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This Very Short History of the Oil Industry Explains Why We Have Toxic Products Today And Why We Need to Move Away from Oil-Based Industrialization
As I explore the subject of this blog, there are certain questions I have and hold in my mind. Occasionally information passes by that answer these questions perfectly.
Such was the case the other night when Larry and I were watching television. We don’t watch “industrial TV” where the whole point is to sell you things via commercials so the TV shows are designed around what will attract the largest audience to watch the commercials. No, we watch movies and archived television shows without the commercials, and we are finding some very interesting things.
Currently, we are watching episodes of the History Channel show Modern Marvels, which goes back to 1995. There are about 185 episodes to watch, but they are fascinating because they basically show how and why our industrial world came to be. They are, of course, presenting these stories from the viewpoint of glorifying the industrial creations of man, but we see just how and why things went wrong that led us to where we are today.
So we have been watching one episode every evening, and the next episode in the lineup was Oil.
I understand now what happened.
Even though we know that crude oil is a finite resource, that refining it and burning it causes climate change, and that its products are harmful to the health of humans, all creatures, and whole ecosystems, today oil is everywhere and used to make every type of product. Another Modern Marvel show tells this story: How We Use Oil Everyday.
Petroleum in Nature
The word ‘petroleum’ comes from the Latin roots petra, meaning “rock” and oleum meaning “oil.” Petroleum right out of the ground is also called crude oil.
Though we think of oil as being "industrial," the industrial forms of petroleum actually start out as a naturally occurring substance found in geological formations beneath the Earth’s surface. It is a complex mix of hydrocarbons—ncluding carbon, hydrogen, sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, and metals—formed millions of years ago when large quantities of dead organisms were buried and subjected to intense heat and pressure by layers of sedimentary rock. The name petroleum covers both naturally occurring unprocessed crude oil and petroleum products that are made up of refined crude oil.
Crude oil is completely natural. It exists in Nature and was made by Nature. While it is mostly buried underground, it does occasionally bubble up in pools.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, where Ice Age animals, plants, and insects are trapped in a pit of sticky asphalt that is still being excavated today. Asphalt is the lowest grade of crude oil, and as you walk around the park you can see it seeping to the surface almost everywhere. I’ve been there and it is just surreal to see this.
So while Nature has stored most crude oil underground, it does come to the surface in various places and can easily be found in those locations.
Petroleum as it appears in Nature is not particularly toxic or harmful.
Where it naturally bubbled up to the surface of the Earth, local natives would use it for folk medicine cures and waterproofing canoes.
But as the oil industry progressed, this natural substance became more and more refined until new "man-made" chemicals were created that do not exist in Nature. It is these new substances that are toxic.
An Alternative for Whale Oil Was Needed
Beginning in the 1500s, whale oil was being used for lighting, lubrication, and the manufacture of soap, textiles, jute, varnish, explosives, and paint. Demand for whale oil was so high whales were being slaughtered almost to extinction for their oil.
At the time, whaling was considered to be a perfectly acceptable and admirable occupation. As well as providing oil and meat, whale carcasses produced vast quantities of oil for light and lubrication. Whalebone was used for a vast array of everyday products ranging from umbrellas and fishing rods to corset stays and crinolines. As the number of whales decreased, a new source was needed, particularly for whale oil.
The Birth of the Oil Industry in America
While early European explorers found petroleum bubbling to the surface when they arrived in America in the 1600's, the potential of petroleum wasn't discoverd until 1854, when New York lawyer George Bissel found a pit of petroleum in Pennsylvania and sent a sample to be analyzed.
It turned out that simply boiling natural crude oil produced kerosene. So it could be used in lamps for illumination.
The question now became, how could enough oil be obtained? Random pools of oil on the surface could not provide enough volume of oil to replace whale oil.
At that time, in that place, water distillers were drilling for water. One of their problems was that the water supplies coming from below ground were contaminated with oil. Bissel began purchasing this waste oil from water companies and then in 1859 began drilling for oil using the same methods being used to drill for water. They hit oil at 69 1/2 feet and that was the beginning of the oil industry. By 1865 there were large refineries in major cities.
Once a source of crude oil was established, kerosene provided a reliable and relatively inexpensive alternative to whale oil for fueling lamps.
Gasoline was a by-product of kerosene production. Since there was no use for it, it was simply burned as a waste product.
Automobiles Drive Up the Demand for Oil
Motor-powered "horseless carriages" began to be developed as soon as motors began to power factories at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid -1700s. The problem was lack of fuel. But in 1880, gasoline was found to be the perfect fuel and the first gas-powered automobile became avialable.
Once gasoline became the fuel for automobiles, the production of both automobiles and gasoline increased exponentially.
Until this time, oil had been collected from deposits that were fairly near to the surface. But the demand for gasoline for authomobles pushed the demand for oil to the point where new oil reserves needed to be found and new technologies neeed to be developed to access those reserves. By 1901, drilling down to 1000 feet was required to get oil. As they drilled deeper and deeper, enormous fields of oil under pressure came gushing out when drilled.
Now the demand for oil was determined by the demand of the public for the products of oil.
During World War I, the Military Increases the Demand for Oil
By 1919, gasoline sales exceeded those of kerosene. Oil-powered ships, trucks and tanks, and military airplanes in World War I established oil as a critical military asset. World War I was won by the use of oil-power.
World War II Military Innovations Become Toxic Consumer Products
The truth is--oil was the indispensable product, in all its forms, to the Allied campaigns around the world. Without it World War Two could never have been won. For oil, once processed or refined in various ways, became the source or indispensable material for laying runways, making toluene (the chief component of TNT) for bombs, the manufacturing of synthetic rubber for tires, and the distilling into gasoline (particularly at 100-octane levels) for use in trucks, tanks, jeeps, and airplanes. And, that is not to mention the need for oil as a lubricant for guns and machinery.
During World War II, military oil scientists created a whole new set of substances out of the by-products of refining gasoline. These are known as petrochemicals.
After World War II ended in 1945, many of these chemicals of war were turned into materials used to make consumer products. This is when we began to have plastics, synthetic fibers, glues, which led to a huge increase in consumer products made from these materials. These consumer goods increase sales 100% per year for more than 20 years and created consumer culture.
Rachel Carson was the first to point out the problems with these chemicals in 1964 with her book Silent Spring, which she wrote after noticing there were no longer songbirds in her garden.
The US Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970 to address petrochemicals that were polluting the environment and causing damage to whole ecosystems.
In 1978 I was diagnosed with Environmental Illness (now called Multiple Chemical Sensitivities) that was the result of damage to my immune system as the result of exposure to petrochemicals from everyday consumer products in my home. Eliminating my exposure to these petrochemicals eliminated my symptoms, which led me to write about nontoxic products, and the development of nontoxic, natural, organic, and green products.
Increasing Demand Exceeds Finite Supply
By 1950, the USA could no longer supply its need for oil. Huge oil fields were found in the Middle East, required tankers to bring to America, and military involvement. Offshore drilling became necessary.
Oil, gas, and coal are finite resources. The undeniable fact is that these, and other non-renewable resources, will inevitably run out. Scientists estimate that if we don’t alter our current rate of consumption, the remaining oil supply will be depleted by 2050.
Even conservative estimates place oil depletion within the next 50-100 years -- that’s just one generation away. To prepare for the unavoidable depletion of non-renewable sources of energy, the world must continue making the shift away from oil, gas, and coal towards solar.
But it appears that we are going in right direction because afternative energy sources, especially solar, are emerging. Now we just need to move toward renewable materials for all the other everyday products now made from oil.
The Regenerative Resources of Nature
Our alternative is the regenerative resource of Nature.
The problem with using whale oil was not that we were using whales. The problem was they were overused to extinction. And this is a human problem. We seem to take everything to extinction and then move on to the next thing until it runs out.
Nature operates on regeneration and limits population to the availability of resources.
If we would base our human culture on living within the means of our regenerating supply, we would always have enough.