Feature

Our oil dependence

G Magazine

Just how addicted to oil are we?

oil well

Credit: iStockphoto

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Oil doesn't merely lubricate our machines; it literally drives our modern mechanised world. It's the blood that courses through the veins of today's civilisation, and it lies at the very foundation of our quality of life.

The first and most obvious impact of a dearth of oil would be on transport. Petrol derived from oil is the prime energy that powers our cars and trucks.

Not only would we find it difficult to get to work, but society would find it challenging to move around the many goods and services needed to keep it functioning.

Australia uses about 45,000 megalitres of petroleum every year, 80 per cent of which is used for transport. Fifty-five per cent of road transport fuel is petrol, 39 per cent is diesel and six per cent is LPG.

Even if we found other ways of moving those goods and services around, a lack of oil would still prove very problematic because many of those products we depend upon are based on petroleum.

Most plastics, for example, are essentially oil-based, from Tupperware through to Astroturf; not to mention casings for electronic devices such as mobile phones, computers and cameras.

Most of the fabrics you wear are polymers made from oil - from nylon and rayon, to Gore-tex, polyester and polypropylene. Indeed, oil flows into almost everything we use including cosmetics, crayons and credit cards, through to shampoo, shaving cream and shoes.

The start of our addiction

Petrochemicals began to dominate the synthetics market around the middle of last century, following World War II. By the end of the 20th century, petroleum had replaced starch, vegetable oil, and cellulose, the three primary components of plant matter that had served as the feedstocks for industry in past centuries.

Today, around two thirds of our clothing is made from oil. Virtually all of our inks, paints, dyes, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and hundreds of intermediate chemicals are made from oil. Plastics have replaced glass, metals and paper in an ever-expanding variety of products.

Oil gets us around, clothes us, provides us with medicines and fills our lives with cheap, durable products. It also feeds us. The massive surge in agricultural productivity the world has witnessed since the 1940s is largely underpinned by the use of pesticides and fertilisers derived from petrochemicals combined with an increased mechanisation (driven by petrochemicals).

Indeed, modern petrochemical-based agriculture is one of the main reasons the world population has more than doubled over the last 50 years.

It's not an equation we often consider, but food equals energy. It's been estimated that every energy unit delivered from food grown using modern techniques requires over 10 energy units to produce and deliver. And that equation only makes sense when you have a cheap and abundant supply of energy - presently, that's oil.

Oil also configured our cities, towns and especially our sprawling suburbs. Only when it was cheap to get around could you allow people to live many kilometres from where they shop and work. The suburb was built on the back of the automobile, and therefore doesn't make any sense when you lose the car.

How much oil does it take to sustain our current lifestyle? Petroleum company BP estimates that in 2005 the world consumed about 82.5 million barrels of oil every day!

The biggest oil consumer in the world is the United States (no surprises here) and it gobbles up a staggering 20 million barrels every day. The next country in line is China using around seven million barrels a day. Australia gets away with using under a million barrels a day.

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