From Dean Dowd on January 21, 2009 in Green Remodeling
Backtracking along the trail of oil use and production turned out to be simple. You see, the vast majority of us walk that trail every day. Despite our very worthwhile clamoring for energy alternatives, we can still find oil in a flick of the light switch, the turnover of an engine, a dab of shampoo or lotion. The list of oil-related products is staggering. And it’s important to remember how all of our products, even those without petroleum, get to us.
But all of this happens on our end of the oil trail. Oil production and its impact on the environment begins with geology, exploration, and discovery. From there a lot must happen before that oil gets into your car or plastic or other product. That oil must be extracted, transported, refined, and dealt the energetic blow of combustion.
When an oil field is discovered, whether on or offshore, it must somehow be extracted. This is done by drilling holes anywhere from 200 to several thousand feet deep, usually to a layer of porous sandstone where oil and natural gas tend to hang out (the natural gas usually sits just above the oil, trapped by a layer of non-porous rock).
At least initially, oil is under so much pressure that it will flow naturally from the earth when the field is punctured. Only later, when the field is nearly tapped, does the pressure subside enough to warrant pumps to extract what oil is left. Sometimes natural gas or water is pumped into the well to re-pressurize it (note: this is the basis of some “clean coal” technologies such as carbon capture, in which carbon dioxide is pumped into oil wells for storage).
This unrefined, or “crude” oil is then transported to refineries to be processed into gasoline or petroleum diesel and other byproducts. This is typically achieved via pipelines running under ground or under water.
The refinery is where it all happens. Where the many properties of oil are processed to produce a variety of substances. Basically, crude oil contains several different hydrocarbons which vary widely in their physical properties (i.e., weight, structure). Oil refining is essentially a distillation process in which these many hydrocarbons are separated, each having specific useful properties. From lightest to heaviest, these “fractions” are dissolved gasses, petroleum ether, gasoline, kerosene, gas oil, lubricating oils, fuel oils, and asphalt. You can already discern where most of this material goes from here.
Oil transport occurs at every turn of oil’s life cycle. From extracting it from a well to pumping it at the gas station, it arrived there somehow. Transport is the most environmentally dangerous step along oil’s path. Pipelines, ships, trucks, and trains all play a part and unfortunate failures in these modes of transport are relatively common, resulting in massive degradation to species and habitat.
As oil reserves decline, the need to transport oil over longer distances is increasing. In response, big oil companies have commissioned continent-spanning pipelines and supertankers. These only increase the danger and the destructive scope of oil spills (see the Exxon Valdez—our most famous catastrophe).
A hefty majority of oil is refined and used for driving gasoline and diesel powered vehicles. In fact, engineers have devised ways to alter the process briefly described above to gain even more gasoline by reprocessing the heavier fractions of crude oil. Trains, trucks, cars, buses, boats, planes all run on oil.
Oil also factors into health and beauty care products, including lotions. Although coal continues to dominate, fuel oil also has a history of being burned to create electricity for our homes.
Bringing it on Home
A 2002 Harvard Medical School study concluded that oil was in some way harmful to the environment at every step of the way, from extraction to transport to use. With smog hanging over so many cities, wars being fought around the world, and a quickly-rising global temperature, there is decreasing doubt amongst populations worldwide that fossil fuels as a whole are not only running out, but running up an environmental tab we may not be able to pay.
The trail of oil from the refinery to our homes is like a spider web; it spreads in all directions. And it affects your home in so many ways beyond driving the car or heating the house. Oil is used every time a material is delivered—be it the UPS truck or the very materials from which your house is built. It is the plastic in your tupperware and may be the fabric of your jeans.
Indeed, following the trail of oil reveals the true depth of our dependence on oil. And it will be no easy task overcoming such an addiction, an addiction that has spawned war and political division throughout society. Yet things will change, as they must. Renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal are already taking off and any product listed throughout this article can be made from other sources. Biofuels, hydrogen, and the electric car all show individual promise as replacements to oil-powered transport, our most daunting hurdle.