On the Petroleum Economy


I've been thinking about this a lot over the last few months. I just wanted to write some of this down to help me form some slightly more concrete ideas. What follows is likely not the most coherent thing ever written - it's meant to serve as a starting point for me to come back to later...

With the price of oil spiking, and the known reservoirs being depleted, we obviously need to move away from a total dependence on a non-renewable resource. That's a total no brainer. But, there doesn't seem to be a solid or effective movement towards that end. There are a few areas where progress is being made - the Prius, the solar/wind power initiatives, for example. But, there isn't any large-scale movement away from petroleum. If anything, people are looking for subsidies to maintain their dependence on an increasingly scarce (and therefore increasingly expensive) resource. Gasoline prices skyrocket. Natural gas is through the roof. The cost of a barrel of oil is 6 times what it was not too long ago. And the solution? At least in Alberta, the provincial government is just cutting everyone cheques to help defray the cost of petroleum, since the government is literally rolling in cash as a result of petroleum taxes. And, other countries manufacture wars, and entire campaigns, to maintain their ready access to cheap oil. Addicted like a crack baby.

I've also been doing some thinking about my own personal reliance on petroleum. I'm a suburban-dwelling, SUV-driving (but I commute using public transit, so that helps), natural-gas-heating-and-cooking ecological disaster. My house likely contains several barrels of oil. The carpet is synthetic - I walk on oil. The TV is encased in oil. Clothes are spun from it. Pillows stuffed with it. Walls painted with it. Food stored in it. House heated with it. Food cooked by burning it. Think nothing of packing up the family and burning half a tank to spend some time in the mountains. Or hopping on a plane and burning off several barrels of oil to go to meetings far away.

As a mental exercise, I try to imagine how much prehistoric biomass went into the stuff that makes up my home. How many tonnes of jurassic algae went into my gas tank. How many dinosaurs per 100km does it get?

It's one thing to say we need to switch away from a petroleum based economy - it's quite another to think of what I could do to replace these items. Try walking through a department store - the majority of items there are made from (or with) petroleum. We'd have to revert to methods of manufacturing resurrected from the 1800s and early 1900s. Things would take longer to manufacture. They might be more expensive. They might not last as long. But, they would likely be healthier to be around. I'm positive we'll be a healthier lot once the oil runs out, without off-gassing carpets, and other petroleum byproducts seeping into our systems every day.

One thing that keeps popping into my head - the real value of petroluem for power is its ability to be used "off grid". It's portable, storable, and easy to take with you. The only industry that truly needs a portable, storable power supply is the military. So, why wouldn't they be funding more research into renewable energy, so they could reserve the remaining petroleum for themselves? Take a fraction of the funding for the military industrial complex, and dedicate that to finding a sustainable and renewable power supply for the rest of the world. Just about everything else could be redesigned to run on some form of rechargeable electrical power. Electric cars. Even planes could be run on some form of electical power.

The other handy thing about switching to electrical power is the abstraction from the source of the energy. Unlike natural gas, which is a pretty concrete thing, an electric grid could be fed by solar, wind, tidal, or geothermal sources.

The C-Train (the commuter train system in Calgary) apparently uses 40% of the total electricity demand of a city of 1 million people. But, a few years ago, they switched the source of electricity for the trains to be fed by a wind farm south of the city. The entire train system switched over to a renewable energy supply, without modifying the grid, or the trains.

Even a switch to nuclear power as an energy source, which has the promise to provide essentially unlimited power with no pollution if executed properly, doesn't solve the dependency on petroleum for manufacturing goods. We need to find a replacement for plastics and the like before we can really affect change.

I'm just thinking out loud here, but I want to go walk around Heritage Park again to see how they did stuff before the total and utter dependence on petroleum kicked in. I'm walking around with a lot of suburban petroleum-dependant guilt here, and am having trouble seeing a way to get the monkey off my back.

For some very interesting reading about the petroleum dependency, check out Clusterfuck Nation by Jim Kunstler. It's sure got my head spinning about this... His take on Calgary as a microcosm of the North American Tragedy is pretty eye-opening (but he did get at least one fact wrong - there aren't any Target stores in Calgary ;-) )

Starting to have flashbacks to The Last Chase - time to break the car down into parts and store it beneath the floor in the garage...

Update: slightly corrected (although incompletely) the "how many dinosaurs are in a tank of gas" thing - although I like the ring of that, so I left a bit of it in :-) Michelle Lamberson, who was a geologist in a previous life, let me know that petroleum comes mostly from marine biomass (algae...) rather than dinosaurs.

Update: I've just created a wiki page to share resources on sustainable energy, including a link to the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy at the University of Calgary.

Update: And, perhaps, we should reserve plastics for medical applications? I can't imagine a modern hospital functioning without plastic. Maybe the catch is we're all hung up on "modern" - lose that requirement, and it's easy to shake the dependence on petro-crack.


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Last updated: November 13, 2022