Skip to comments.Oil: Protecting the Earth from Renewable Energy for 148 Years
Posted on 03/08/2007 7:52:41 AM PST by ZGuy
In the environmental Dark Ages before the discovery of oil, mans energy needs had to be extracted from the living world. Whole continents were deforested in the quest for firewood. Priceless wetlands were strip-mined for peat. Bees were robbed of their wax to make candles. Even when millions were starving, valuable animal fats and plant oils were rendered into fuel to illuminate the homes of the rich. Alas, it appears those times may soon return as environmentalists, politicians, and the media push for mans energy needs to be met once more by the limited capacity of field and fjord. But for one brief moment in mans planet-killing history, oil was there to carry the burden that man would have otherwise hoisted upon the bowed back of nature. Just look at what oil did for the whales.
In the first age of renewable energy, man was so desperate for even small quantities of transportable hydrocarbon fuel (today so damned for its very abundance), that fleets of ships continually patrolled the oceans in search of ever fewer great whales.
Today it is unbelievable that the intelligent whale, universally regarded as a profound natural wonder, was once appreciated principally as a source of lard. But that very fact is testament to energys scarcity before the advent of crude oil. By todays standards, even a large whale has only a negligible amount of oil perhaps 200 barrels. The entire world production of whale oil was less than 500,000 barrels per year for most of the 19th century.
Yet for this scant annual prize equal to about 9.6 minutes of production for todays oil industry the worlds whales were hunted so nearly to extinction that even today many remain rare. Many species doubtless would have become extinct had Col. Drake not struck oil in Pennsylvania in 1859. That year, U.S. crude oil production was 2,000 barrels. The next year, it was equal to the entire annual whale oil production of 500,000 barrels. By 1861, crude was pumping at 2,000,000 barrels a year and growing. Within a decade, most of Americas whaling fleet was out of business.
Together with coal, oil opened up an unimaginable quantity of energy that came from outside the contemporary natural productivity of the Earth. For the first time, societies could grow far beyond the biological energy limits of their landmass. Wealth skyrocketed. Food supplies were no longer diverted to energy needs. Populations blossomed, and yet mans energy-motivated environmental depredations fell significantly.
Fossil fuels have provided freedom from the constraints of biology and agriculture to such an extent that most of us have forgotten exactly how energy-poor a world powered by biofuels can be. Consider that the United States consumes nearly 4.39x1016 BTUs of crude oil per year. In absolute energy value, the entire corn crop in the U.S. could provide just 10 percent of that, and the entire worlds corn crop, only 23 percent.
So if the U.S. can cut energy use by 77 percent, find a 100-percent efficient means of converting corn into fuel, and corner all of Earths annual corn crop, we can just get by without oil (assuming coal, nuclear, and gas are still OK). And of course, well need to ignore that corn is plowed, planted, fertilized, harvested, and transported with petroleum energy. Factor that in, and Im sure we could still squeak by at the equivalent of 20 percent of current petroleum capacity, if we also consumed the worlds entire rice crop. What we (and the Chinese) would eat under this scenario is a little unclear (perhaps we could eat the whales), and I suppose the Europeans would be reduced to living off wind power and pine nuts.
But the exercise demonstrates the burden fossil fuels have lifted from the environment, and how accustomed all six billion of us have become to eating. Even the paltry efforts toward already subsidized biofuels have had an impact. The U.S. demand for ethanol has helped drive the price of corn tortillas beyond the reach of some impoverished Mexicans, precipitating calls for price controls and export restrictions. Unfortunately, the competition between mouths and motors can only increase, and the demands placed on our living planet can only get worse as the second age of renewable energy dawns prematurely.
Interesting piece. Thanks for posting it. Proof once again that the PC "conventional wisdom" often ain't so wise...
Return of the Ludites wrapped in the colors of communism!
Markets work unless the government gets involved. Ethanol would not even be produced as a fuel if it wasn't for Sen Dole and his subsidies.
Oil saves the environment!!!
one billion tons of ag waste per year. Currently a cost for farmers but could become a profit if converted to fuel.
The government is paying farmers not to use 100,000,000 acres in our country.
Fuel from food, bad.
Fuel from waste, good.
Windmills will save the day.
Oil, petroleum, IS a renewable resource. Mother Earth is creating more all the time. Ever since the earth cooled enough so that water vapor could form ice, there has been also a formation of compounds known as "clathrates", which resemble ice, but include methane or other gaseous hydrocarbons bound up in water, and which remain stable at temperatures below about 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Being slightly more dense than water (unlike ice formed of water only), these sink to the bottom of any body of water, and collect in the sediment. They remain unchanged as long as the temperature does not exceed about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
When warmed, these compounds undergo a phase change, and become gaseous natural gas. But left undisturbed on the ocean floor, and covered with sediment, eventually these pockets are trapped under solidified rock (usually, but not always, sandstone overcovered by shale). If there is come kind of catalyst present (probably an elemental iron-nickel mixture), the methane in this compound will be converted to longer-chain hydrocarbons, forming a mixture known as "kerogen", which when extracted from the earth as petroleum, is refined into the various fractions like kerosene, gasoline, Diesel fuel, heating oil, lubricating oil, and heavier tar-like substances.
This normally takes place over a period of centuries, or eons. The process may be rapidly accelerated under laboratory conditions, so the reaction takes place in a matter of hours.
There is also another process going on, that takes place when decaying organic matter is thrust deep into the earth by geological processes, resulting in this organic matter being put under tremendous heat, and considerable pressure. Thermal Depolymerization breaks down carbohydrates, proteins and fats into water and hydrocarbons, a process which can also be duplicated in the laboratory, and in fact, has been used in a commercial basis, to convert slaughterhouse waste into a form of light crude oil.
Hey, you want to know how to make kryptonite? Learned this in a college chemistry course....
"But the exercise demonstrates the burden fossil fuels have lifted from the environment, and how accustomed all six billion of us have become to eating."
I have yet to see a greenie who did not happily take full advantage of every modern convenience.
"Ag waste" is plant matter. Healthy soil needs plant matter.
This story is a think piece .
Agree, but it's also going to take a massive investment in new electric power transmission and distribution systems. The current system was not sized to recharge a hundred million vehicles every evening. It's going to be a huge problem because permitting of new transmission lines is almost impossible and boosting distribution systems in our cities and neighborhoods is also very hard to do.
Good piece. I read it because I couldn't figure out the headline. Can't imagine why they didn't push nukes, though.
That's why they are called "watermelons". Green on the outside , red on the inside.
This is asanine.
Quit characterizing ethanol as progression. Why would the path of technological advancement follow replacing a 120 year old hydrocarbon technology with a less efficient even older hydrocarbon technology?
I believe that is part of the point in this article. Don't characterize waste disposal as energy creation. One is and always be an expense center. If you want to offset expenses fine, but to try and join the energy industry via fiat is an entirely different matter. The whole industry is simply robbing the public through the tax rolls and legislative market intrusions. The opportunity costs of pursuing Ethanol are outrageous.
Then there is this:
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