Our oil dependence

G Magazine

Just how addicted to oil are we?

oil well

Credit: iStockphoto

- Advertisement -

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.

Locked in

So oil is important - what of it? Humans are an adaptable species and we have a range of clever technologies at our disposable. If we don't have petrol to power our cars, then why don't we use biofuel instead? Better yet, let's start manufacturing electric cars and make more of public transport.

So what if many of our plastics, pharmaceuticals and food products are no longer available. Surely we can employ alternative materials.

Unfortunately, our dependence on petroleum and petroleum-based products (President George W. Bush described it as an addiction) and the scale of the potential problem means switching to alternatives won't happen overnight and it won't happen without significant disruption.

Worst of all, this isn't the idle speculation of a few worrywarts. The prospect of a world facing a limited or declining supply of oil has given rise in recent years to a growing cadre of petroleum experts, scientists and economists who devote their energies to exploring the consequences of an oil-less world.

It's known as the 'peak oil' movement. Peak oil is the point at which maximum global petroleum production is reached and then slides into decline.

The thing is, when you do the numbers the world is frighteningly under-prepared for oil shortages. Take transport as an example. According to the Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO Australia), Australian transport authorities have no serious planning in place to handle a major fuel shortage. Switching to public transport simply won't meet the need.

According to ASPO Australia's convenor, Bruce Robinson, no Australian city has anywhere near enough public transport capacity to handle even a quarter of existing car travellers if they needed to use buses and trains instead.

And switching to alternative fuels simply can't happen quickly enough. The volumes are just too big. For example, ASPO points out that diverting Australia's entire wheat crop to produce ethanol (biofuel) would replace less than 10 per cent of our oil usage.

In 2005 the US Department of Energy released the Hirsch Report, one of the most comprehensive studies on the likelihood of the occurrence of peak oil and its consequences. It found that world oil peaking is going to happen, and it's likely to be abrupt and disruptive. Although it needn't be if we prepare for it.

But here's the rub - given our total dependence on oil we need to prepare well before peak oil hits us if we're to avoid dire consequences (and by dire consequences think economic collapse and revolution).

The end of oil

So, how much time is enough? The Hirsch reports estimates it will take 20 years of mitigation - weaning ourselves off oil - if we're to adapt to declining oil supplies without substantial impacts.

If we were to rush the transition and compress it down to 10 years - which would require extraordinary efforts from governments, industry, and consumers - there would only be moderate impacts, maybe only a worldwide recession.

Many oil watchers believe peak oil is close. Some at ASPO have nominated that 2012 might well be the year, give or take five years. Recently, Royal Dutch Shell chief executive Jeroen van der Veer nominated 2015 as D-day. In other words, it might be happening even as you read this but will take a few years before it's acknowledged.

Peak oil is no fantasy. What's more, the experts are convinced that, given our total dependence on oil, the very realisation that oil supplies are declining will be enough to tip the world towards chaos.

If you want to explore the world of the 'peakists' a good place to start is at ASPO Australia www.aspo-australia.org.au.

If you'd like to look past the numbers and consider the many little ways an oil squeeze will begin to dominate your life, check out the 'World without oil' website http://worldwithoutoil.org. It explores the first 32 weeks of a hypothetical global oil crisis through the imaginings of a vast number of ordinary people.