Oil is the lubricant of modern civilization, and a major driver of the global eco-social crisis, manifest in unraveling ecosystems and loss of traditional cultures. By fueling an insatiable industrial-growth economy, oil’s aggregate damage to ecological, cultural, and political integrity is incalculable.
Inexpensive and abundant supplies of oil and other fossil fuels have been used to support virtually every aspect of economic life in the overdeveloped countries. Unparalleled as a transport fuel, more than 30 billion barrels of oil are consumed globally every year. The United States uses roughly 7 billion barrels annually, or 22 percent of world oil consumption. Oil is easily stored and transported and is extremely energy dense. A single liter of oil has an amount of energy equivalent to a human performing hard labor for hundreds of hours.
Oil is the residue of ancient marine plankton transformed by heat and pressure over millions of years. After an underground reservoir is discovered, drilling and pumping bring the oil to the surface where it is sent to refineries. At refineries, which are among the worst of all industrial polluters, the crude is processed into heating oil, kerosene, aviation fuel, diesel, gasoline, etc. Other products derived from oil range from cosmetics to plastics to asphalt. We even “eat” oil: The energy inputs that undergird industrial agriculture, including synthetic pesticides, largely come from oil. By some estimates, our food system uses more than seven calories of energy for every calorie of food consumed.
Finding, extracting, refining, and burning oil produces enormous land, water, and air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. Conventional oil field development creates massive networks of roads and pipelines that destroy and fragment wildlife habitat, and a vast global distribution network essentially guarantees ongoing oil spills, from leaking car motors and storage tanks to occasional Exxon Valdez– and Deepwater Horizon–scale disasters.
The oil age began in the 1850s when wells were drilled in Canada and the United States, launching a century and a half of explosive economic and population growth. The first oil to be found and produced was, naturally, the easiest to extract and therefore the cheapest; it also happened to be of superior quality, generally offering a net energy ratio of well over 25:1. Worldwide discoveries of this “conventional” oil peaked in the 1960s, however, and worldwide production has flattened over the last decade, despite record-high prices. It is widely accepted that the age of “easy” oil is coming to a close. Society is turning toward deepwater offshore oil, tar sands, oil shales, and other more challenging resources to meet ever-growing global demand for oil.