underline its importance and value to our economy, is one of the most precious fossil fuels on Earth. Just like other fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, it was formed many thousand years ago when the Earth’s climate was radically different. The creation of petroleum was a natural process: dead plants and animals were crushed under the Earth as more layers of ground fell on top of them. The heat and weight of the layers of soil created the perfect conditions for the formation of oil. However, this was a process that took place over many thousands of years.
Given that today in the US alone 18 million of barrels of oil are used every day, it is clear that our consumption of petroleum far exceeds the rate at which it could be replenished – it is estimated that it would take the natural process of decomposition, 422 years to replace what we currently consume in a year in fossil fuels¹.
This is not to say that the way in which petroleum is used is not effective. Indeed, there are many derivatives that come from the extraction of petroleum that go on to be used in a multitude of processes and to manufacture a myriad of products.
The biggest man-made structures for oil extraction
In most cases, petroleum is trapped by underground rock formations but in some places it can also be found on the surface as oil bubbles right out of the ground. This is the case of the LaBrea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles, California, where big pools of thick oil bubble up through the ground. Canada’s tar sands are similar to this as oil is found on the surface. But most of the world’s oil is still deep under the ground, not only on land but also under the ocean floor. To extract it, special drilling technology is used to go through the earth. Once the “drill rig” has been done, petroleum can be extracted 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and for many years – successful oil sites produce oil for about 30 years². At sea, drilling requires building an oil platform so that operations for extraction can begin. These oil platforms are some of the biggest man-made structures in the world!
Extracting the oil is a relatively inexpensive process and it can provide a reliable source of energy for a fair amount of time. But the extraction process itself can be highly polluting for the area and accidents can cause almost irreparable damage to the local ecosystems. Some of the greatest ecological disasters were the result of oil spills.
Once the oil has been drilled, there is a need to refine it before it can be used. This is because oil contains many chemicals besides carbon, and refining it takes some of these chemicals out. About half of the world’s petroleum is converted into gasoline and the rest is processed and used in other products such as nail polish and rubbing alcohol, or water pipes, shoes, crayons, roofing, vitamin capsules, and thousands of other items¹,².
In many ways, petroleum is how we get to one of the most commonly used materials: plastic.
The key environmental challenge of our time
Now, as most of us are already aware, the use of oil is also very harmful to the environment and our health. This is not only because oil used as car fuel emits harmful emissions that are the key contributor to climate change as well as others that have been linked with respiratory diseases. What is more, the use of oil has given rise to another environmental challenge of our times: waste disposal. This does not refer only to the repurposing of oil rigs or platforms when known reservoirs of oil run out and companies seek to relocate. It is also linked to the end-of-life use of products made from petrol.
As mentioned earlier, petrol is the basis of a lot of plastic materials that have been produced through the use of different additives to provide them with useful properties such as durability, sturdiness or flexibility³. At the same time, we are facing a mounting problem of marine litter due to plastic waste. This is either because people do not recycle or because there is no infrastructure to do so or also because it is not possible to recycle some plastics. To provide an indication of the scale of the problem of marine litter today it suffices to say that plastics are the most common man-made objects sighted at sea, with 18,000 pieces of plastic litter floating on every square kilometre of the world’s oceans⁴.
Taking all this into account, the story of oil is certainly a very interesting one. A relatively easy to access fossil fuel, found in relatively abundant though not limitless quantities which is refined in an efficient way to maximise its use but at the same time a non-renewable fossil fuel that is highly polluting and damaging to both our health and the environment jeopardising our future given our economy’s overreliance on what is a resource that will be soon depleted. It is interesting to see how in this case, the extraction and refining process are optimised to use as much of the extracted oil as possible, but this does not counterbalance the environmental degradation its use causes. A clear case where resource efficiency alone does not bring about a more sustainable future – the determining factor in this case is renewability. A criterion against which petroleum fails.