Oil: We Have Few Realistic Alternatives

by Neil Doran
June 11, 2010

Dr. Neal Doran teaches biology at Patrick Henry College. His fields of interest include invertebrate and micropaleontology, morphometrics, the metaphysics behind modern biological thought, and origins. Read full bio.

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They’re starting to arrive:  the photographs of oil-stained beaches and marshes, of suffocating, oil-drenched birds and marine life. The debates are starting: the angry disputes about tighter regulations and off-shore drilling bans. The tragedy is slowly unfolding before us. Its repercussions will be felt for untold decades to come. The finger-pointing and staged governmental anger is carefully crafted to soften the public’s growing furor and dampen concern on these uncharted waters. But the reality is that it’s all pure theater.

The headlines and sound-bites miss the critical, unasked question of what short-term, realistic alternatives to drilling exist now. That’s because there are none. The global community has been built on oil, and we have no choice but to drill.

As a Christian, I wish it weren’t so. Stewardship of the Garden was Adam’s first calling. But drilling is needed to supply our energy demands. It’s our only option. No short or medium-term solutions will allow us to eliminate drilling.

We’ve known it from the start of the Industrial Revolution: the best source of abundant, inexpensive energy is the carbon atom. It gave us the engine. Oil is the most abundant and useful source of carbon and the foundation of many of our chemical and industrial products; it is the raw material of nearly all we see around us. This includes plastics, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, solvents, pesticides, and even textiles. Without petroleum, agriculture shuts down. Transportation is the largest consumer of oil, but petroleum is used in nearly everything. Oil, as both an energy source and basis of manufactured products, is inextricably woven into our way of life. Not drilling is simply not an option.

But the spill should remind us that larger problems loom. This cheap energy source has been the foundation of our economic growth, yet we are most likely at our peak oil production and will see declines in coming decades. The real question is what realistic alternatives are there that both, 1) supply the enormous demands of western economies, and 2) minimize environmental impact. Clean energy is a noble future goal. But it will not supply our needs now. Realistic alternatives are decades away.

  • The transportation sector, for one, accounts for nearly 70% of oil consumption. The recent spill reminds us of the costs, but we have no choice. The larger problem is that it cannot last. We need conservation, but we need to remember that what is not conserved must be drilled.
  • The power sector, which provides electricity to our homes, laptops, and businesses, comprises only 3% of oil consumption. Yet even if all automobiles converted to electricity, the power demand from the transportation sector will simply transfer to the power sector. This would mean we need an alternative here, too, because existing sources lose energy due to inefficient transmission and storage.
    • At best, giant wind turbines could potentially furnish 20% of our needs, and solar power is limited by its unique energy storage challenges.
    • Natural gas and coal gasification are abundant, relatively clean, and viable candidates for shorter-term solutions.
    • Nuclear fission? Aside from waste storage this is a good alternative. But Uranium may soon suffer supply problems of its own.
    • Nuclear fusion? In my opinion this is a long-term solution that would do the least environmental damage. The waste product of nuclear fusion -- helium -- is both safe and naturally exits the atmosphere over time. The obvious drawback is that environmentally safe containment technology won’t be available for years to come.

Oil is now drilled at the incredible depth of 5,000 feet. That more accidents have not happened with such deep drilling, on the nearly 4,000 oil platforms rooted in the hurricane-prone Gulf, is nearly miraculous. But, with the author of Ecclesiastes, we know that “time and chance happen to them all.” If so, and until realistic alternatives become viable, oil-covered beaches, as distressing as they are, should be a sober reminder of the cost of cheap, available energy.

Exploiting images of the oil disaster, many today demand that we curtail domestic production. This is unreasonable. We should, rather, take these images as a wake-up call of our extreme dependence on this resource. Political rhetoric aside, few realistic options exist in the short-or medium-term. We need better long-term options and -- hopefully -- realistic (rather than idealistic) short and medium-terms solutions can be crafted with that end in mind. I wish it weren’t so, but petroleum is all we have for the foreseeable future.

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