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The Long Fingers of Petroleum

If you are like most of the world, you believe that oil and gas are in neat little caves buried deep in the earth, just like the drawing in your 6th grade science textbook. Being rather sensible, you guess that oil companies drill and sink a pipe into the cave to suck out the black gold. It’s quite probable in your mind that when each well “comes in”, it spews oil all across the countryside; like James Dean in ‘Giant” or Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies.

The average oil or gas well is drilled so deep that if we did not use thick drilling fluid to hold back the earth’s pressure, it would easily collapse and crush our drilling pipe. The typical well today has between 2,500 and 15,000 pounds of pressure in it, and is drilled with 3-4000psi fluid pressure. Did you know that 2,500psi of fluid pressure can cut through a piece of steel 1” thick in a few seconds? Did you know that the petroleum industry builds the worlds largest movable structures regularly? That these structures are so big they can routinely be seen from orbit on the ISS?

The technological achievements of the oil and gas industry have been tremendous. But as yet we cannot manufacture oil from raw materials to replace what is in the earth. We can extract it, but we cannot make it as economically as Mother Nature. Thus it is a NON-RENEWABLE resource; once gone, it cannot be replaced at similar cost and volume. It is literally like gold or diamonds; there is only so much of it available on our planet.

Now, assuming you have grasped this, let’s try and see if you can fathom the world situation. Currently, the big debate is whether the world is at the halfway point in oil and gas consumption, or “Peak Oil Production” as it has come to be termed. Everyone agrees that in the early 1970’s, the United States hit national “Peak Oil”, and we have been importing oil ever since. The debate now raging is whether the entire world has hit “Peak Oil” already, or if it will hit in the next 2 to 5 years.

In the scheme of things, this debate is pointless. By the time we agree on the date, it will be upon us or have passed. What that means is that it will forever cost more and more for oil and gas. It will become scarcer and more valuable with every gallon or barrel we burn or use. To give you an idea of what this truly means, let’s build an example and have a look at the true reach of petroleum into someone’s life.

John D. is a lawyer in a large firm in Boston. He owns 3 cars; his wife drives a nice Lexus SUV, he owns a snappy Porsche and his baby girl drives a BMW to Brown University. John is conscientious – he takes public transportation and uses the firms’ limousine service whenever possible. But when in doubt, he motors into town in the Porsche. His wife drives to and from her aerobics and tennis classes, does the shopping, picks up and drops off the maid, the laundry and whatever else she needs to do in the Lexus. Baby girl basically uses her BMW to scoot home on weekends to see Mom, Dad and the boyfriend. All in all, this is the basic all-American family in 2005. You may be a bit below this economic model, but bear with me, as it will all equalize very rapidly.

To truly grasp how much petroleum impacts our lives, let’s put John D. in his driveway, dressed for work and standing next to his dear Porsche 911 Turbo.

John is wearing a nice suit and tie. Unfortunately, the suit is wool and polyester, the buttons are plastic as well as the zipper in the pants. Remove 25% of the material from his suit, all elastic and plastic stays, the buttons and the zipper. Why? Polyester, dacron, rayon, orlon – these are all petroleum based, man made fibers. All plastic is petroleum based, as is elastic. Better get rid of the waistband on his under shorts too while we are at it. Abruptly, our friend John is rather chilly, as what is left of his suit, pants, shirt and under shorts have fallen around his ankles.

John wears glasses with polycarbonate lenses when he reads, and plastic contacts when he is doing anything active. These also require petroleum for manufacture, and will have to be replaced with real glasses made from glass. Oops – the frames are unbreakable plastic – those will need to go as well. While we are subtracting, let’s toss out his credit cards (plastic), the heels from his shoes (polyethylene-based rubber), and his all-weather watchband (faux-leather that is actually plastic). And we better get rid of that driver’s license too – the lamination is made from petroleum, as is the ink. And let’s not forget the ink that his money is printed with – yes, the ink which most currency is printed with is also a petroleum based product. As John stands with what used to be a suit around his ankles, the only thing he has left that hasn’t disappeared or fallen to the ground is his cotton undershirt, and he is completely broke.

Embarrassed, John spins his nakedness around and reaches for the door of his car…..and now we can do an even more rapid deconstruction. Empty the gas tank of gas, remove all the oil from the crankcase of the engine, remove all the transmission fluid, dump the heavy weight gear oil from the differential, and bleed all the fluid from the brake system. Each of these fluids and lubricants is derived 100% from oil.

Oh! Let’s not forget to remove every smidgeon of grease from every wheel bearing, every U-joint and any other petroleum lubricant from the vehicle. Now we can move forward a bit more, and peel the paint off. Automotive paint uses petroleum (tolulene, xylene, etc.) as base material. We can remove the tires, the rubber bushings from underneath every piece of the car, the steering wheel cover, the dash cover, the seat covers, the carpet, the seat padding and any foam insulation, the dashboard and all the A/C vents, and each and every rubber gasket. The jute-based carpet padding can remain – it is all natural. The safety glass (remember that layer of plastic in safety glass?), the seat padding, all the undercoating, all the CD’s, and the radio can go too. But the radio too, you might ask?

Every single wire in every single electronic device relies on petroleum-based coating as insulation around the wiring. Remove this insulation, and all you have is a mass of silicon and copper wires shorting out in a pile……so not only the radio, but every single wire in the car is coated by a petroleum product!

We are left with a pile of iron and copper, resting on a bed of jute padding. But if we just think a little more, we can reduce these as well. How is steel made? Iron ore is mined in Australia or other countries using massive vehicles BUILT and FUELED by petroleum products. The raw iron ore is then shipped by trains or trucks (BUILT and FUELED by petroleum products) to a ship (BUILT and FUELED by petroleum), which transports them to another country to be made into steel.

Once it arrives, the ore is unloaded by a bulk belt conveyer (BUILT and FUELED by petroleum), shipped from the dock to the ore processing mill by trucks (BUILT and FUELED by petroleum) where it is placed into a very hot furnace (which is fired by natural gas, a petroleum product) and smelted into pig iron. This pig iron is then shipped again by train or truck (BUILT and FUELED by petroleum) to a steel plant. Here, it is again melted in a special electric furnace, (electricity, generated by clean natural gas, a petroleum product) and made into various steel products which are then shipped to various destinations (using petroleum as FUEL).

If we truly want to account for the petroleum factor, steel cannot be made the way it is today. Aluminum is even more energy intensive, and that leaves us with a wad of copper wire sitting in the driveway, resting on our jute ‘rug’. John, now completely discombobulated, runs for the door of his home.

Unfortunately, the steel hinges and doorknobs are missing. When he touches the door it falls inward; his carpeting has disappeared, and the house is really hot and dark. It seems air conditioners are made from aluminum and steel, as are most appliances. Johns’ local Power Company uses clean, non-polluting natural gas to generate their electricity, so let’s kill all the power to the house. He is relieved to see his toilet still sitting there, but everything electronic and electrical has become a tangled mass of copper wires and circuit boards.

Water is spraying out of the ground, because John’s house was plumbed with POLY VINYL CHLORIDE (PVC) pipe, which is a 100% petroleum product. His furniture has turned into skeleton-like wooden frames, as the materials and padding used to make couches and chairs are long lasting, man-made fibers derived from petroleum. Rancid goop is oozing out of every cabinet in the kitchen, and everything that was in his refrigerator is slumped into a pile only a garbologist could be proud of. It seems that 90% of the packaging materials we use today are made from (you guessed it) petroleum.

His fresh vegetables and many of his canned goods are gone. John suddenly remembers reading an article about fertilizer and pesticide shortages. It seems these are also made almost exclusively from petroleum, and without them, modern mass-farming techniques are not viable. Crop yields are down, and the cost of trucking lettuce from California and Washington to other places is just too high.

And if you think this hurts, imagine everything you ever bought from a department store vanishing – because they were ALL IMPORTED from cheap-labor “elsewheres” using petroleum as fuel.

Forget all plastic – it is 100% petroleum.

Toss out computers and electronics as we know them today – we don’t have the insulating materials to build them without petroleum. We don’t have the massive electrical capacity to build anything really high tech – the cost of oil or natural gas to fuel the power grid has become too high.

Space travel? Forget it – the hydrogen used to power the shuttle is derived from petroleum, and it will not fly without the electronics and guidance system. And all the aluminum and titanium and other special alloys each require extremely energy intensive manufacturing processes, which use too much electricity that comes from gas and oil fired power plants.

I hope this makes you think just a little about the true effects of declining petroleum.

I am not telling you that this will suddenly happen overnight. It might take 50 years, or it might take a century. I doubt it takes longer, because it only took North America, Europe and Australia a century to use the first half of the world’s oil and gas.

When you finally realize how pervasive it is in our everyday lives, you will begin to understand exactly how much the human race must change in order to do without it. The Mad Max scenario is not going to happen overnight, but if we do not begin to think about and actually plan our future, it may suddenly become a possible yet unwanted reality.

Hopefully, you have now removed your head from the sand and begun to think for yourself about the real magnitude of the crisis our children are facing.

Editorial Notes: This is an updated version on an article first published at George Ure's Indepence Journal, The lifestyle companion site to : Oilman works currently for a multi-national oil company, and wishes to remain anonymous. -AF

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