Thursday, January 18, 2007

What happens when the oil runs out?

Global warming and the energy crisis is now an issue of very serious concern around the world. Even many imperialists are worried enough to search round for answers – as long as those answers leave their profits intact!
Science journalist ALFRED BROWNE has studied the question intensively and has produced a number of thought provoking, and perhaps controversial, articles from a left perspective. He returns to the subject in this first part of a two part series.

THERE is no denying it; the 20th century brought great improvements in the standards of life of the ordinary people of Britain. They did not come without struggle, battles between bosses and workers, strikes and strike breaking, with the gains by the workers less than those of the bosses, the rich growing proportionately ever richer; nevertheless those improvements took place.

Go back that century, to Edwardian times when it was still the boast that the British empire was the greatest the world had known, drawing in tribute from near a quarter of the globe. Writing of living conditions in York, by no means a poor town, the economist Seebohm Rowntree reported the diet of a quarter of the population and 40 per cent of children fell below the nutritional standards necessary for mere physical health.

To feed properly the four children of the then normal family, he reported, a manual worker must never spend a penny on bus or rail fare, go to a concert, buy a book, sweets or toys for those children, must not smoke or drink, subscribe to a trade union or club, church or chapel, above all, must never lose a day’s work.

A labourer, even with regular employment, could only hope to feed two children. True poverty came three times for the typical member of the working class, in childhood, until brothers or sisters began to earn, after marriage, while children were too young to work, and in old age.
How different today when motor cars are parked along the kerbsides of working class streets, even those surviving from Edwardian slums, when electricity and the gadgets it powers free housewives from domestic toils, boosting family earnings to finance exotic holidays beyond the imaginings of even the better off Edwardians. It is enough to make one delude oneself into thinking the world may have been made for the comfort and well-being of humanity. Or is that a delusion?

After all Christians and Hebrews can point to chapter one of Genesis to show that is so and followers of other religions have similar authorities. Even secular, scientific atheists seem, nowadays, to accept such a basis for the good life, even if they replace God by human technology.

In fact, there is no mystery about from where come all these good things of the Western World. They come from previously untapped sources of energy, oil and natural gas, finite in amount but now being used with unthinking profligacy. That delusion of the previous paragraph is likely soon to turn to disillusion.

For all civilisation’s wealth comes from the energy available to it. In the earliest of civilisations, when agriculture replaced the hunter-gatherer way of life, that was still the muscle power of its members, or, rather, those members who produced the goods needed for the sustenance of all. But not all were producers.

Some administered – the chieftains, politicians, call them what you will - others preached the word of God, to be, jointly, the self-appointed guardians of the bodies and souls of the producers, joining in, of course, to consume the products of the workers. It is a system which has lasted long. Then, as now, extra energy was required to keep up production, to yield, in Marxist terms, surplus value. That came from slaves, humans taken captive in the wars to which mankind, by its nature, greedy and quarrelsome, is addicted.

Then came the enslavement of more powerful animals, horses, cattle, even elephants. Now muscle power has been replaced by that oil and gas, but all depended and still depends on our planet’s single source of energy, sunlight.

What our planet does is to provide the materials in which solar energy is fixed, the fixation being done by the primary form of life, plants. Fundamental among those materials are water (H2O) and that much deplored so-called pollutant of today, carbon dioxide (CO2 ). Not only do plants produce the essential ingredients for animal life, carbohydrates for energy, proteins for body-building, they also produce the oxygen we need to make use of that food.

The basic process, photosynthesis, the making of life material from light, is shown in the equation, CO2 + 2H2O + E (energy) = CH2O + O2 + H2O. Electrons are stripped from the basic components to provide the chemical energy locked in carbohydrate (CH2O). In practice things, and the carbohydrate, are more complex. The basic medium of animal energy, glucose, is a larger molecule (C6H12O6), as are the sugars, sucrose and fructose. However, animals do not live by energy foods alone.

Nor do plants. As every gardener knows plants have to be supplied with other natural elements than carbon dioxide and water from our planet’s soil and not just the N, P, K, nitrogen or ammonia, phosphate and potassium, of National Growmore fertiliser. Iron, magnesium, manganese, copper, chlorine must all be available in substantial amounts with further trace elements. With that raw material plants provide all living creatures with amino acids, proteins, enzymes and the nucleic acids, DNA and RNA. They also make their own chlorophyll, the green substance on which photosynthesis and all life depends.

Animals exist by virtue of the energy they obtain by eating plants, or other animals which feed on plants. The human is an animal with the mark of all animals, a hole in the head and another in the bottom connected by the digestive tract which converts the eaten matter into a form usable by the animal body.

Not completely, though, what comes out still retains some energy, nutritional value. Humankind also differs from other animals in that we lack the insulating materials, fur, feathers, fat, to survive easily in the normal ambient temperature, something which led to the discovery of fire, fuelled at first, of course, also by plant material but also by that product of animal digestion, animal dung, as it still is in some parts of the human world. It is that inability of animals, as consumers, to keep up with plants as producers, the inefficiency of animal intestines and other mechanisms of decay to extract all energy from plant remains and the remains of other animals used as food that has resulted, over millions of years in the presence of fossil fuel, oil, gas and coal with its locked in solar energy of the past on which our civilisation now primarily depends.
Modern industrial civilisation started with coal and the steam engine and we may think coal came first but much of the world knew of oil before it knew of coal. It seeps from the ground in the Middle East and other places as liquid or appears in a solid form as asphalt, used in the early civilisations there for lighting and building.

Around Baku, on the Caspian Sea, it seeped in particularly large amounts, with its associated gas, and was often set ablaze by lightning strikes. In 1272 Marco Polo, on his way to China, was astonished when he passed through Baku to find people coming from large distances to collect oil to burn in lamps to light their homes, when lamplight was a luxury unknown to the then primitive people of Western Europe. On arrival in China he found it being used there.
Slowly awareness of this strange substance seeping from the ground seeped into the minds of Westerners looking for a good thing to exploit. In 1828 a Christian missionary brought news from China of the drilling techniques there, using hollow bamboo canes and reaching down, so it is claimed, to 3000 feet. In America a group of businessmen backed a self-styled colonel, former railway conductor, Edwin Drake, to drill for oil at a seepage site in Oil Creek, Pennsylvania.
When his drill had gone down 69 feet without finding anything they decided to order him to stop. By the time their letter arrived on August 29, 1859, all had changed, oil had been struck the day before and the first oil rush to fortune had begun. Fortunes were made, but not by Drake, who died penniless in 1880. That oilfield soon ran dry but operations shifted to Texas and soon the US and Russia were oil suppliers to the world, helped, by the invention of the internal combustion engine.

That Baku oil field had been exploited by two Norwegian brothers named Nobel who used the dynamite invented by their brother, Alfred, of Nobel Prize fame, to blast a way for a pipeline through the Caucasus Mountains. Middle Eastern finds, first, a strike at Kirkuk in Iraq in 1927 so large that a river of oil ran from it and by an even larger strike, in Saudi Arabia in 1948 in what proved to be the world’s largest oil field, have transformed things.

How did the oil arrive? It had been a long journey. The formation of all present oilfields appears to have begun over a lengthy period of around 150 million years starting around 250 million years ago with their development going on ever since. It begins in hot, humid areas of intense plant life: rain forest, mangrove swamps and continental shelves, in what then were the tropics. The process depends on the nature of rocks. They start as cooled molten material from within the Earth’s surface, mostly solid like granite and basalt, impermeable by liquids. Erosion by water and wind reforms some into sedimentary rocks, such as sandstone, permeable by liquids and gases. Layers of different rocks become forcibly distorted and broken by pressure and tilt, reaching down into the Earth. Buried plants are first transformed by microbial action into a more liquid substance called kerogen.

Under the force of gravity it starts to migrate deeper into the Earth’s crust through permeable rocks. As it does so it meets increasing pressure and temperature, a rise of lo Centigrade for each 70 ft of depth, and water, carrying bacteria and other reactants. As a result it reforms into an immense variety of different hydrocarbons, containing, by mass, 82 to 87 per cent carbon and 12 to 15 per cent hydrogen, an indication of the relative proportions of energy contributed by the two elements. Eventually the crude may become trapped in one permeable rock between two impermeable rocks, so becoming an oil field to be tapped for human use.

The process reached its peak somewhat over 100 million years ago as recent ideas in geology, continental shift and plate tectonics, explain. That oil forming period was when there was one supercontinent, with the tropics moving around it and the climate was hotter and more humid because of the lack of land with permanent ice at the poles. Also the atmosphere was much richer in carbon dioxide, by the entire vast amount to be released as modern civilisation consumes the oil and gas on which it depends.

Towards the end of the oil forming period a shallow sea, the Tethys, breaking into the remaining supercontinent, Gondwana, swept up vast amounts of organic matter depositing them around the current Persian Gulf. In a mere 30 million years it had formed roughly half the oil ever produced, the present Middle Eastern oilfields.

How much survives for our civilisation’s use and how long will it last? In its first century, up to around 1960, the oil industry produced 200 billion barrels, around an eighth of what is thought to be the original total available. It then settled down to producing a similar amount every decade. Even if production were to be stabilised at the levels of the end of the 20th century, helped by increased fuel efficiency, shortages should begin to force a production decline by 2035. That makes little if any allowance for any increased consumer demand by the populations of China, India and other developing countries.

The Middle East has the most easily exploited reserves. Saudi Arabia, the US and Russia each had roughly similar original endowments with a rather larger one spread through the other Middle Eastern countries of Iraq, Iran and Kuwait. The United States had already used up over half its original endowment by 1999. Increasingly it seems future supplies will depend on Russian reserves.

There is that other easily exploited hydrocarbon resource, natural gas. The formation of crude oil goes on down to depths of 16,000 feet. Below 16,000 ft the temperature and pressure are too high for normal oil to form and existing oil can be turned into gas, principally methane. Natural gas is found dissolved in crude oil, associated gas, or on its own, unassociated. Vast quantities, put at 14 per cent of total world supplies, were lost in the early days of oil drilling, as associated gas was flared off. Again the main supplies are in the Middle East and Russia. The US had already used up half of all it possessed by the end of the twentieth century.

The largest gas fields are in Siberia. Urengoy, by far the world’s largest, is connected by a 5,470 km pipeline, five feet in diameter, crossing the Ural Mountains and 700 rivers and streams, taking supplies to Eastern Europe and then on to Western Europe which looks likely to become dependent on it. Reserves should suffice for some decades to come though extra calls on it as oil gets used up could mean it will last little if any longer.

So, because of that profligacy with which modern civilised humanity is expending it, the energy resource on which our civilisation depends will come to an end within the lifetime of many now living. What happens then? In an earlier article I suggested the universe renews itself by transformation between matter and energy. That means it must be cyclical in nature. Life is part of that process of transformation. Is it also cyclical?

Can it be that the human function, distinguishing humankind from all other living creatures, is to bring one cycle to its end? Instead of the world being for our comfort and well-being, as so many assume, are we to be the agents of its extinction—though that may be just the start of another, similar cycle? Humanity, greedy and quarrelsome, is addicted to war.

The 20th century saw humanity in an almost continual state of warfare somewhere or another and the 21st has followed suit, on the excuse in Iraq that it was necessary to prevent the development of weapons of mass destruction. Those weapons do exist, in quantities which would bring about true mass destruction of our present world, in just two countries: America, the symbol of that profligacy with which we are destroying the energy source of our civilisation, and Russia where its greatest reserves still remain.

The political prospects of an H-bomb war terrified millions in the 20th century but did not materialise. The fear may now be less but the economics of the present century makes the prospect of threat becoming reality even more likely.

Some will say this is just a hypothesis, that I have not dealt with the proposals for other means of energising our civilisation, have ignored the problem solving power of human technology. In a further article I will discuss these matters and possible political means of escaping the fate which, I suggest, now looms before us.