Squandering the Gift of Oil
There is something very wrong with how we are consuming oil, nature's one-time gift to humankind.
We are burning up a finite supply in transportation and heating fuels, an unwise and inefficient use of this precious resource. While we get a smooth ride, the bad actors that come out of our tailpipes - carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides - are wreaking havoc with the environment.
A staggering 93 percent of each barrel of oil we use goes into transportation and heating fuels. Petroleum has much greater utility in the other 7 percent of the barrel used to produce hydrocarbon feedstocks for plastics and a host of other things like rugs, drapes, clothing, paints and varnishes, drink cups, plates and bowls, milk and water bottles, pharmaceuticals and medical devices. The majority of these are recyclable, so they don't fit into the one-time-use category.
But it may be virtually impossible to replace carbon-based fuels. You would have to not only reinvent propulsion systems in all classes of vehicles, but also create an infrastructure for hydrogen conversion or battery conversion that mirrors our current $10 trillion oil infrastructure.
This is why no comprehensive energy policy has ever been acted upon in Congress since the 1973 oil embargo, which almost paralyzed transportation in the U.S. and drove prices sky-high. It is evident that here in the U.S., energy independence, a much talked about issue, is largely a fantasy.
Since 1972, oil production here in America has been on the decline. No government tax incentives to encourage more production are going to reverse that decline. By and large, the American energy consumer is the least conscious on the planet. Our supply of energy has been so cheap and reliable for so long that most of us don't give it a second thought.
Our politicians remain locked in political denial. Far too many key legislators in Washington, D.C., get elected on the support of political action committee money coming from big oil, coal interests and auto companies. And in this politically sensitive environment of sound bites and economic fragility, what politicians are going to run on a green platform that will substantially increase the cost of energy to consumers and industry?
American knowhow has been at the forefront of innovation for the past century in many fields, but the business of transforming our energy economy to a more sensible and sustainable energy system has stalled.
'Easy Oil' Already Found
Oil is a finite substance. It is estimated that of the 3 trillion barrels of oil in the ground before Drake's discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859, about 1 trillion to 1.2 trillion barrels remains. A good percentage of this is deep underwater and/or in parts of the world that will make drilling for it and delivering it quite expensive.
For the most part, all the easy oil has been found. Sixty-five percent of the remaining oil lies beneath the sands of the five Persian Gulf states, and the balance of major deposits are believed to be in Venezuela Russia and the Gulf of Mexico.
Contrary to most people's understanding, oil does not collect in underground lakes or reservoirs. From its conception, it is trapped in porous subsurface rock formations. It is the result of huge, layered accumulations of living organisms that decomposed over millions of years. Unlike coal, which is found close to the surface and derives mainly from plant life, oil is the result of huge blooms of plankton and other microscopic life forms rich in fat content, which sank to the bottom of ocean floors over time to create thick, hardened mats of nutrient-rich rock.
Over time these nutrient deposits were capped with megatons of sediment flowing into the oceans at the mouths of Earth's major river systems. This trapped organic matter was "cooked," or hydrocarbon-bonded, into oil molecules at depths of from 7,500 to 15,000 feet, with temperatures in the range of 180 to 295 degrees Fahrenheit.
The combined heat and pressure trapped the resulting oil molecules into porous rock layers. Organics at depths below this window and at higher temperatures were either destroyed or "cracked" into what we call natural gas. The pressures under which this oil was trapped in this porous rock were tremendous. Thus, when a drill bit punctured it, a violent eruption of oil would spew a hundred feet aboveground into what we commonly know as a gusher.
The true oil age began in Beaumont, Texas, in January 1901, when Al Hammil's well Spindletop spouted a stream of oil yielding 5,000 barrels per hour, an unheard-of feat at the time. Most wells drilled previously were yielding 50 to 100 barrels. Spindletop produced more oil per day than all the other wells on earth combined. Three months later, Hammil's second well produced an unbelievable 100,000 barrels per day.
Saudi Arabia remains the world's pre-eminent oil power. There in 1953, American engineers struck oil that produced 6 million barrels of oil each day and represented one-seventh of the known reserves in the world at the time. This well was called Gahwar. A second well, Shayba , also in Saudi Arabia, ranks as the second-largest well of all time.
50 Percent Now Imported
The consumption of oil in the United States in 2007 was 21 million barrels per day. A barrel consists of 42 U.S. gallons. Of that, 14.3 million barrels was refined into gasoline and diesel fuel. The other 6.7 million gallons went for heating oil, airline fuels and lubricating oils. Unfortunately, more than 50 percent of our crude oil is now imported from OPEC countries to meet daily consumption needs.
Motor vehicle gasoline and diesel fuels account for the bulk of usage, and somehow we have to find a way to turn this corner. In the United States alone, given 2007 numbers by the Department of Transportation, we had 132 million cars on the road at least four days a week.
Add to that 1.9 million trucks, 715,000 buses, 21,000 locomotives, 11,000 commercial aircraft, 28,000 oceangoing vessels and 1.2 million small pleasure craft, all powered by gasoline and/or diesel fuel, it is not surprising then that our country, with only 5 percent of the world's population, consumes 25 percent of the oil used.
Gasoline is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons. As oil is heated in a refinery, gasoline boils off the top of the reactive process at the top of the reactor at 200 degrees Celsius. Its inherent properties satisfy all requirements of spark-initiated engines. Gasoline burns smoothly, vaporizes easily in cold weather, does not vaporize in hot weather, and most important, remains stable during transportation and storage.
There are 150 refineries in the U.S. Unfortunately, we have not built a new one since 1975. Government regulations, the high cost of construction, low refining profits, a myriad of compliances and new mandated uses of ethanol all contribute to this - not to mention the old NIMBY adage "Not in my -backyard."
Quite often, even with adequate oil inventories, gasoline and heating prices spike higher. This is a result of the lack of versatility in our refining capabilities, as well as mandated plant shutdowns by insurers of these facilities to retool and upgrade these plants, not to mention unexpected shutdowns for various reasons.
There is also a seasonality to a refinery's production mix of products (heating oil, for example), which also affects capacity. It also doesn't help matters when 18 different grades of 87-octane gasoline are needed to meet federal and state emission standards and ethanol contents.
Making Informed Choices
Advocates of energy efficiency have long argued that saving energy is the end game and is always cheaper and more effective than building more power plants. Contributions from conservation, wind turbines and solar cells cannot be understated when addressing the challenges we face in downsizing our dependence on fossil fuels. Conservation carries a broad meaning when considering action plans to use less carbon-based fuels in the future.
If you target one specific area where technology has made the most impact, it would be automotive advancement. Today's cars can travel two to three times as far as their ancestors did in the 1960s and '70s.
Here in America, our choice has been to migrate to light trucks, SUVs and cars with powerful engines. This practice will have to show significant change. The technology is there to achieve 40 mpg as a national standard and to adjust our driving habits to speeds that will extend the miles we travel before again filling up our tanks.
Too few remember that car-pooling to work is also an option worthy of our reconsideration. We shouldn't consider it only when gasoline hits $4 plus per gallon, and it will in the future. If 40 mpg were mandated, experts claim it would save more than half of the oil we import.
Near the Washington-Oregon border is one of the largest wind farms in the world: Stateline Wind Farm, owned and operated by Florida Power & Light. It sprawls over 70 square miles and boasts 454 turbines, each with three 77-foot rotor blades. They start cranking out power at wind speeds of 7 mph. The harder the wind blows, the more power they generate.
This site can generate 300 megawatts of electricity for around 4 cents a kilowatt-hour, substantially more than coal at around 2 cents, but one-third the cost of electricity from natural gas-fired plants. Wind power has no fuel costs, just up-front costs of manufacturing, installation, financing and real estate.
The latter point is the problem. A coal-fired plant on seven acres can trump the 70 square miles of wind-generated electrical output while delivering 1,000 megawatts of power. But it's dirty and unsightly, and who wants one in their neighborhood? However, there are many sections of our country that can benefit by having groups of turbines supplying residential and business needs.
Massive coal, gas and nuclear power plants require massive up-front financial commitments of as much as a billion dollars and take from seven to 10 years to construct. A turbine can be installed in less than three months and emits no pollutants. What would you rather see in your neighborhood?
Wind power and its sister, solar panel power, do suffer from intermittency. Neither will generate electricity when there is no wind or at night or on a heavily clouded day. However, advancing technologies can store their output when these conditions prevail.
In the mid-1970s, after the oil embargo, the government offered tax incentives to builders and homeowners who installed solar panels. It was popular, and the manufactures spent serious R&D monies to improve their offerings. Unfortunately when oil prices fell, the credit was removed, and many manufacturers went bankrupt and R&D dollars ceased.
This credit should be reinstated to both new and existing homes as a matter of common sense, if nothing else. We should be stubborn in our advocacy and proactive in making this happen.
Last but not least, it is critical that we equip primary- and secondary-school children with the knowledge to be better prepared to make informed choices about lifestyles as adults. If given the truth about our energy vulnerabilities, we can hope they will make the right choices.
Norman Zanetti, a retired executive with Dow Chemical Co., lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at email@example.com.
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