with peak oil, except that the easy oil which can simply be sucked out of the ground is virtually finished, and we’re left with a swimming pool full of solid bitumen which needs to be heated up until it’s fluid enough to suck up. This requires huge amounts of energy in itself and may soon reach the point where the process is so expensive that no worthwhile profit can be made on it, so it will simply remain where it is, underground.
Oil really is an amazing source of energy, and there is nothing remotely like it. It’s energy-dense, enabling you to drive a car load of people for miles on just a litre of the stuff; it’s stable and doesn’t blow up too easily in the absence of flames; it’s light and easily transported; it can magically transform itself into any number of useful things; and yet we take it utterly for granted. This stuff really is black gold and we should be treasuring every drop of it to make sure it only gets used for essential purposes, so that we can extend as much as possible the amount of time we have to effect a transition away from oil. Ultimately we should be aiming to leave all fossil fuels in the ground, and to bring that situation about as quickly as we possibly can, because if we don’t do that very soon we are going to fry the planet. Unfortunately, the chances of that happening seem to be infinitesimally small.
Oil, what is it good for? Absolutely everything. (Apologies to Edwin Starr).