About That Energy Shift…

Hello Researchers!

Although my summer research on the oil and gas industries of the past has concluded, I felt it necessary to tie up some loose ends regarding current events. The relief well is still being dug in the Gulfwater Horizon oil leak from this Spring. Depending on whose accounts one trusts, it is estimated that roughly 5 million barrels spewed forth into the Gulf. A majority of this oil has either evaporated with the help of ocean surface bacteria, been skimmed by thousands of auxiliary vessels (you know, the ones that would normally be shrimping or fishing this time of year), or washed onto shore in the hundreds of miles of Gulf marshlands. Still, much of the heavy oil remains in the ocean and could do untold damage to lower tropic level organisms such as plankton, which will affect all the local ecosystem, including our friendly seafood vending. Amazingly enough, though, the 5 million barrels of crude leaked into the Gulf of Mexico represent less than one day of American domestic oil production. This fact should make us pause and rethink the progress of alternative energies.

If there’s one thing to take away from my research, it’s that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our generation’s environmental purpose is said to be the development and implementation of greenhouse gas-saving alternative energies throughout society. Well, in 1940, the Germans, Japanese, Swedish, and Soviets were using wood biomass-gas to power many of their cars due to the threat of domestic scarcities. Other European countries were requiring ethanol contributions to automotive gasoline. Even in the U.S., domestic producers were using wind energy to power their pipeline operations. In 1940, the Oil and Gas Journal editors were sporadically referring to the need to find new ways of extracting oil to meet demand and prevent scarcity. And, yes, even in 1940 it took two to three months to fully kill a blown-out well.

Some energies, like solar and hydrogen fuel cell technologies, are genuinely new. Most, however, have existed in various forms and with varying levels of sophistication since pre-WWII days. This fact should say different things to different people. For those who decry the use of alternative fuels because of their unproven science or practicability, the basic science and infrastructural capability for things like biomass and wind power have existed for quite some time; their shortfalls can more likely be attributed to poor public investment and a consumer demand that prefers cheaper, foreign sources of fuel. For environmentalists looking to actualize the energy shift, some new dynamic is going to be needed. The vague notion of crude oil scarcity has been around for decades, as has Gas-to-Liquid technologies, yet biomass cars never caught on. Rather than seeing alternative fuels as meeting the basic needs of American consumers while improving the environmental impact, maybe we should get alternative fuels to actually improve transportation while also helping Mother Earth. As long as the engine quality of biodiesel is roughly on par with regular diesel, consumers will go with what they know works. The trick might be to make engines that use biodiesel and actually take people where they want to go faster and more reliably than older models, not just in a more environmentally friendly way.

In short, when viewing issues like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the U.S.’s dependence on foreign oil (roughly 60% of our consumption), I think it’s important for people to know how little has changed in the major dynamics since 1940. The industry terminologies, methodologies, and abilities to stop leaking oil wells are basically the same as they were 70 years ago. The fears of running out of crude oil some day are motivating many oil industry leaders now just like they were in 1940. Many of the alternative energies to help solve petroleum dependencies have also been around since the Depression, and consumers’ anxieties about shifting to them have remained constant. I hope to return to this study of the oil and gas industries upon my return from a Fall semester in Spain. In the meantime, I hope all the fellow researchers have reached some resolutions in their work and have terrific presentations on them in the Fall.