For all our talk of an online future unbounded by physical limits, life in our increasingly global economy still requires the movement of actual people and things, often over long distances. And without a steady supply of prehistoric hydrocarbons, that movement would come to a halt. More than 95 percent of the vehicles on Earth--from cars to trucks to freighters to jumbo jets--run on oil products, and without them we'd be hard-pressed to commute to the office or import our gadgets, much less till our fields or get food from the farm to our kitchens. For now, we must have oil.
Our dependence on oil is driven less by the political might of the oil industry than it is by the fact that oil itself is a terrific source of power. It packs more energy into less space than any other commonly available resource, and it requires much less energy to produce. In the Middle East, where "easy" oil remains most plentiful, drillers need only invest a single barrel's worth of energy to produce a full 30 barrels of crude. That is among the highest ratios of energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI, for any widely available source of power on the planet. (That same barrel's worth of production energy, for instance, would get you fewer than two barrels of corn ethanol.) Oil's amazing efficiency is one reason it remains in such high demand, especially for transportation, and it's also why finding an alternative will be so difficult.
But find one we must. We have already burned our way through most of the world's easy oil. Now we're drilling for the hard stuff: unconventional resources such as shale and heavy oil that will be more difficult and expensive to discover, extract, and refine. The environmental costs are also on the rise. Oil production remains a significant local ecological hazard—as we were reminded by the disastrous failure of the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico last year--even as oil's large carbon footprint threatens the global environment as a whole.
Bridging the gap between our current oil economy and an as-yet-undefined clean-energy economy will not be easy. Alternative systems, such as hybrid cars powered by biofuel drawn from oceanic algae farms, may be vastly more sustainable someday. But "sustainability" is an economic concept as much as it is an environmental one. People will always prefer cheap energy to expensive energy. (Indeed, many people in less-wealthy nations require cheap energy simply to survive.) And the process of making alternative energy systems affordable will be long and uncertain, in part because the oil-based systems they must compete against (internal combustion engines, for instance) will themselves become even more efficient and alluring.
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All this talk about how the companies are enemies makes me sick. If you think that the large corporations are the money suckers that they are. Then it should be a simple solution. They are very simple creatures they want money and lots of it. If you feel that there needs to be a change, say in energy use, then we as consumers make that point to the companies ( whether it is just not buying said good or protesting) and once they wake up to the fact that there is a new lucrative "free-market" because it is new and unregulated they will follow. They just want money and if we want change don't go crying to the government to force a change. They will forget the free market factors and just slow the process. yes as anything new will be slow but the private organisation has a much larger motivation to get the job done...done fast and well.
Well the government i live in the people still have the power..they just need to wake up and realize what they can do with it..hopefully sooner rather than later...
NOTE: i am only 16 and my seem rather ignorant to a lot of you....that's fine by me ..call me out on it and ill read up on said issue :P
What an excellent article. I really enjoy the possibilities of alternate energy sources. I facilitate many corporate functions in the improv comedy business. However, there are always hot button topics such as this that arise during a corporate team building or comedy event. I have actually referenced several PopSci articles while facilitating these events. Its accurate, current, and makes people think I really know what I'm talking about!!
This article was extremely interesting and informative. I've been a long time popular science reader (about 20 years) and this was the first article that I've recommended as must read to my friends. And in fact, this whole issue was the first that I literally read cover to cover. I typically skim the entire issue and return to articles that catch my attention beyond the first few sentences/ paragraphs. This issue did that throughout, and especially this article. It completely energized my interest in energy consumption and discussed our energy future in the most simple and realistic terms. Every detail, down to the energy costs per barrel, was helpful in forming my outlook on the topic. I felt that it did not demonize oil/oil companies nor did it dictate an opinion/solution, but rather stated the realities that peak oil will happen, that salves are developing, and that only through further development in these fields will we be able to bridge the gap between peak oil and an energy efficient future.
We could be using the Yellowstone Caldera for geothermally generated electicity as well as for oil shale and bitumen sand separation. If we had a geothermal plant design that was robust enough, it could power the entire planet. While I don't think that Yellowstone will be powering the world, I point it out because it's doing nothing right now but building pressure and heat as it prepares to destroy this part of the world and blanket the planet in ash and acid rain for a couple hundred years. The geologists don't think it's ready to pop just yet, so why not try to slow that day's coming a bit more? Peak oil only matters if we can't come up with other sources, like this, that are inherently so massive a source that they make questions of efficiency irrelevant. And I know. I actually just said that.
@aarontco: Instead of studying government as you suggest, I spent my time in college earning a degree in engineering. Therefore, instead of daily thinking of new ways to distort markets and regulate business, I contribute my expertise in applying technology to solve challenges similar to those described in the article.
@DerivePi: Excellent comment.
Believe it or not, there was a time in our country's history when every activity wasn't permitted and competition motivated individuals to pursue whatever activity they thought could garner a buck. The gold rush wasn't caused by government research revealing the usefulness and rarity of gold, and Henry Ford's mass production of the automobile which eventually, in part, led to this discussion wasn't started on a government grant.
The bottom line is that government doesn't actually solve society's challenges. Despite what you political scientists may think, if it weren't for business and markets, there would be no government (its sole source of funding). I will, however, acknowledge that the government plays a role in preserving the free market because without the rule of law, no market could exist. However, the government has no business in researching our next energy source, and I am confident the markets will present our next big energy source when one becomes more affordable than oil.
This is pathetic. Decades?
When we decided to send people to the moon, it was less than a decade.
When countries around the world had to reassemble their armies and head into WWII, some took mere months.
If we really wanted to, if everyone stopped dragging their feet and whining about convenience, whining about all the money in oil, we could do it in under 10 years, easily.
If half the money in oil prospecting and drilling was diverted to battery research, we would have no problem finding batteries that would far outstrip the power and range of modern day combustion engines.
If car manufacturers, governments, and citizens all got on the same damned page, all of the now aging oil infrastructure could be replaced, along with the gradual (5 years tops?) phasing out of fossil fuel burning cars.
Just a longer tailpipe? Get your heads out of the damned coil mines and tap the nigh-infinite power of the earth and sun dammit.
Remember that oil is a non-renewable resource, and takes a LONG time to produce more, naturally anyways. Its bound to run out sometime and i appears that our last supplies of oil are disappearing. Unless we find another source of energy to power things like vehicles and homes the world will plunge into chaos. I do not see why some people doubt this, but they I see it, the supporters of oil are greedy, short minded, arrogant and just plain stupid.
This article seems to be talking about only one use for energy - powering cars and airplanes. Not all uses of energy require something as compact as gasoline.
Home heating can be provided by electricity instead of fossil fuels. And electricity can be provided today by hydroelectric dams or windmills instead of by fossil fuels.
We can't build enough new windmills or enough new dams to shut down every fossil-fuel powered electrical power plant. But we can build enough nuclear power plants to do that.
Well, I have to say that was a well written article. I love popular science and have been a fan for many years. I have noticed that they do tend to follow the crowd when it comes to 'social and popular movements' such as their enthusiastic support of the global warming crowd. I think it's a bit discouraging to actually believe that it will take decades for our society to find an attractive economic alternative to oil. At the risk of being labeled a conspiracy nut (which I really don't give a damn what you think), I will say that there have been alternatives that have surfaced and disappeared many times in the past. I believe that once the support for an alternative gets strong enough, I don't believe vested interests will be able to stop it. If you haven't looked into it yet, do some digging on alcohol as a fuel alternative. So much of what we believe or are aware of is unfortunately controlled by the wishes and interests of a small minority. Check out this site: want to know. info (removing all gaps) IF you would like to become aware of a great number of other possible alternatives that have unfortunately been suppressed or controlled.
What people need to realize is that 60-70% of our petroleum use goes to transportation. Yes, our cars. The other 30-40% goes to heating and electricity generation. Gas gas related liquids go to make feedstocks for making plastics, fertilizers and synthetics. We will always need petroleum, if not for transportation, certainly plastics as nothing else has been found to replace it. Petroleum represents the single most rich source of energy we have ever discovered. A gallon of gasoline represents 138,500 BTUs a kitchen match represents 1 BTU. Heating costs using fuel oil are routhly $1900 a year, $1800 for natural gas, $3200 for Heat pump, $5500 for electricity and $1888 for wood. Air pollutants for wood are 10 times greater than for fuel oil with the others in between. The truth is we will always need petroleum and all the wishful thinking about sustainable green energy sources is just that, wishful thinking. We cannot power our cars with windmills and storage batteries and their manufacture are extremely pollution heavy. In time technology may make some of these things workable and economic, but we are a long way from it today, a long way.
in the end, were still left with the same problem. Ya, all electric cars whose only emission is ozone gas is a great idea, but unless we have a way to produce the electricity needed to run all of those vehicles ALONG with the other electronic demands that this or any country has, you're back to horse and buggy. if only people weren't so afraid of nuclear fission and fusion processes of producing energy... of course, i guess if wishes were fishes, we'd all be fishermen...
im at work adn dont really haev the time to read every post put in here, also pardon my spelling, im not here for english lessons or how to type jsut expressing sum things i know....
sweden plans to be totally green, zero emissions by 2050, thats a pretty big goal, they already have hydrogen powered cars on teh road that get the hydrogen gas already produced from stations throughout the county that splits the water first into its respective parts (o2 adn h2) so tehress less chance of cataclismic failure, plus the byproduct is water.... not self sustaining, but definetly more eff.
we've made a bacteria that as a byproduct produces gasoline, last time i heard at about 30-40$ a barrel.... imo thats dirt cheap, even if they did sell it at 1$-litre that would still be huge profit which would cover any initial start up costs to get it rolling, and i dunno about you, but i miss the days when gas was 1$ and not 1.30$/litre
its up to every one, consumers, goverment and whoever else to start making the concious movement towards a gas free world, i agree that if any country put even half the moeny towards researching greener energies and teh like that they spend on military, we could see vast and amazing jumps in ecofriendly-ness. even reading the articles on here i see were on the brink of so many HUGE advances in all technologies, oil will always be important, but it doesnt have to be crucial to transport and such. please no haters, civilized responses sure, but if your jsut gunna hate, do it elsewhere. if im wrong tho, please feel free to comment ^.^
musings of me
ps. call it wishful thinking but how many people would buy hybrid (electric/gas) cars if parsay, the goverment scrapped your current car and payed say 10,000$ towards buying a hybrid car that runs on both? it may not be a huge impact, but every littel bit counts.
I didn't read much of this article since I know all the green energy available today cannot possibly replace the world's energy needs for that [dark energy] oil. Since the Reagan administration, environmentalist and regulators have ramped up America's dependency on oil from 30 percent to 70 percent. It took Reagan a mere six years to bring our Arab oil imports down from 80 percent to 30 percent. Green energy has had all the help it should get form the taxpayers of America. Green energy must grow on its own merits and marketing, and I do hope it progresses rapidly. We need to tap our own natural oil and coal reserves and bring jobs back to the USA so we can restore a strong tax base in which to protect this country. I believe the experts who say that climate warming is a localized problem in the metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles basin and Phoenix Dallas etc.. The best we can do there is to plant more trees and foliage in these areas. I also have a plausible theory of my own, that by placing mist and moisture emitters along the freeways in the tornado belts can help the threat of tornados. Fundamentally, tornados are fed by hot air raising form the ground into cold air masses. So it makes sense that if we cool the air at the source in those heat emitting highways, that this should reduce the intensity and frequency of tornados, particularly in heavily populated areas.
on my previous note, technically, because there is no carbon in a hydrogen cars combustion not only would complete combuistion occur 2(h2)+ o2 - 2(h20) + heat
but because whater vapor is a bi product, the water could be filtered, stored and tehn reused at any hyrdogen production station, essentiually a self sustaining process..... car comes in, takes hydrogen, empties water tank, and unloads the water stored in a tank on the car, station breaks down water, next car comes in, so on so forth... and @tenyearsafter, obviously we cannot replace all the oil today with green energy... hence why we need to put serious funding towards making green energy more plausible or we would already be using green eneergy solely instead of oil.
Musings of Me