Guest Post: Why the 21st will also be an oil century

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I recently stumbled across the update of a series called “The Prize”, about the history of the international business. The series first came out in 1988, and was updated in  the mid 90’s. Now, 25 years on from the update, it is fascinating to see how much has changed – and how much has stayed the same. The original  doco called the 20th century “the oil century” – it is quite clear that the 21st will be an oil century also, albeit in a somewhat different way.

The oil business has, since at least the 1928 Achnacarry Agreement, been inextricably entangled with international geopolitics. World War II was an “oil war” in the sense that both sides depended on it as a transport and aviation  fuel. The North African campaign was all about trying to gain control of first the oilfields of the Middle East, and then the Caucasus. A case can easily be made that Hitler’s obsession with capturing the oilfields of the Caucasus was, along with “General Winter”, a major reason for his failure to take Russia.

There is no doubt that the way oil is used this century will be very different from the last – but in my view Green fantasies that all presently undiscovered oil  must and will remain in the ground are just that – fantasy. Here’s why:

Oil as transport fuel

It has long been argued that oil is far too valuable a commodity to burn  to propel cars. It is not widely known that at the beginning of the 20th century, electric cars – along with steam powered ones – vied with the internal combustion engine as the mode of transport of the future. By the end of the 1920’s the internal combustion engine had won: its fuel was just too efficient for electricity to compete.

It is interesting that in the 1993 update of “The Prize”, several Japanese car companies were  then testing electric cars. Prescient oil men acknowledged even then that one day – perhaps in 25 or 50 years hence, electric cars could take over – but only if there were significant advances in battery technology to give performance and range. It is probably well arguable that  we have now reached the point where, for cars at least, electricity will become the propulsion of the future – probably the near future.

But what of heavy trucks, locomotives and heavy earth moving machinery? I believe there are experimental electric powered trucks – but D9 bulldozers and other earth moving machinery? I stand to be corrected, but I think it will be a long time – perhaps never – before such machinery will be even mostly electric. Especially those  used for civil engineering far from charging stations.

Jet aircraft are powered by kerosene, a petroleum product.   Since “The Prize” was first made in the 80’s, jet engines are hugely quieter and more fuel efficient than they were.  The supersonic passenger aircraft experiment came and went, but to the best of my knowledge there is currently no alternative to kerosene powered jet engines  for the ever bigger passenger planes moving an ever more mobile international population around the globe. While I suppose battery powered propeller aircraft might be theoretically possible, I think  the Greenies will be planting trees to assuage their guilt every time they fly  for a long time yet.

Fertilizers and chemicals

As I have noted, far sighted oil men have seen the end of petrol driven cars for at least the last 25 years, and that time is now upon us. But what of the bewildering array  of pesticides fertilizers and other chemicals upon which our very lives now depend?

Crude oil is an incredibly versatile molecule which can be endlessly rearranged to make plastics, paints, fertilizers, pesticides and a bewildering array of other chemicals.  Down in Taranaki, one of the lesser known and arguably the  only successful “Thing Big” project from the 1980’s is the Ammonia-Urea plant. This plant converts what was then seen as surplus gas – the government was tied in to so called “take or pay” contracts which meant they paid for it even if they didn’t take it – first to  ammonia and then into urea, a versatile fertilizer for the grass land farmer.

It is  fair to say that today the world is fed on food grown with the assistance of artificial fertilizers – and protected by pesticides – all made in some way from petroleum.  One of the policies Green parties world wide don’t like to emphasize is the perceived  need to radically reduce the world’s population. This is not just to protect Gaia; they know that if fertilizers and pesticides derived from oil are unavailable, because oil production is eliminated or drastically reduced,  there simply won’t be enough food to feed anything like the current world population. In short, we would be returned to pre oil age agricultural techniques – and the consequent much smaller yields – attempting to feed a world population  many times what it  was before the oil age began. At the very least, that would lead to mass starvation.

I could in my lifetime be proved wrong, but based on current trends the nutty Greens won’t be actually calling the shots; already it is argued both here and in other countries that Green parties’ work is done – everyone is now fully aware of both the challenges of climate change and the need to  protect the planet from pollution. Just as cutting the New Zealand dairy herd by 2/3 is both utterly impractical and not likely to happen any time soon, humankind is  in my view unlikely to ever accept that we also  must be culled by a similar margin.

That being the case, we will need to go on using oil based fertilizers and pesticides until some unspecified time in the future –  a time which I don’t believe is even yet on the far horizon – when some alternatives are available to oil based chemicals.

Plastics

The oil age is also the plastics age. I am writing this on a computer – every home has at least one – with a plastic case. My printer has a plastic case. Our milk comes in plastic bottles – granted they could probably be replaced with much more environmentally friendly glass – at a greater cost of course. Look around your home or workplace. Can you imagine either without plastics?

Our electric cars will have a large percentage of their components made of plastics – computers in their plastic cases,  fans, belts, gears, dashboards, body panels – what isn’t made of metal  will for the foreseeable future be made of plastic or fibreglass. Unless I am much mistaken, to make plastics and fibreglass, you need petroleum. There simply is no alternative.

War

I am prepared to accept the terrifying possibility that humanity may cease to exist as we know it due to a nuclear conflagration breaking out – although the chances of that are very much less that they were a generation ago. The cold war has been over since about the time  “The Prize” was last updated – and the former Soviet Union has since, with western  technology and capital, once more become the major oil producer it was at the beginning of the oil age.

But sadly I think war will, in some form or another, always be with us. Perhaps the most “successful” war  in a generation was the 90 day long  first Gulf War in 1990. The machines used to fight it were not  so very different from those in WW II – diesel propelled tanks, trucks, armoured personal carriers and the like.

Can anyone imagine a battery powered tank?  Let us imagine such a thing exists, and has a battery which lasts twice as long as any battery which exists now. But as gas tanks eventually empty, batteries eventually go flat. In a conflict situation, possibly in enemy territory,  how would be they be recharged?  With diesel powered generators perhaps, transported to the battlefield by electric powered trucks, which it turn depend on the generators they carry?

Again, as throughout this piece, I stand to be corrected by someone with greater knowledge. I suppose there might already be a battle tank powered by electricity, but I certainly have never heard of such a thing.

So, the oil age is not over, and it won’t be over for a long time,  if ever. The stuff is just too valuable, and too versatile. At least with current knowledge, our lives would simply be unimaginable without it. But we certainly need to stop burning it in cars, and the sooner the better.

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