By Roger Diamond

Oil is filthy old stuff that causes nothing but pollution all the way through our use of it, but why, oh why do we keep going back for more. Pretty simply, we’re addicted. Whether it is good for us or not, and in the long term it undoubtedly is not, we are so totally addicted to the stuff that your life would not last more than a few days without a continuous stream of it being fed into your lifestyle.

I’m not just talking about driving cars here. Absolutely everything that the average citizen of the modern world uses, consumes, looks at or wishes to have, has had oil as an integral part of its creation. What about a humble lemon from a tree growing in your yard? Now let me ask you — did you not water that tree with a plastic hose pipe, or use fertiliser or sprays, or drive to the nursery in your car to buy the tree so many years ago? Oil is there, like a dark shadow, giving us light and joy, so it seems.

How can this be so, and what is so special about oil?

Firstly, there is a lot of oil around. Enough that for many decades it seemed like there was so much that we would never run out. Like the (estimated) five billion passenger pigeons that lived in the US, once, and no longer. Or the millions of square kilometres of arctic sea ice, which is, just oh just, still around. So with vast quantities of oil, its use became commonplace, first largely as a fuel for direct combustion in motors and for generating electricity. Then, although some plastics had been invented as early as the 1920s, after WWII, the production of plastics became commonplace, first as fibres and then for packaging.

Now, paints, varnishes, furniture, clothing, appliances, stationery, motor cars, roofing, almost everything you can think of is available in a plastic version. Imagine a world without insulated wires — all your electrical wires are surrounded by soft PVC and then hard PVC conduits in your walls and floors. It would be pretty hard to survive without those, to name just one essential product.

Oil is special in other ways. It comes out of the ground easily — in fact, it comes out all by itself. At first, that is. Many oil reservoirs are under immense natural pressure and for years, the oil can flow out all by itself. Then you have to pump it out, then inject salt water into the base of the reservoir and push it out, and then it gets really hard. A large portion of the oil will remain underground no matter what you do. People are even scheming to set the oil alight underground, pump air down to keep it combusting and this heat will then allow the rest of the oil to become less viscous and be more easily pumped to the surface, but even this method will leave some oil underground.

Part of the concern around Peak Oil is exactly this: that the first oil is easy oil — later on more and more energy will be needed to get the oil out. The energy return on energy invested (EROEI) decreases with time. And the absolute quantity of oil coming out becomes less.

Once the oil is on the surface, it’s so easy to handle. It’s a thick, non-volatile liquid that you can pump around, store, ship and process whenever and wherever you like. Coal is not like this. It has to be picked up each time, it gets wet and then doesn’t work (according to Eskom!) and it cannot be sent through a pipeline at low cost. And uranium is even worse — you dare not handle the stuff without extensive safety equipment and procedures in place.

But oil’s most magical quality is that once converted, rather easily, into petrol, diesel and LPG, it can be used with such exacting demand that you can put tons of it into the wings of an aeroplane and let it sit there for hours doing nothing, but when the pilot cranks back the throttle, the fuel flows and in an instant releases such an immense burst of energy that it can hurtle hundreds of tons of metal, people, “chicken or beef”, and cocktails, into the air at hundreds of kilometres an hour.

The only way you can do that with coal is to make gasoline from the coal, like Sasol does. And you just can’t do that with uranium or renewables at all. Biofuels yes. How many thousands of meals worth of food it will take to get you from Cape Town to Johannesburg though, is an ethical point. Never mind the fact that we have pretty much used up all our water and farmland anyway, so there’s nowhere to grow biofuels. Oh, I forgot about the Amazon!

So oil is pretty darn marvellous. Enjoy it while we have it, because everybody wants it, and don’t cry when it starts getting expensive again!

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