John D Anderson considers the legacy of oil, and the many reasons for leaving it in the ground and moving on.
In 1859 oil was struck in Pennsylvania. Oil ‘gushers’ were soon common. In 1876 the internal combustion engine was patented: it required fuel oil. Ferdinand Porsche displayed his electric car at the Paris Exposition in 1900 (pictured left). It won a gold medal; it required no fuel oil. Why, for over a hundred years, did oil-based transportation triumph over electric traction?
The major reason was that economic power became concentrated in the oil companies; they bought out competitors in the USA. They used their vast wealth to improve the internal combustion engine. There was no similarly powerful lobby to develop electric cars. Unfortunately oil was like money: the more we had, the more we wanted. Even today there are billions of barrels of oil that could still be extracted from the earth.
So, why not?
First, the creation of carboniferous oil and its sequestration underground was essential for the emergence of oxygen-breathing creatures. Unlocking the CO2 from under the soil is a threat to all these species.
Secondly, if we extract all the oil, there is no chance of keeping the rise in temperature on the earth to 1.5°C. We are not just burning oil but burning the earth. As Christine Lagarde has said, humanity would be ‘toast.’ Fortunately, the century of destructive incineration is slowly passing away; the century of constructive energy generation is dawning.
Thirdly, Hitler’s terminal madness in driving east to capture Russian oil, the shock and awe of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, and Putin’s weaponising of oil in the Ukraine war all clearly show how bellicose the possession and use of oil makes us. Oil brings riches and power to a few and misery to many.
The fourth reason is the environmental damage caused by the burning of oil. Southern Nigeria has huge areas of oil-polluted wasteland. The Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico caused billions of pounds worth of damage to biodiversity. Air-quality is diminished by burning oil: there are probably 30,000 excess deaths in England each year because by air pollution, much of which is from car exhausts. Death-dealing asthma has been proved in court to be exacerbated by fumes from internal combustion engines.
In the fifth place, the atomisation of society is worsened by individuals wrapping themselves in metal and travelling in a car, often alone, with an overweening sense of entitlement to road space; it impinges on the freedoms of all the rest of the citizenry. The historical communality of travel still practised in most of the world is lost. I have heard buses in Britain called “peasant wagons.” If we walk or cycle, we are open to all others around us; if we use public transport, we are sharing an experience which we are then committed to improve in the interests of everyone.
Sixthly, a lack of oil prevents most countries from being self-sufficient in fossil fuel energy, whereas all have renewable energy resources. Moreover, our oil often has to be bought from regimes which are dictatorial. The less oil we buy on international markets, the less power we assign to states which oppress human rights. The international oil price is often determined by the vagaries of war and the pursuit of power. The golden scenario is for all countries to generate their own renewable energy without harming others; the ‘fuel’ for this is usually free and cannot be stolen by war.
Lastly, the energy density of oil enabled us to fly. Aeroplanes are a major and growing user of oil and source of pollutants. They carry many less desirable passengers than people: viruses and invasive exotic species, for example. Aerial bombing which kills non-combatants has become normal. Aviation spirit should be so taxed that only essential flights are made.
We have hope of a better world. There are energy alternatives which work with the grain of the earth instead of destroying its resources. Electric cars and trains, green-hydrogen-powered vehicles, especially ships and lorries, and a massive reduction in unnecessary flying on holiday are all increasing fast. Instead of destroying creation, we can preserve it. Instead of emitting carbon dioxide by burning oil, we can emit life-giving oxygen by planting trees. We will produce the energy we need, and we will not incinerate creation in the process.