The oil-related post you all knew was coming

So another day, another oil leak. Nearly 1500 barrels of crude pumped into one of the most active fisheries in Europe, oil companies playing responsibility tag, and industry spokespeople assuming the position yet again.

To be honest, as far as the oil industry goes I’m far too much of a pragmatist to enable me to have a nice straight-forward politically simple viewpoint on things.

Oil leaks are nothing new, although regulation and engineering improvement has improved things significantly over the last 40 years.  The fact remains, however, that for as long as we have no viable alternative oil is going to be our go-to fuel, and for however long we are reliant on it we are going to have to live with the consequences.

My patience is running very thin with the section of the green lobby who demand a turn to wind and solar energy; the costs involved are astronomical, the demands placed on resources of rare metals are enormous (for example the indium used in photovoltaics which may only have 10 years of supply left at current usage rates), and no-one seems to care about the environmental damage associated with the mining of materials or the huge expanses of real estate necessary for construction.  Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the green lobby’s stance on this.  Even more crucially than that, however, there are so many problems with providing a constant and reliable power source from most renewables that you end up needing to build huge amounts of over-production capability. Has anyone looked at the environmental impact of removing TerraWatts of energy from our weather systems? Or the effect of millions of hectares being covered in windfarms or solar panels? Even if we manage to get over these hurdles, cheap electricity only comes with a whole host of new problems in battery production, which is a phenomenally polluting industry again dependant on a range of rare and/or precious metals.

Couple these problems with the fact that people get so wound up if they are asked to put up with a wind farm, solar project, nuclear plant or new fossil-fuel power station anywhere near where they live, work, or once visited at the age of 2, and it makes construction of replacement facilities somewhat troublesome.

That’s not to say I like what we have at the moment either. The oil industry is the equivalent of a state-sponsored heroin dealer.  It keeps a supply trickling out at a rate sufficient to increase the price, while just about meeting demand, while exerting a truly phenomenal level of political pressure from its very very rich lobby groups. Hence, for example, you find industry bodies such as the American Association of Petroleum Geologists facing off against the rest of the scientific community about anthropogenic climate change (following their 2006 journalism award to Michael Crichten’s ‘State of Fear’ anti-global warming novel). It’s insidious, and damaging to far more than just the wind farm debate.

That’s not to paint the whole of the oil industry with some kind of bogey-man brush.  Many people I know work within or around the oil industry, and they are all perfectly normal human beings with the concerns and desires most of us share (except for one of them who has a thing with rubber pants and … never mind, you don’t want to know). The oil industry is only in this position because people allow it to be.  People like petrol cars, they like natural gas central heating and cooking, they are dependent on plastics for most of their goods.  The use of petroleum products so ubiquitously is part of what makes so much of our consumerist lifestyles (at least here in the West) possible.

South Crofty mine in Cornwall, recently discovered to have large amounts of extractable Indium. Source: Daily Mail (I know, I know).

There is always a cost associated with things.  We have had decades of exposure to the costs of an oil-dependant world; oil spills, fires, explosions, environmental damage, massive carbon dioxide production, and the empowerment of a group of companies and countries who supply it.  We have had 50 years or so of experience using nuclear power now too, and understand many of those risks; the nebulous fear of cancers, mutations, meltdown and so on.  For renewables, most of what we know is fairly recent, and there are big questions about the sustainability and impacts of some of these supposedly green technologies.  The real question is where does public opinion – and hence drive to change – actually sit? Did Fukushima put the nail in the coffin of nuclear development?  Has the green lobby been overselling itself? How many more oil spills are people willing to put up with?

The arguement for years now has been that we’re running out of oil, so have to change.  The fact is we’re running short on a lot of resources, which jeopardise the long-term potential of any of the main competing technologies.  They all have environmental impacts.

So where do I stand?  Somewhere on the sidelines throwing rotten fruit at the various competitors I suppose. At the risk of inviting rabid commenting I believe ultimately, if we want any form of energy security, we’re going to have to bite the bullet and invest in nuclear.  In the mean time I think we should all cross our fingers and hope that someone manages to work out how to get fusion working in a practical and manageable way. Then we can work out what the environmental cost and impacts of having a Tokamak in every town will be.

About Pete Rowley

Earth Scientist with a background in volcanology and sedimentology. Enjoys a good rant, beer, and games. Dislikes reality TV, crowds, and unreasonable people.
This entry was posted in Geology, Media & Perception, Nuclear Power, Petroleum Geology, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The oil-related post you all knew was coming

  1. maltpress says:

    As something of an environmentalist – although perhaps less mentalist than most – I’m not sure I agree with you on the renewables thing. Geothermal, personal generation (rooftop solar panels, small turbines), wave, photovoltaic and solar heating of water will all make a difference to energy consumption. Couple that with the passivhaus concept and you end up with housing which generates as much energy as it uses.

    We have to get used to the idea that oil is hard to come by – I know prices are artificially managed, but it’s also a security issue; the big political reliance on oil from regimes we (the people, not the politicians) don’t want to deal with for various reasons. Renewables can work, and without affecting nature; Spain has some great solar farms (for pretty obvious reasons) and offshore wind in the UK is actually creating interesting artificial reef habitats.

    But I do agree on nuclear. A lot of environmentalists do. It’s obviously been damaged a bit in terms of reputation by Japan’s earthquake, but then again they’re a bit overreliant on it and are, frankly, a bit crazy to build anything – let alone nuclear power plants – so close to a major faultline. If anyone should be working towards using geothermal, wind & wave it’s the Japanese.

  2. geologygeek says:

    Actually, my understanding is that the Japanese would have a fairly terrible time with geothermal. The deepest we have ever drilled is 12km ( That is about the minimum depth you would have to get down to in Japan to reach geothermally viable temperatures (in order to generate enough steam pressure to force the water back up). The reason geothermal heating is so restricted globally is that only a very few places have a crust thin enough to make large scale geothermal engineering practical. You need a geothermal gradient of about 40 degrees C per kilometer. Most of the world is 30 degrees C per kilometer or less. There has been talk of basically wiring Iceland up as a massive international power station, then building battery ships to transport the electricity to other countries, but the cost (financial and environmental) of the battery ships makes the whole endeavor pointless.

    Obviously these limits could be improved with better drilling technologies, but we’ve been working on those for decades and are not getting anywhere particularly fast.

    I agree that the other renewables can all have a part to play, but the idea of relying on them for core energy production is crazy.

  3. James Aach says:

    I laughed at the “visited at the age of 2” comment.

    I think we’d do much better as a society in planning our energy futrue if we first understood our energy present – which few really do. I’d like to point out a resource that can provide an insider’s take on nuclear plants and how an unpleasant event at an atomic fun factory might unfold. “Rad Decision” is a novel available online free (no adverts, no sponsors). The event depicted is a lot like Fukushima, oddly enough. Just Google the title. The author (me) has worked in the US nuclear industry for over 20 years and portrays the good and bad of this energy source. Most nuclear experts in the media have never actually worked at a power plant. Readers have compared it favorably with Mr. Crichton’s work — I would hope at the very least I was a bit more even-handed in my approach. Unfortunately, my media presence consists of this little-known book and website.

    As your article makes clear, there is good and bad in every energy source. Beyond massive conservation whereever possible, I’m really not sure what the energy solution is. As you point out, it ultimately depends on society balancing the tradeoffs. I’d like society to be a little better informed before that happens.

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