Our Deadliest Addiction

Oil drives our commerce, but could drive us to extinction
March 1, 2014

"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." —Heraclitus, 535 BC-475 BC.

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When European explorers first sighted a pristine Gulf of Mexico 500 years ago, they got a glimpse of the limitless abundance of the New World. It was a veritable Garden of Eden, with seemingly inexhaustible riches. But things are much different today, with that limitless abundance now a thing of the past across the globe. The time has come to stand back to take a fresh look at that fantastic era of discovery.

From the dawn of human existence until the 16th century, the world's human population had grown to only 450 million. Today it grows by that many people every five years.

Continuing into modern times, men have embraced change and discovery at every level, no matter the consequences. The last hundred years, especially, have been breathtaking. Automobiles, air travel, computer electronics, hyper-consumerism, and Internet communications – it's hard now to imagine a world without these things. And with them, a belief has seeped into popular culture that humans have more control over Nature than it has over them. But there's also a residual suspicion about the new human condition. It seems that we are no longer mindful of fundamental matters in our existence. Our connection to the world we live in, the sense of wonder and mystery essential for the full appreciation of life, and even a satisfactory sense of who or what we are – all these perspectives have become clouded.

It has become difficult to grasp the scale and speed of critically important developments, such as population growth and energy use. We seem unavoidably locked on a course through perilous points of no return. Climate change. Dwindling resources. Uncontrolled economic growth on a finite planet. An extremely inequitable distribution of wealth. Senseless and destructive wars and conflicts.

Oil has played a key role in all this unfolding history. The extent and speed with which oil has dominated the world as the primary source of energy is widely accepted as a natural development in human "progress." But, if observed in an individual, the same kind of submission to a powerful outside influence would be seen as a loss of personal identity. It takes exceptional inner strength for people trapped that way to find themselves again. But, as a species, that's where we now find ourselves: stubbornly refusing to let go of a form of energy that poses the greatest threat to our "civilization."

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In 1878, after petroleum started to become important as fuel, Ludwig Nobel, Alfred Nobel's brother, introduced oil transport by tankers with his design of the Zoroaster. They weren't small ships. At 184 feet in length, with a beam of 27 feet, each could carry 242 tons of oil. That was only 130 years ago. Today, a similar quantity of fuel can be burned on a single overseas airline flight.

How did the need so suddenly arise for people to log trillions of airline passenger miles each year? Airlines book almost five billion passenger seats annually. It happened so quickly – there are people living today who were born before airplanes existed. And air travel continues to accelerate. World aviation oil consumption is already about 5 million barrels per day, and the FAA predicts air traffic will grow another 55% by 2030.

Similar forecasts of growth come from every industry sector: the aircraft manufacturers, the airlines, the fuel interests, among many – even though there is general agreement, at least verbally, on the need to reduce CO2 emissions to avert calamitous climate change.

Those interests are controlled by corporations, and the oil corporations, in particular, are bent on uninterrupted growth in oil production well into the future. They are vigorously working to increase production, shipping, pipeline, and refining capacity. They will do this in spite of all attempts by countries to curb CO2 emissions. Oil corporations are immensely powerful, and they appear to be indifferent to the enormous damage caused by their products.

Every one of the six most profitable corporations in the world is an oil and gas company. Two of those six, Exxon/Mobil and British Petroleum, are responsible for the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

Corporations may not want to cause environmental damage, but, when they do, their legal departments usually shield them from the most costly consequences. At the time of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, Exxon was assessed $5 billion in punitive damages, but, after 20 years of legal wrangling, that fine was reduced in 2008 to just $500 million. For Exxon, that was four days' profit.

Just like Exxon and BP, when there can be a net benefit to them, all corporations will use the legal system to fight for decades to avoid penalties they could easily pay from their short-term earnings. They have no choice. Their charters clearly compel their top officers to do all they can to maximize profits and minimize costs, and they would be subject to legal charges themselves if they failed to do so. These charters and laws are consistent across jurisdictions worldwide and apply to all corporations. As a Canadian example, take the 2004 Supreme Court judgment in the often-quoted Peoples vs Wise case:

"The fiduciary duty under s. 122(1)(a) of the CBCA [Canada Business Corporations Act] requires directors and officers to act in good faith and honestly vis-à-vis the corporation... At all times, they owe their fiduciary obligations to the corporation, and the corporation's interests are not to be confused with the interests of the creditors or those of any other stakeholder."

Man-made charters and laws can ultimately be changed by the stroke of a pen, but until they are, corporate management practices – even the most reprehensible -- will remain the same. There is no obligation to the public interest, except to challenge it in the courts when facing judgements or penalties that would reduce the corporation's profits.

BP's Gulf leak aroused a public response unequalled since the Exxon Valdez spill. At the height of public outrage, President Obama extracted compensation pledges from BP officials. He short-circuited BP's chance to develop a long-drawn-out legal effort which may well have had the same effect of cutting its financial loss as Exxon achieved with its long legal battle.

Large spills, however, as visibly damaging as they are, fall short of being the worst of oil's ravaging effects.

An almost unbelievable amount of oil is consumed every year. If, for example, world annual consumption could be represented by the 500 gallons in a residential heating oil tank, then the Gulf spill would be equivalent to a few tablespoons. That's the relationship between the several million barrels that fouled the shores of the Gulf states and the 29 billion barrels that are systematically channelled into the world's environment each year.

An even smaller fraction of fossil fuel consumption is responsible for the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone," a lifeless stretch of ocean about the size of New Jersey. Nitrogen fertilizers made from natural gas are leached from soils and carried down the Mississippi to the Gulf, where they cause algal blooms that eventually lead to oxygen-starved seawater. The trail from fossil fuels to dead zones is less obvious than damage from an oil spill, and it doesn't attract much media attention, but the effect is similar.

In her book Sea Sick, Canadian writer Alanna Mitchell gives a vivid account of an 11-day expedition to find and study life in the Gulf dead zone. Where abundant sea life had normally thrived, the team of scientists found only jellyfish, which can live in oxygen-starved waters. Virtually all other life was absent in the oxygen-starved ocean, right down to one-celled creatures.

A recent UN Environmental Program (UNEP) Yearbook notes that ocean dead zones have been doubling every decade. Now occurrences are accelerating; in the past six years, the number has jumped from 149 to 406 worldwide. Most are caused by fossil-fuel-derived nutrients, but some are caused by another of oil's effects: changing ocean currents due to global warming.

So, in the Gulf of Mexico alone, we find tiny fractions of the world's oil consumption causing two very different tragedies: the dead zone and BP's leak. It would be a mistake to believe that this was an unlucky coincidence -- that other similarly small fractions of oil consumption are not doing equivalent damage, in many different ways, in the sea, on land, and in the air, all around the globe.

How dominant is oil in humankind's affairs? An examination of ocean shipping gives some idea. Today, the world's tanker fleet has over 4,000 vessels. The Panamax ships are the "smallest" of the super-tankers: they can barely scrape through the Panama Canal locks at 100 feet wide by 1,000 feet long. Much larger are the Aframax, the Suezmax, the VLCC and ULCC tankers – each twice the size of the one before. VLCC tankers are up to 320,000 tons, more than three times the tonnage of Nimitz class American aircraft carriers; and the ULCCs, the largest ships in the world, are up to twice the size of the VLCC tankers.

If shippers are worried by climate change, they are not showing it. Construction of new oil tankers are at an all-tome high, with at least seven straight years of record fleet sizes. Shipping corporations, like the airlines and oil producers, are counting on even more oil consumption, not less.

How big is the hydrocarbon shipping sector, overall? Ocean transport carries almost all goods and commodities shipped internationally – 33 trillion ton/miles per year. Containerized manufactured goods, iron ore, and food grains are the three largest sectors outside of oil.

Fossil fuel shipments exceed all other shipping sectors combined. An astonishing 50% of all global shipping capacity is devoted to moving hydrocarbons. Oil makes up two-thirds of that amount, coal one-third. And seaborne oil trade, at 43 million barrels per day, accounts for only half of world oil traffic. Pipelines, per barrel, are a cheaper way to move oil, so it's not surprising that another 73,000 miles of new pipeline are planned to transport crude oil and natural gas.

Pipeline conglomerates, along with their oil production and shipping counterparts, are betting in a very big way against any meaningful action on climate change, or any significant move to alternative forms of energy. In fact, the UNCTD forecasts that, "to meet the projected global demand in 2030, about $22 trillion of infrastructure-related investments are needed."

If the ratio of tablespoons to 500 gallons can show how little it takes to cause an ecological disaster like the Gulf spill, or the Gulf dead zone, how can a person really grasp what the 500 gallon example represents: world consumption of 29 billion barrels a year?

You could go stand beside the Fraser River at its delta, near Vancouver. Over the millennia, this river has shaped the hundred-mile-long Fraser Valley, one of the larger stretches of truly fertile land in North America. At its delta, the river has several wide arms, and the flow is languid, making it hard to grasp its size.

About 150 miles upriver at Hell's Gate, however, the Fraser displays a different spirit. The water rages through a narrow canyon, only 110 feet wide, but 175 feet deep. This gorge is like a huge roofless pipe. At 17,000 [i]barrels per second, the volume of water twisting and turning through that canyon is twice as much as tumbles over Niagara Falls. Here, you get a real sense of liquid volume.

From the Department of Fisheries (DOF) Bridge, scant metres above the salmon ladders and the swirling river, it is mesmerizing to look at the brownish water churning through that narrow channel. You could use your watch to time 20 minutes as that powerful river rushes by, imagining it is oil instead of water.

It takes 20 minutes to see the equivalent liquid volume of the oil the United States uses in a single day – or nearly a month to see the entire global consumption. The Exxon Valdez spill would flow by in seconds; the Gulf spill would take a few minutes. Those shocking disasters were caused by an insignificant amount of oil compared to world annual use. And yet all of that oil enters Earth's environment in one way or another, year after year.

Oil is 85% carbon, and most of that river of oil is converted to CO2 in Earth's atmosphere. Over 16 million tons of carbon dioxide is vented every day, just from the United States. But, unlike an ocean spill, CO2 is invisible, tasteless, and odourless. The oil industry can't credibly tell us that the spilled oil that ravages coastlines is harmless. But it regularly promotes the fiction that vastly greater volumes spewed into the environment every day may not be worth worrying about – at least, they say, not in comparison to our need to produce and sell more of it.

Seen as a major river, it is easier to grasp the incredible scale of oil use. But before it's ever used, crude oil is the raw material for the world's most energy-intensive manufacturing process. Why? Because whatever oil is consumed in the world each day must be refined each day.

Crude oil is heated to many times the temperature of boiling water in the refining process. For example, the catalytic process resulting in gasoline, roughly 50% of total refinery output, requires temperatures of 6500 C, (1,2000 F).

As the saying goes, a watched pot never boils. Most people have waited for their gallon of spaghetti water to boil with the big burner turned on full. It seems to take forever. So you check your watch again to observe the Fraser River as it flows under that bridge for 92 minutes. That represents world daily oil consumption. How could that volume of liquid be heated to five times the temperature of boiling water, every day? How much energy would that take?

The EIA says: "Petroleum refining is the most energy-intensive manufacturing industry in the United States and accounts for about 7% of total U.S. energy consumption." Before we ever get a chance to cause emissions from our tailpipes, oil already comes to us with an enormous carbon footprint. Some 1.5 million barrels of oil is needed every day just to make gasoline and other hydrocarbons in the U.S. alone.

Oil's toxicity is not confined to its poisonous, suffocating properties, as when lathered over marshlands or soaked into delicate tundra, dispersed over sea beds, or washed up through estuaries. It has colossal planetary effects, changing the climate, and altering the chemistry of the oceans. It has untold other dimensions, too. Oil acts like humankind's steroid. It amplifies deforestation, uncontrolled resource extraction, and untenable lifestyles, while seducing us away from our natural abhorrence of waste. In almost every form it takes – as crude or petrochemicals such as pesticides, or non-biodegradable plastics, or surplus fertilizers, or as CO2 when burned – it is toxic or damaging to the environment.

Corporations control oil, and corporate law controls corporations. Governments make the laws. Those laws require corporations to use all their efforts to maximize profits for their shareholders, whatever the social, economic, or environmental harm, and that is exactly what they are doing. Exploration, drilling, tar sands production, shipping, pipelines, and refining – all these capabilities are being expanded to deliver more oil to equally expanding oil-consuming industries. Controlling CO2 emissions plays no part whatsoever in this dynamic. So change needs to come from outside the system, by reforming the corporate mandate.

Perhaps Kyoto and Copenhagen were useful exercises in discussing a problem that the world is not yet ready to come to terms with. Breaking loose from our dependence on oil will require a much more fundamental understanding of the perilous course we have set for ourselves. A future without oil will eventually come, because it is not an inexhaustible resource. But if we wait till then, it will be far too late to preserve anything remotely resembling a civilization.

(Garth Woodworth – [email protected] – is a freelance writer who lives in Victoria. He will be glad to provide detailed sources and references for this article to anyone wishing to obtain them.)