Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Climate Matters. O is for oil.

This post is for O in the A-Z blogging Challenge 2012. Link in the sidebar.

Oil is one of those things we used not to think about very much until we saw more and more on the news about the cost of oil rising above $100US a barrel. When the cost of filling the fuel tank in your car rises, it begins to hit home that something unpleasantly out of your control is happening.

In a nutshell, it was only about 150 years or so ago that oil came to be routinely used for more than as a fuel for lamps as people worked out how useful it was for cheap apparently limitless energy. It was abundant and the byproducts came to be used for all sorts of things beyond the obvious. Nylon for clothing, medicines, plastics and many, many other everyday items as well, all owe their existence to oil. Just looking around me now, I see book covers, chairs, curtains, an iron, plastic around my computer, cables, toys, floor coverings, a purse, artificial flowers, containers that plants came in, shopping bags, buttons, shoes - and the list goes on and on and on......

Image from Amazon
In The Transition Handbook (which is a very readable, positive book) Rob Hopkins discusses both peak oil and climate change when sharing some options he sees for our future. They are inextricably linked and to think of one without the other only gives half the picture.

Cheap, plentiful oil has enabled our society to be structured as it is. Many things around us use oil in their manufacture and for their transportation around our Earth, and naturally it’s hard to imagine any other reality. When the cost of oil rises, so do many other commodities and we struggle to make ends meet. Eventually we have a choice - either work longer hours and take a second job to continue our current rate of consumption - or change our habits to consume less.

Why is the cost of oil rising? Oil is a finite resource, and in approximately 200 years, we’ve extracted all the easy to get at reserves. Whilst it’s hard to get reliable data on production figures and reserves, those in the know estimate that production has already peaked (ie the oil glass is half empty and being consumed at ever increasing rates) and that there will inevitably come a day when demand outstrips supply and prices will begin to rise sharply. This is irrespective of which political party is in power, and however much the oil companies try to sugar coat the situation.

Naturally enough, oil companies have used the easy to get at reserves first. There are less discoveries now, and the companies are doing their best to extract every last drop from the most challenging areas of our Earth. Tar sands oil is very dense, it can be dug out of the ground with massive machinery and the sand is then washed to extract the oil. This process produces carbon-dioxide (one of the greenhouse gasses), uses vast quantities of water that then needs to be treated before being dumped back in the ground. (see also F Fracking)  Caribou herds, wolves and native peoples are deemed inconvenient and removed often forcefully and with little regard for their welfare.

We're encouraged to believe that we can't survive without plentiful fossil fuels. However, there will come a time when we have to. Common sense would say that to begin seriously looking at and promoting investment in all alternatives would be a reassuring way for communities to face our future post oil. Unfortunately (at least in Australia) we're encouraged to believe that the only way forward is to use all deposits of oil, gas and coal before we build the infrastructure for renewables. Unfortunately this black and white either/or attitude discourages investment, research and innovation and thus has a negative affect on jobs growth in the sustainable energy sector. In addition, the ongoing jobs created by the mining of fossil fuels are minimal and growing at a painfully slow rate in comparison to other sectors.

The excitement about pockets of difficult to extract oil and the frantic insistence that all is well, obscures the need to reassess our reliance and addiction. The investment in advertisements and obfuscation point to a defensive industry on attack rather than one that is genuinely secure, adaptable, innovative and comfortable.

A word I heard used recently about the negativity and undermining practises surrounding renewable energy was "obstructive" - unfortunately it seems to be an accurate word.
Shale Oil production at Newnes, near Wollemi National Park. NSW.
This complex operated in the early 1900's. Info here.

Last year for the letter O, I wrote about Obstructive and Outrageous Behaviour associated with Workplace Bullying. Here and Outrageous here.



Liza said...

Wind turbines are starting to crop up around here. I was thinking the recently that with luck, some day we'll be as used to seeing them as telephone wires and poles. For now, folks seem to have mixed feelings...

Two women with a mission said...

Great Post, we agree we are to dependant on oil. We(people)need to lower our consumption but need to trully make an effort to do so and consciously change our habits. Goverments should give more incentives, support, promote and make solar and renewable energies more affordable to consumers.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue .. shale fracking is being looked at here, and we have masses of wind turbines -

I agree we need to do something about oil and 'our needs' .. but every time we start a new 'mining' site we completely disturb the ground and all that relies on it .. or the seas .. and millions of years of ocean life or thousands of years if the Ice Age was relevant is disturbed ...

I don't like upsetting Nature .. the Great Barrier Reef is one such place ..

Cheers - it's not easy ... Hilary