Oil and other fossil fuel products, such as natural gas, get a mixed press. There’s no doubt that oil is useful; it powers our vehicles and keeps the wheels of industry turning. Natural gas is used to heat our homes, hospitals, workplaces and schools and provides fuel for cooking purposes. Plastic, meanwhile, which is basically made from oil, is used to make everything from baby bottles to children’s toys, packaging, furniture, clothing and much more.
There is a growing backlash against oil products from some sectors of society, however. More hybrid and electric cars are being produced to reduce motorists’ reliance on petrol and diesel. Huge supermarket chains are cutting down on plastic bags, and people are being encouraged to reuse and recycle as much as possible.
Is oil so bad, though? After all, it is a natural product, in its crude form at least, and is one of the earth’s most versatile natural resources of all. What is the truth about oil – and what are the most commonly believed myths? Here are seven of those that crop up most frequently.
1. Oil comes from dinosaurs
We discussed this in a recent blog. In fact dinosaurs roamed the earth, not the sea – and the oil is extracted via oil rigs comes from deep beneath the sea bed. The formation of oil is a process that takes millions of years, and the tiniest flora and fauna from the sea, such as plankton and seaweed, are actually some of the key components.
2. Oil only comes from oil rigs
New technology means that new methods of oil extraction are being developed, and used. These include the extraction of oil from shoal – known as fracking – and from oil sand. Canada in particular is rich in oil sand, and is predicted to become one of the world’s largest producers of oil in the next few decades because of this.
3. Cars use the most oil
While cars do account for a significant amount of oil consumption, if you compare them to aeroplanes, their oil use almost pales into insignificance. Private jets are probably the heaviest consumers per capita, as just a few people travelling on an aeroplane equals a huge amount of oil used per person.
4. Natural oil is best
In fact, synthetic motor and industrial oils can often perform far more effectively than lubricants that have a mineral oil base. This is because of the technology involved in producing them. Formulas that are tailored to the exact requirements of the engine or machinery can be made, increasing efficiency and productivity. In fact, it is precisely the labour involved in producing synthetic oils that makes them more costly to buy.
5. We are “addicted’ to oil
In 2006, the then president George W Bush said that “America is addicted to oil”. Is “addiction” too strong a term, however? An addiction could be defined as a reliance on something harmful, like hard drugs. However, we do not want oil for no rational reason. Oil is so widely used because it is such a safe, reliable and affordable energy source. Modern lifestyles are largely depend on us having access to such a source of energy.
Oil is used to power and lubricate the agricultural machinery that helps to supply us with food. Oil also helps to run the machinery used to extract materials such as timber, iron, uranium and of course natural gas. It is then used to facilitate the construction of new buildings from raw materials.
All kinds of vehicles, from domestic cars to huge transporters, are powered by oil. These vehicles not only move people between home and work and so on, they also carry materials and products across countries and continents to keep the global economy going.
All kinds of items we take for granted are oil-based, including carpets, insulation, tyres, tarmac, fertilisers, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. We thus rely on oil because it saves lives, feeds us, advances technology and facilitates transport. In short, oil makes our lives easier, safer and more productive.
6. The world is running out of oil
This is probably the number one most common myth regarding oil, yet we don’t really know exactly how much oil there is.
The saying is nothing new, and has been bandied about since the dawn of the oil industry. Oil supplies have in fact increased over time. For example, the USA’s Department of the Interior predicted in 1939 that oil supplies would run dry by 1952; by 30 years later, oil production had actually increased threefold. In 2009 in particular, there was much mention of “peak oil,” yet a number of the most momentous, oil discoveries ever have happened in the decade since.
Humans are constantly developing new, better and cheaper methods of extracting oil. Further, no one knows how much oil will be available in the future, as new finds occur all the time. There will also be unforeseen new developments in extraction technology. One example is the fact that
many times more oil can be extracted reservoirs when technologies like high-pressure water or gas injection or horizontal drilling are used.
There are also new sources, such as shale and oil sands, that have huge potential. These are only minor sources at present, but this is expected to change as technology moves on.
7. Green technology can easily replace oil
New, “green” technology such as solar and wind power and biofuels have received a lot of attention and significant funding from governments all over the globe, yet we are consuming more oil than ever before. This is because wind, solar and biofuel power have as yet been incapable of beating oil when it comes to cost and supply.
Solar and wind power are also reliant on the weather – which is notoriously unreliable. Nuclear power and natural are capable of generating the large quantities of reliable power that modern society requires.
Biofuels are expensive, as it is pricey to produce energy from animal or vegetable sources. Conversely, each barrel of oil contains a considerable supply of energy. Producing a litre of oil requires five litres of water, whereas many more are required to make each litre of biofuel.
At present, the world is thus not in any position to switch completely to ‘green’ forms of fuel and energy, despite decades of research so far.