Saturday, Sept. 18, 2010

The End of Oil?

By David Luhrssen
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Oil has seeped into every crevice of our material lives. Petroleum products fuel our cars, bring our food and goods to market and fly us across the world. Petroleum is the basis for the plastic that permeates most everything, including pesticides and fertilizers, polyester and toothpaste. This might not be the worst of all possible worlds to live in except for two crucial factors: we will eventually run out of oil and as we burn the substance at ever faster rates, the global climate is being changed in ways that could make the Earth inhospitable to humanity.

The History Channel has introduced a line of DVDs under the rather unfortunate title of “Instant Expert.” No one becomes an expert instantly on anything, but let’s not quibble: “A Quick Guide to the Story of Oil,” one of the titles in the series, is an excellent overview of the natural and increasingly unnatural history of the substance that permeates our society and makes our current civilization possible. Our ancestors lived in the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. We are in the Oil Age and our epoch is probably on the verge of a steep decline.

“The Story of Oil” begins with stardust, the primordial carbon from which all life—and virtually everything else—was shaped. Thought of poetically, oil is millions of years of sunlight concentrated into a liquid. The process began with carbon molecules in the microscopic photosynthetic plankton of the primeval sea and continued through millions of years, accumulating the organic remains of dead fauna and flora (“fossil fuels”) under enormous geological pressure.

Although the ancient Greeks and Chinese found uses for the petroleum near the Earth’s surface, the modern story began in 1859—not in Arabia or even Texas but Pennsylvania, where the first oil rig was installed. Within decades the Pennsylvania wells were tapped out and prospectors sought oil elsewhere. Although the lesson of the Pennsylvania fields was lost on most people, in the 1950s a Shell Oil geologist, M. King Hubbert, predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970. He seems to have been correct. Hubbert added that global production would peak in 2000 and many geologists suspect he was close to the truth. We may already have drained more than half of the world’s reserves at a time when consumption is increasing along with population.

“The Study of Oil” was completed before the recent catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, but makes the almost prophetic point that the challenge of deep sea drilling is being driven by an awareness within the industry that old wells are drying up. And yet there is little urgency among business and political leaders who remain intoxicated by the untenable notion of endless economic expansion. As for global climate change, one of the sad ironies is that carbon emission could transform the Earth into the sort of Jurassic greenhouse that inaugurated the process of carbon into oil. It would be a world fit for dinosaurs but not for people.

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