Juicing up the conversation about oil


It may be a necessary evil with a preternatural tendency to warm the atmosphere, but it sure tanks at cocktail parties. Face it, after more than 100 years of reshaping the world in its own oily image, fossil fuel is, fundamentally, a crashing bore.

Almost no conversation about the stuff begins with, “Hey, here’s something I bet you didn’t know about oil and gas. . .” or “A funny thing happened on my way to the refinery the other day. . .”

Even those snippets about petroleum with the greatest potential to inspire mild surprise are rarely discussed in polite company, most likely because we know that, these days, such discussions lead to nowhere good and nothing ennobling.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the spin-meisters of Big Oil from doing their level best to remind consumers of the western world that without them, and the resource they plunder as a matter of quotidian purpose, we’d all come well and truly undone.

“Life without oil? Impossible!,” declares a web page from the corporate site of Wintershall, a subsidiary of the many-tentacled mega-squid from Germany, BASF. “Within our daily lives oil is used almost everywhere: Every year, 18 million tonnes of crude oil are processed into synthetic materials in Germany. Oil within our materials: 40 percent of all textiles contain oil; for functional clothing this may be as much as 100 percent. Oil within our leisure activities: 40 billion liters of oil a year are used to make CDs and DVDs. Oil helps us relax: A single sofa contains 60 liters of oil. Modern life is inconceivable without crude oil. . . the most important natural resource of industrialized nations. The world consumes almost 14 billion liters of oil each day. This affects us all.”

Yada yada. So does oxygen, but you don’t hear me go on about the stuff.

Besides, just because we use oil in, and for, everything, except maybe coffee creamer (and the jury’s still out on that), doesn’t mean we should or even must. I seem to recall a rather successful series of pre-oil civilizations – beginning with ancient Sumerian and ending with early Victorian – that did rather well for themselves without benefit of plastic water bottles and nylon thread.

Still, there might yet be a way to make fossil fuel more interesting and, therefore, less repugnant to the chattering classes.

How many products, for example, that contribute to a cleaner, greener world actually involve oil at some level?

Now that’s a question worthy of any late-night salon.

A link to a page of the Pembina Institute’s website (helpfully provided by a reader last week) begins the quest.

“Only a few tidal energy sites are in operation around the world,” the clean-energy think tank reports. “Larger sites include the White Sea in Russia and the Rance River in France (the largest site in the world). Smaller tidal power plant have been built in Canada, such as the site at Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia, and several in Norway. Together they have a total capacity of less than 250 MW. However, the potential for tidal energy is immense; potential global tidal power exceeds 450 terawatts, most of it in Asia and North America.”

Meanwhile, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association’s web site, “wind energy is more cost-competitive than new sources of energy supplied by coal with carbon capture and storage, small hydro or nuclear power. The fuel that turns wind turbine blades is free and the price of electricity it produces is set for the entire life of the wind farm. Long-term cost certainty of wind farms have a stabilizing effect on electricity rates, providing important protection for consumers. Unlike other energy supply alternatives, the cost of building wind energy continues to decline, with dramatic drops over the past three years. Wind projects have very short construction periods and can be deployed quickly with many benefits delivered to local communities.”

What does any of this have to do with fossil fuel?

It is as Wintershall claims: Oil’s in just about everything, including the plastic components that comprise tidal generating arrays and wind turbines.

Now, if we could deploy our marvelous primate minds to the front lines of innovation for a change, and determine how best to limit fossil fuel’s uses solely to meritorious ends, we might actually start a conversation worth having.

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