Mother nature creates it over hundreds of millions of years. Humanity burns it in seconds. Its presence on Earth feeds our gluttony and greed, disguised as needs and necessities, in virtually every facet imaginable throughout our society. It is more coveted than gold whose possession will drive nations through the hells of war, welcome to the era of Black Gold.
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William Simpson (1823—1899) / Public domain
Babylonians, as early as 3000 B.C., utilized oil seeping from the ground for a multitude of activities. Builders used caulking for ships and mortar for building construction in their routine activities (BBC Teach). Forward to the Egyptians, as its use in even embalming practices is evident (BBC Teach). However, while the presence and application of oil in our ancient history may amaze us, it pales far in comparison to what we use oil for in our generation.
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Welcome, fellow Steemians, to our seventh installment of the Environmental Impact Series. During our series, we discuss how various elements on Earth impact our environment, lives, and society.
In this post, we will discuss oil and its processing and applications. Additionally, we will cover the impact of oil on the environment, and much more!
In our Environmental Impacts series, we discussed how various events or elements impact our environment. Environment Overview, volcanoes, mercury, wildfire, inferno, and climate change are topics we've covered in the past that continue to affect us today.
Join us now as we continue to the topic of oil, its production, and its application towards arguably everything we hold dear in society today.
What is Black Gold?
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"Black goal" is the nickname for oil (Encyclopedia.com). When it comes out of the ground, it could be black as night. For those savvy enough to extract it in mass or distribute it to the highest paying customers, it brought massive wealth and fortune. Those in control of the oil supply, distribution, or refinement have a significant impact on our society today.
Brief Origin of Oil
Oil, as a fossil fuel, forms from the decay of organisms over millions of years as nature exposed them to the Earth's pressures and temperatures. Over time, the accumulation of fossil fuels within an area develops into deposits that can measure in the billions of barrels. The United States at the end of 2018, for instance, maintained oil reserves with a total amount of about 44 billion barrels of oil (Energy Information Administration).
The video above provides a bright and animated viewing of how our planet creates this influential and societally-addictive substance.
Extraction by Fracking
We covered facking in some detail when we discussed energy production with natural gas. The TedEd video linked above provides a more specific discussion on how fracking occurs.
If you don't have time to view the video, we can provide a brief written summary that also works to help you understand. A company that performs fracking will first drill several thousand feet below the ground and then divert the drill 90 degrees to drill horizontally about a kilometer (BBC). The drill forms small holes along the horizontal drill hole to create small cracks throughout the horizontal line.
The fracking company then pumps high-pressure water and select proprietary chemicals into the horizontal line. The special chemicals serve to dissolve minerals, release the oil from the surrounding rock, and disinfect the well to prevent the formation of bacteria. The process then extracts it for future processing and refinement.
The end products are sweet-sweet oil and toxic chemicals used to extract that oil. Handling the toxic chemicals after use is an exciting story.
Oil Processing & Refinement
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Before we discuss the almost innumerable ways we get products from oil, let's cover how we refine oil from its raw components into the different fuels. One process that creates different fuels is the distillation of petroleum. Let's discuss the overview of the process.
Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D., discusses distillation in his article "How Oil Refining Works". In a nutshell, we heat oil until it becomes a gas. We pump that gas through a large column and force it to pass through plates of varying sizes (Freudenrich). While the vapor cools, it condenses and becomes liquid that settles into the different levels of that large column. The resultant fluids within that column represent the different fuels that form.
The difficulty in the future processing of these fuels is dependent upon where they settled in the column. The higher up you are in the column, the less processing that's required. The video provided below presents an overview of the process we just discussed.
Disadvantages - Environmental Impacts
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If we change something in an ecosystem, we impact it. Regardless of how small the impact, we cause change occupying the space of our surroundings. When walking through a forest, for instance, we could displace branches, leaves, or build a campfire to keep warm at night. Hopefully, upon our departure, we recognize the impact we have made to ensure that we can restore the area as much to the original condition as possible.
The main concern from fracking is the release of methane. If you can recall, methane is a greenhouse gas that is significantly more efficient at trapping sunlight within the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (Hoffman).
In the realm of oil refineries, greenhouse gases are not the only concern. Refineries can, and have, released toxic gases and carcinogens like benzene, toluene, and ethylbenzene (EPA). These gases don't just pose a hazard to our bodies. They also inhibit the formation of ozone in the atmosphere.
One of my biggest fears of water pollution isn't just the contamination of water. It is the immense pushback communities receive from regulators on proving the cause of the contamination. Flint, Michigan, and Hinkley, California, are but two cities on this planet that experienced significant strife from regulators and private companies.
City residents want the problem to be corrected, and their medical issues resolved. Private companies and government regulators want the problem to go away. The government allows industries to proceed with activities almost under pretenses.
Fracking is no exception. Companies say that there can't be any water pollution because they drill so deep underground. Communities detecting fracking chemicals in their drinking water want the chemicals removed from their supply. Communities can't get the aid they need because the companies causing the fracking won't consider that they might be the cause of the contamination.
Botany of Desire / Fossil Fuel of Desire
The author Michael Pollan wrote a book called "Botany of Desire" (Michael Pollan). In that book, Mr. Pollan writes about his belief that plants of all varieties induce us into admiring, planting, and spreading their seed. He provides some compelling examples. One of them compares the bumblebee to a human being. In this example, he says that, like a bumblebee, humans will help plants to pollinate, spread, and grow.
I wonder, sometimes, whether we are aware of our dependence on things—there is little to nothing we can do, for instance, about food and water. Our lives depend upon the continuous consumption of food and water. If we do not eat or drink water, we will die in short order. What about things that are not food and water?
Let's explore how invasive the use of oil-derived products are within our society. Perhaps then, we can understand how significant this fossil fuel is within our lives.
The oil and gas industry, in 2019, generated revenue in the trillions of dollars. Trillions. The juggernaut that is this industry seems to be invincible in that it can do what it wants with little to no repercussions if they should stray away from regulations. There seems to be little to no competition against them.
Any human, or non-human, increases their chance for survival by adapting to a situation. The same holds for corporations. In the case of the oil industry, it thrives and survives by tailoring its products to virtually every need advertised by society.
We use oil to create apparent things like fuel and lubrication for automobiles. Did you know that we need oil for renewable energy? Solar panels don't create themselves. What about medicine, medical equipment, clothing, and food? Did you know many of these areas require products derived from oil? Let's talk a little bit about the renewable, food, and transportation industries.
[Insert Here] Renewable Energy
We cannot create wind energy without oil. Oil is a necessary part of the turbine blade development. The machines that create the turbine blades require lubrication, and we get that through the use of oil. Delivering the parts for the wind turbine requires the use of transportation that depends on oil. We can say the same for other types of renewable energy production.
The food industry utilizes petroleum products to extend the shelf life of many foods (Petro News). Examples of some food using petroleum includes, but is not limited to: packaged baked goods, food colorings, and some chocolates (Petro News).
According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States consumes 69% of its petroleum in the transportation sector (EIA). Global statistics are less clear as there are no actual values for 2019. Values range from 25% global consumption for transportation in 2012 to 60% in 2018 as reported by Reuters.
It makes sense that the more significant portion of oil consumption goes to transportation. We need to transport materials from an origin to a destination. Everyone needs to move something somewhere. If we were going to target ANYTHING for a reduction in use, it should be automobiles. Our use of electric vehicles is increasing, but it's not enough to create an impact.
World Society, at this time, can't function without the oil industry. Our dependence on this versatile fossil fuel is such that we may not see a reduction in use during our lifetime for transportation alone. I can't see governments spending billions, perhaps trillions, creating a new infrastructure to move away from oil anytime soon.
The current end outcome is a society continuing to try and minimize environmental impacts from the oil and gas industry while trying to wean ourselves away from its dependence.
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Thanks again, fellow Steemians, for following on with this series. It's been a great ride, and I've appreciated all the reviews and votes from the Steem and STEM Communities.
Each topic presented poses different challenges during research. It is essential to cite all available references for this work to ensure that all readers can validate the information presented as they desire. The goal, ultimately, is the dissemination of accurate and thoughtful information. Unfortunately, some topics are more difficult to research than others.
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What was your favorite article of this series? Is there anything else you'd like to see covered? Share your thoughts by entering your comments below!