The arguments I keep hearing for why we continue to burn oil and coal to fuel our way of life is that they are abundant, cheap and we are just are not far enough along with renewable alternatives to switch. Then there are the barriers to any climate progress--from Big Coal to the US Chamber of Commerce, from the coral of corrupt politicians attacking the Clean Air Act to an administration too timid to defend it. We're not going to suddenly stop developing our renewable sources, but the sobering fact is that they are nowhere near ready to replace our addiction to crude. We're still decades away from a full shift to renewables... And that's time we don't have.
In 2009, all energy from renewable sources — solar, geothermal, biomass waste, wind, biofuels, wood and hydro-power— made up only 8% of U.S. energy consumption. Also consider that the U.S. was second in the world that year when it came to renewable electricity production.
During the speech that Obama gave at George Washington University on March 30th, the President said, “The only way for America’s energy supply to be truly secure is by permanently reducing our dependence on oil,” he said. “We’re going to have to find ways to boost our efficiency so that we use less oil. We’ve got to discover and produce cleaner, renewable sources of energy that also produce less carbon pollution that is threatening our climate. And we have to do it quickly.” My response to that is - talk is cheap!
What I hope to illuminate in this post is that when all the costs are figured in, it will become evident that it is actually insanely expensive. So much so, that we can not afford to continue to burn it without the risk of environmental bankruptcy! So, here’s the argument for why we must find a way to transition ourselves away from the use of fossil fuels and do so now.
First - The Facts
Oil is currently the life blood of our economy. According to the US Department of Energy, oil supplies more than 40% of our total energy needs and more than 99% of the fuel we use in our cars and trucks. The world consumes nearly 95 million barrels/day, with the US consuming over 20% of that. (The US represents approximately only 4.5% of the world population yet we consume more than 20% of the Oil!)
Total annual US consumption – 7 billion barrels! Now, the US only produces around 2.08 billion barrels/year. Therefore, the US must import approximately 4.92 billion barrels. Much of these imports come from areas of the world that are prone to strife and instability. Like the Persian Gulf which includes Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Other large suppliers to the US, like Venezuela and Nigeria, are down right hostile towards us or funnel income from oil revenues to extremists who want to harm us.
The fact is that the use, production, transportation and sale of oil cause problems in many regions of the world both in environmental degradation and loss of human life.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq began under the codename "Operation Iraqi Liberation", later renamed "Operation Iraqi Freedom,” because the acronym for it was O.I.L. (Maybe a little too obvious to the world why we were cared so much about going there?)
Iraq has a high quantity of oil. The U.S. Department of Energy claims that Iraqi oil reserves may be home to over 400 billion barrels of oil. For this reason, Iraq is high on the list of oil-related conflicts today, just as it was in the Gulf War. The price tag for that war was 3 trillion dollars. According to the latest numbers from the US Energy Information Administration, we only import around 350,000 barrels/day from Iraq. That’s an expensive price tag for just a little over 1% of our oil imports!
The conflict in Darfur was supported by the sale of oil to China. In a statement released by Human Rights First, an NGO based in New York. “China's thirst for oil is causing bloodshed.” There is a direct link between China's rising imports of Sudanese oil and sales of Chinese small weapons to Khartoum.
The Niger Delta in Nigeria has been the attention of environmentalists, human rights activists and fair trade advocates around the world. The conflict there arose in the early 1990s over tensions between the foreign oil corporations, (Mobil, Chevron, Shell, Elf, Agip) and a number of the Niger Delta’s minority ethnic groups who felt they were being exploited, (which of course they were) particularly the Ogoni and the Ijaw.
Do you really want to know the truth why France and England are so “concerned” about Libya? Libya is OPEC's 8th largest oil producer. Its stock of the commodity tops any other country in Africa and that "excludes" its massive oil reserves, thought to be under 75 percent of the country's land.
The International Energy Agency says that more than 70 percent of Libya's oil is exported to European nations such as France, Ireland, Germany, Spain and especially Italy. To protect their own interests, many have spent years investing in Libya's oil industry. By the end of October 2010, the number of French companies in Libya had nearly doubled from 2008 - most of them in the energy sector.
Environmental damage can also be a result of conflict over oil-producing regions. Environmental harm associated with oil resources can either be attributed to a side effect of conflict, or, in some cases, it is associated with military aggression that is intended to damage the natural resources of the region.
The Cost To Our Environment.
Although much of the world depends on the production or the trade of oil to fuel its economies, these activities can cause severe damage to the environment, either knowingly or unintentionally. Oil production, and/or transportation, can disrupt everything from animal and fish life to human populations that inhabit the region. Oil waste dumping, production pollution, and spills wreak havoc on the surrounding wildlife and habitat. It goes so far as to threaten the extinction of some land, air, and sea animals along with several plant species. In fact, the actual drilling and transportation of oil can both wield as much, if not more, negative impact to the environment than the use of the fuel itself. Let us not forget the Gulf Spill and the Exxon Valdez to name just two.
One of the most controversial and debated aspects of oil is whether or not burning it is causing changes to our climate. I said debated, not because there isn’t overwhelming evidence to show that it is, but because Big Oil knows that their very survival depends on keeping that debate going.
Fact – The burning of oil and gas generates carbon dioxide.
Fact – Over the last 400,000 years the natural upper limit of atmospheric CO2 concentrations is assumed from the ice core data to be about 300 ppm.
Fact - Prior to the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the carbon dioxide level was about 280 parts per million.
Fact - It is currently at 391 ppm and rising.
When oil and gasoline are burned, carbon dioxide is the resulting by product. A gallon of gasoline is assumed to produce 19.4 pounds of CO2 when burned. This is calculated from values in the Code of Federal Regulations, which EPA uses to calculate the fuel economy of vehicles, and relies on assumptions consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines. Annual, human created, CO2 out put .......29 gigatons! To put that in perspective, 1 gigaton = 1 billion tons and 1 ton = 2000 pounds. This is why atmospheric CO2 concentration have risen 30% in just the last 150 years.
The Greenhouse Effect
The greenhouse effect is a process by which thermal radiation from the Earths surface is absorbed by atmospheric greenhouse gases and is re-radiated in all directions. Since part of this re-radiation is back towards the surface of the Earth, energy is transferred to the surface and the lower atmosphere. As a result, the temperature there is higher than it would be if direct heating by solar radiation were the only warming mechanism.
Carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, and the planet becomes hotter. As the surface temperature increases it’s causing the melting of the world’s glaciers, Greenland’s Ice Sheet and worst of all the Polar Ice Cap.
The retreat of glaciers since 1850 affects the availability of fresh water for irrigation and domestic use, mountain recreation, animals and plants that depend on glacier-melt, and in the longer term, the level of the oceans.
The biggest concern though is the disappearance of the Polar Ice Cap due to global warming. The Polar Ice Cap serves an important role in regulating the Earths temperature. Albedo, or reflective coefficient, is the diffuse reflectivity or reflecting power of a surface. In this case, the white of the Polar Ice reflects the radiant heat back into space. But, as the Polar Ice shrinks the darker water around it begins to absorb more of that heat. Take the example of wearing a white hat while out in the bright sun as opposed to wearing a black hat. Which one will keep you cooler?
What is being created is a “feed back loop.” In a feedback loop, the rising temperature on the Earth changes the environment in ways that then create even more heat. Many scientists consider feedback loops the single-biggest threat to civilization from global warming. Past a certain point -- the tipping point, they say -- there may be no stopping the changes.
Scientists discovered that as global warming thaws and dries out the vast tundra, old decayed vegetation releases carbon dioxide and methane. They are the same greenhouse gasses that come from car and plane exhausts, and power-plant chimneys -- and the tundra releasing all its carbon dioxide and methane could accelerate global warming beyond control.
A hotter planet means more water will evaporate filling the atmosphere with more moisture. When that moisture falls, it does not always fall when and where we would like it to.
Oil contains sulphur, which when burnt, forms sulphur dioxide and sulphur trioxide – these compounds combine with atmospheric moisture to form sulphuric acid, leading to ‘acid rain’. This can lead to destruction of forests and the progressive erosion of rock and masonry structures, both natural and man-made.
Oceans are at present CO2 sinks, and represent the largest active carbon sink on Earth, absorbing more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide that humans create.
A carbon sink is a natural or artificial reservoir that accumulates and stores some carbon-containing chemical compound for an indefinite period. The process by which carbon sinks remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is known as carbon sequestration.
When the CO2 mixes with H20 in creates carbonic acid. The alkalinity of our oceans is changing, causing them to become more acidic. The increase in carbonic acid in the oceans are causing many animals, like plankton, to die and is corroding to shells and coral.
So-called “dead zones”– patches of ocean lacking aerobic (oxygen breathing) life–will most likely increase due to a rise in carbon dioxide (CO2.)
The number of dead zones (low-oxygen regions that kill fish) off our coasts is growing. In some spots off Washington state and Oregon , the almost complete absence of oxygen has left piles of Dungeness crab carcasses littering the ocean floor, killed off 25-year-old sea stars, crippled colonies of sea anemones and produced mats of potentially noxious bacteria that thrive in such conditions. Scientists say this is all related - climate change, acidification, and dead zones.“Reefs at Risk Revisited” a report released last month by the World Resources Institute, lays out a gloomy future for coral reefs, often referred to as the rainforests or nurseries of the ocean. The world’s reefs are home to the vast majority of the world’s fish species, yet the combination of acidification and warming ocean temperatures means that 75% of the world’s coral reefs are currently under threat of bleaching and death, and that figure will expand to 90 percent by 2030 and nearly 100% by 2050.
The actual byproducts that result from the burning and use of oil are not the only aspect of the oil argument that may be harmful to the environment.
Drilling for oil is a definite source of waste that harms the environment. The most common problem comes in the drilling fluids that are used. Drilling sites use oil-based-mud as drilling fluid to keep cuttings from the drill cleared away. The problem is that in the mud there is both diesel fluid and mineral oil. Both of these are harmful to the environment.The effects of oil on marine life are caused by either the physical nature of the oil (physical contamination and smothering) or by its chemical components (toxic effects and accumulation leading to tainting). Marine life may also be affected by clean-up operations or indirectly through physical damage to the habitats in which plants and animals live.
Runoffs from petroleum processing and petrochemical plants have dumped tons of toxic wastes into nearby waters. These eventually seep into the ground polluting pastures and cropland. Furthermore, entire bays and lagoons along coasts have been fouled by oil spills and runoff of toxic chemicals.
The environmental damage that is a result of oil retraction and production also directly affects human life. Damage can include pollution of water resources and contamination of the soil. Humans are affected by environmental devastation because it is damaging to vegetation, livestock, and to the health of the human body itself. Oil spills can interfere with the normal working of power stations and desalination plants that require a continuous supply of clean seawater and with the safe operation of coastal industries and ports.
Oil is not a renewable resource. It has taken millions of years to create the reserve that currently exists. Petroleum is formed through the geologic transformations of ancient plant and animal remains over millions of years. The pressure, heat and metamorphosis turns the material into oil, hence the name fossil fuels.
Petroleum is not a renewable resource because it can be exhausted. While new oil is theoretically being formed from ancient materials, it isn't formed fast enough to meet today's demand and therefore isn't a renewable resource.
As the supply begins to run out there will be a global “power struggles” (aka wars) to control the remaining reserves. The stage just before this happens is called “peak oil.”
Peak oil refers to the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of oil production enters terminal decline. The concept is based on the observed production rates of individual oil wells, and the combined production rate of a field of related oil wells. The aggregate production rate from an oil field over time appears to grow exponentially until the rate peaks and then declines, sometimes rapidly, until the field is depleted. It has been shown to be applicable to the sum of a nation’s domestic production rate, and is similarly applied to the global rate of petroleum production. Peak oil is not about running out of oil, but the peaking and subsequent decline of the production rate of oil.
Many dire predictions of future oil production operate on the thesis that either the peak has already occurred, the global system is on the cusp of the peak, or that it will occur shortly and, as proactive mitigation may no longer be an option, predict a global depression, perhaps even initiating a chain reaction of the various feedback mechanisms in the global market which might stimulate a collapse of global industrial civilization, potentially leading to large population declines within a short period. There are signs that the current price of oil ($106/ barrel) are beginning to strain the global economic recovery.
We are entering a new era, one of rapid and often unpredictable climate change. In fact, the new climate norm is change. The 25 warmest years on record have come since 1980. And the 10 ten warmest since global record keeping began in 1880 have come since 1998.
The effects of rising temperature are pervasive. Higher temperatures diminish crop yields, melt the mountain glaciers that feed rivers, generate more-destructive storms, increase the severity of flooding, intensify drought, cause more-frequent and destructive wildfires, and alter ecosystems everywhere. We are altering the earth’s climate, setting in motion trends we do not always understand with consequences we cannot anticipate all because we “think” that we are using the easiest, cheapest and most efficient form of energy – Oil.