The Substitutability of Oil and Sustainability of Our Lifestyle

This post is written by Kristen Bastug, a Junior Biology Major at St. Thomas.

All organisms need energy to survive and reproduce. Throughout the history of life, the vast majority of life-supporting energy came from the recent photosynthetic activity of plants. As we all know, humans have been able to access and exploit fossilized photosynthetic products (oil, coal, and other “fossil fuels”) to power much of modern industrial output. In just 153 years since the development of a gas-fired internal combustion engine (~1860), which allowed humans to convert fossil fuel energy into useful work on a large scale, the human population has increased ~550% and per capita GDP has grown ~875%. A cost of this fossil fuel use is the CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions that are changing the global climate. These emissions pose an existential threat to human society, and immediate action is needed to reduce them. However, there is another problem with fossil fuel use that receives surprisingly little attention: we may be running out of it sooner than most of us realize. How likely is it that our generation will face severe shortages of fossil fuels (particularly petroleum)? What consequences would such shortages have for our current lifestyle?

Petroleum is an unbelievably cheap source of energy in terms of the amount of energy we get out from what we put in, known as the EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested). Energy inputs are essential in order for a species to grow, and this was traditionally done through human and animal labor. When society made the switch to fossil fuels, petroleum took the place of this labor, allowing us to pursue other endeavors and grow our society. To put things into perspective, one barrel of oil contains 1,700 kilowatt hours of energy. Humans currently consume 89 million barrels of oil per day, which is equivalent to 14,000 years of fossilized sunshine every day. In terms of human labor, it would take a person 8.6 years working 40 hours a week peddling a bicycle quickly to generate the same energy in one barrel of oil (Alexander 2011). Who wouldn’t want to pay $100 for 8.6 years of labor instead of doing it themselves?

Due to the declining production of oil fields that will make petroleum more scarce, is this form of energy a substitutable resource or an essential one? In other words, are there other forms of energy that can act in petroleum’s place without consequence? Petroleum is the dominant source of energy for transportation: 90% was supplied by petroleum products in 2011. The Bureau of Transportation reported that in 2011, 76.4% of Americans drove themselves to work every day, 9.7% carpooled, 5% used public transportation, and 2.8% walked. But oil is more connected to our lives than just at the pump. Conventional produce travels 1494 miles between when it is grown and when we buy it (Neff et al 2011), and this transport relies on petroleum to power the freight trucks. Agriculture itself depends on fossil fuels to make fertilizer; it currently takes ten calories of fossil fuels to produce one calorie of food due to the use of fertilizers and pesticides. The types of food that we consume are worth thinking about as well. It takes 600 calories of fossil energy to produce one can of diet soda, and another 1,600 calories to put it into an aluminum can. When we drink it, we get one calorie of energy out, making a “zero calorie” diet soda a 2,200 calorie fossil fuel investment. People usually think that to reduce their carbon footprint they should cut back on driving, but by eating less petroleum heavy food we can make a difference as well.

While there is debate about the exact year it will happen, there will come a time when the global production of oil cannot meet our demand. We have been developing alternative energies and the hope is that they will eventually replace oil; this would make oil a substitutable resource. Unfortunately, these alternative energies also have limits.

The most talked about type of alternative energy is Biofuel, or fuel made from plants. Biofuels are commonly thought to be the next best thing to oil. However, it takes a lot of energy input to get the fuel out, so biofuels aren’t as efficient as commonly thought.  Another problem is that they take up an enormous amount land. Land is already scarce, and biofuels will have to compete with the farmland needed to feed the future world of 9 billion people. Replacing all of the current oil with biofuel would require 232% of all the available land on the planet. Even if we wanted to substitute 60% of our oil with biofuel, we would need 140% of all arable land (Mediavilla et al 2013). This is not feasible, as much as some would like to believe that biofuels will be the major source of energy in the future.

One promising alternative to petroleum in the transportation sector is electricity. Electric vehicles are limited in that they cannot travel long distances, and cannot power heavy vehicles. This makes them unsuitable for the freight transportation sector. The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport, and Regional economics estimates that fuel cost is currently 30% of the operating cost of freight transport. Higher oil prices will make transporting goods more expensive. Freight is essential for the distribution of food and also facilitates business, which helps drive economic growth. These cars are also limited by the metal lithium, which is currently the best element for the car battery.

We need to find a way around the limitations to current alternative energies if our society is going to make a smooth transition into the post peak oil era.  The numbers are out there, and we are currently dependent on petroleum. Knowledge about petroleum dependency and scarcity is often masked in order to avoid panic, but it is important to spread this knowledge in order to generate lifestyle changes. By understanding the inadvertent ways this resource is used, and taking responsibility for the well being of our planet by acknowledging that our lifestyles are unsustainable, we can make informed choices in our lives that reduce our carbon footprints and inspire others to do the same.

For more discussions regarding peak oil, check out The Oil Drum

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