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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thoughts on oil.

Obligatory disclaimer...

Like most people of my generation, I was taught about how terrible oil is, and what an evil it is that we use it, and are so dependent on it. I was told Big Oil and Big Industry wanted nothing more than to rape our world of natural resources, while somehow collaborating to overcharge us for those resources, all in the name of Mamon, and the Almighty Dollar. While I was in school in the 70's, we were taught we'd run out of oil by the mid-80's. In the 80's, I was told we'd run out in the 90's. Now I hear we're going to run out within 200 years. We were also told we'd run out of coal and other natural resources, all because we humans were so greedy and destructive.

We were taught that, by the late 80's, the world's population would be so huge, the Earth could no longer feed us all. People would be starving to death, with no way to feed everyone, unless we were lucky enough to have our numbers reduced through some terrible plague.

Oh, and we were also told we were going into another ice age.

For now, though, I'll just stick to oil, since it's so high on the list of evils things contributing to climate change.

Like most people, I was taught that there is only so much oil in the world, and then that's it. What I wasn't taught is that we don't actually know how much oil there actually is - I was under the impression that we'd found all the oil we'll every find, and that's it. I do remember wondering why the earth stopped making oil, but assumed it had to have something to do with us humans.

Now that I'm older, I've seen just how wrong these predictions have been, but I still didn't question the claims made about the oil industry very much. Personally, I don't like that we're so dependent on oil, but that has as much to do with the fact that.. well, I don't like being dependent. I don't like that there are no viable choices to gas and oil - especially as the prices increase so much. Sure, we use public transit now, but the rising prices will effect us, too, and the trickle down of costs means increased rent and higher costs in general, as fuel costs get factored into retail prices.

I also am aware of the dangers of oil. We lived in Victoria during the Exxon Valdez fiasco, and saw how the heroic efforts of so many were able to clean it up.

One of the things that I wondered about was just how people discovered oil? I knew of oil as something that had to be searched for, then drilled for; that it was something that only existed deep underground. That question was recently answered for me.

While I still have no idea about place like the Middle East, I read how farmers in Texas found themselves with a problem. A substance they called "rock oil" was seeping out of the ground, rendering the land in those areas useless for agricultural use and lowering the value of their land. When people discovered a use for this stuff, they were more than happy to get rid of it. In reading that, this farm girl completely understood. I could easily picture myself in their position. I'd be glad to get this toxic substance off my land, too - and if this stuff was actually useful enough that I'd make some money off of it, all the better!

Then a thought occurred to me. If a spill such as the Exxon Valdez is such an environmental disaster, why is it that removing this naturally produced toxin a bad thing? Shouldn't we be *wanting* to get it our of our environment? Yes, I know there are issues regarding how we obtain the oil and refine it; yet, I know oil and its products have their own environment problems; yes, I agree we can do better in those areas. I don't argue that at all. But now that the connection was made, I can't help but thinking that removing oil from the environment is actually a benefit.

One of the issues of oil scarcity, when it comes to predictions of how long we've got before it runs out, no one ever brought up that these numbers deal with "proven" reserves. I had no idea of this concept. The reality is that we have no idea how much oil there actually is. Not only that, but the processes and conditions in the earth that made that oil in the first place, continue today.

Though it wasn't named as such, however, I do remember one teacher who touched on the subject. Proven reserves is not just how much oil (or other resource) we know about, but whether or not we can actually access the oil we do know about. The teacher explained it by using the Alberta tar sands as an example. We knew, even back then, that there were huge amounts of oil in the area. Enough to supply us with oil for a very long time. The problem, the teacher explained to us, is that it cost more to remove it from the tar sands than the oil was worth. That's why, he told us, we will never be able to use the oil in the Alberta tar sands.

Obviously, he was wrong. Based on what we knew at the time, it made sense. Since then, not only has the price of oil gone up, but the technology changed. Now, removing that oil from the tar sands is profitable, and Alberta is going through a major economic boom because of it.

I've heard many people complaining, however, about how terrible this is. Big Oil, I'm told, is making a huge environment mess up there, and they shouldn't be allowed to take the oil out of the tar sands. It should be left alone, untouched.

What I'm finding out, though, is that things aren't quite so black and white. First off, I find myself asking again - why is removing that oil from the environment a bad thing? Especially when I learned this detail. After the oil companies have removed what they can from an area, they are required to return that area to better-than-before condition. They must replace the soil (now clean of oil) and trees. Sections of the tar sands have already been returned to this state. Yes, there are problems that need to be dealt with, but guess what? The evil Big Oil companies are actually working very hard to find ways to fix those problems (to reduce the use of fresh water, or find a working alternative, for example).

I'll be touching on the subject a bit more later, but one of the things to think about is what an incredibly positive effect oil has had on our society. Before cars, horses were our major mode of transportation. One horse produces 40 pounds of manure, and that manure was a problem in public areas. Sanitation was a huge issue. People loved cars because they were cleaner than horses. They may not have known about the danger of exhaust emissions at the time, but once they did, changes were made to improve on them, and they continue to be made today. In the mean time, we no longer have to worry about stepping in horse pucks on the streets, and all the issues of insects and the spread of illnesses that go with it.

Think for a moment on all the things we have now that we wouldn't, had it not been for finding a use for that black gunk seeping out of farmer's fields. As I sit writing this, I try to think of all the things that are made using oil products, directly or indirectly, and quickly lose count. Anything plastic, like the pieces of the machine that keeps my husband breathing at night. Anything that requires transportation, the the food in my fridge. Anything that requires machinery for manufacture - with is pretty much everything else. Heck, even the apartment building itself.

Come to think of it, I don't think there's anything at all in my apartment that doesn't somehow rely on the use of oil products at some point.

I absolutely believe that we need to move away from reliance on oil, if only because that dependency removes a level of control over our lives.

I absolutely believe we need to solve the very real problems of pollution that comes with oil.

I no longer, however, believe our uses of oil to be so terrible a thing. There are far too many benefits for me to feel at all guilty anymore about it.


  1. I share your idea that we need to solve the very real problems of pollution that comes with oil. one of friends on said to me nowadays people can not have oil and oil can not produce once more, we need use it proplely.

  2. I am so glad you brought this up! We are going to have to sit down and talk soon. I have been reading a bunch of blogs about reducing footprints and living with less, and the whole concept of peak oil and how some people think that the world is basically coming to an end.

    One of the most interesting is this one:

    She, and some other people, are trying to reduce their use of gasoline, water, oil, electricity, and so on, down to 10% of what the average American citizen does. She has wonderful facts on her site, and tonnes of thoughtful posts that have really got me thinking.

    I am not convinced that the world is coming to an end. I have a lot of faith in technology, innovation, and human spirit and creativity. On the other hand, I firmly believe in being a good steward of our resources. After all, "we don't inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children." I have been inspired to calculate how much gasoline, electricity, water, and gas we use every month, and I am SHOCKED! Gasoline isn't so bad, but the WATER. I had no idea! It is really bad.

    I intend to clean up my act a whole lot, become far less wasteful, and far more conscious of what we really use and really need. At the same time, I am going to keep reading and learning and living and hopefully figure out what is right, what is wrong, and what is what. There is just so much confusion right now.

    Please keep posting!

  3. I am SHOCKED! Gasoline isn't so bad, but the WATER. I had no idea!

    No kidding! When it comes to oil and gas, I'm far more concerned about the water issues than anything else in the industry. It's astounding.

  4. Anonymous7:35 AM

    good article


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