The Sticky Truth About the Oil Industry

Unless you are a certain Texan senator you are likely to accept that human activity is prompting an untimely shift in our planet’s behaviour. Climate […]

Unless you are a certain Texan senator you are likely to accept that human activity is prompting an untimely shift in our planet’s behaviour. Climate change has moved from an issue associated with extremist hippies to one which dominates global headlines. It is a hot topic in schools, politics, businesses and even households. Amidst this turmoil, the oil industry is often typecast as the villain. There is no doubt that a murky cloud of ethical dilemmas surrounds many areas of the oil industry, especially with regard to international relationships. However, when taking a step back to evaluate the problems of climate change, the oil industry may begin to look more like an enabler than an enemy.

First we can consider all the non-renewable energy sources. It might surprise you that oil is the cleanest of these fossil fuels (including drilling, extraction and use), producing less carbon dioxide in total. Of course we use oil in greater quantities and for a wider range of uses, which somewhat masks this advantage. Nevertheless it is still more environmentally friendly than the fossil fuel alternatives, and therefore curbing its use in favour of coal or natural gas is a no-go zone.

Of course, non-renewable energy is obviously not the only option available to us. There is a vast range of ‘green’ energy options that can broadly be split into two categories; those that harness existing energy (e.g. solar panels, wind turbines and thermal springs) and those which use an energy source which is readily available and (comparatively) renewable (e.g. hydrogen fuel and nuclear power). The variation in these energy sources is so huge that it is impossible to make a sweeping judgement covering them all. Many of the sources only make sense in very specific situations. For example, Iceland is a geologically unstable island and this means that something like nuclear power is not a good energy source. This is due to transportation risks and costs, as well as the risk of catastrophic damage to the island if one of the frequent geological movements were to compromise the integrity of the power plant. However, this is not an issue as Iceland can harness this geological instability and produce almost all of their energy using the natural thermal springs beneath the ground. On the other hand, implementing huge infrastructures for renewable energy in a location where these forces are not in abundance, for example wind turbines in an area with minimal wind, is potentially more damaging than beneficial to the environment due to the inefficiency of production. For this reason, whilst in the right location these systems can be hugely advantageous, there is no blanket energy solution to be found in the existing renewable energies.

Perhaps then we should stop oil production and use the most appropriate energy source for the location or task. Well, this solution would be ideal, but unfortunately it is not that straightforward for two key reasons. Firstly, the existing energy infrastructure in a country is enormous and complex, but the ‘best’ energy to use varies a great deal across a country. Tying these two factors together is a very complex task that would take a lot of time and investment. It would need large companies who have a vested interest in energy production… enter the oil companies. BP and other leading oil companies are investing vast amounts of money into alternative energy sources. Without their investment many global green enterprises would not have taken off. Whilst the road ahead is long, there have at least been steps in the right direction by the oil industry leaders. Secondly, oil is not just used to power our homes and cars. It underpins the production of just about everything that we use. Almost everything that we touch has used oil in multiple stages of its journey and to find appropriate alternatives for each of these stages will again take time and investment, in some cases we simply don’t currently have alternatives. If the use of oil was scaled back as rapidly as many campaigners wish for, manufacturing and production would collapse into the void.

For the general public ‘oil = fuel = transport’. This is an area which may be quicker to turn around than others. Hydrogen powered buses are already common in parts of Canada. This is where hydrogen is used to power the engine and the two waste products are simply water and oxygen. Whilst the technology is currently too large to put in cars, if more buses and heavy duty vehicles were powered in this way it would be a vast improvement. There are also advances in commercially available cars, such as electric cars and bio-fuels, which will leave a smaller carbon footprint. Again, much of this progress has been funded by oil firms.

So what can we do to be greener, reduce our dependence on oil and embrace renewable energies? Well the simplest way to make a difference is to consume less and waste less. It sounds really rather unglamorous and dry, but buying more expensive quality products that will last for years, instead of multiple cheap and (essentially) disposable items, as well as opting for walking, cycling or public transport when possible, really is the best way for everyone to make a difference. However, if you are feeling a little more proactive don’t waste your energy scapegoating the oil industry in the common room; instead be actively involved in the progress that is being made in all sectors. You can do this through supporting initiatives to gradually implement better standards, such as hydrogen powered public transport. We are currently totally reliant on oil, but getting bogged down in the complex politics of the industry will not help to solve this. Instead let’s embrace the positive changes we can see and help push the industry in the right direction.

About Jessica Smith