Includes thoughts and comments about energy needs, resources, conservation and their relationship to politics at home and around the world.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The first posting in this series focussed on the environment. This posting will focus on petroleum and its impact on the human condition.


Back in antiquity there literally existed pools of crude petroleum on the Earth's surface in places like the Middle East and Venezuela. Defenders of castles and fortifications ignited the oil as they poured it over enemy attackers at the gate. Ship builders used the tarry portion of the oil to seal hull planking on the watercraft they built to prevent them from sinking.

Not long after the first oil well was drilled in this country in Pennsylvania, a kerosine-like product was distilled off from the crude oil which began replacing whale oil as a fuel in lamps. What was left over was discarded as being of no value. Little did those early oil refiners realize that one day what they had been throwing away would be the most profitable part of the oil.

By the last decade of the 19th century, expansion of the industrial age began to accelerate, in part because of petroleum. Internal combustion engines were coming into their own leading to the creation of the automobile, the airplane and a host of other machines requiring gaseous and liquid fuels amd lubricants to operate effectively. Between the end of WWI and the start of WWII, a whole new branch of science and engineering grew up around petroleum. Where the aircraft of WWI got by on the same gasoline that powered automotive engines, the much more powerful motor vehicles and aircraft of WWII required more powerful fuels. That led to the development of more sophisticated refining processes to make such fuels.

During WWII, a lady scientist working for the Standard Oil Develoment Company in Linden, NJ developed an interest in the application of petroleum to cosmetics which gave a small hint of what lay ahead in petroleum technology. She was Hazel Bishop who would go on to create her own cosmetics company shortly after the war ended. Bishop was also working with a class of oils that would one day be used in medicines we now use every day with most of us not knowing the role played in them by petroleum.

It was also during WWII that the same company Hazel Bishop worked for developed synthetic rubber. Natural rubber was in short supply and had to be brought into the country by ship from distant lands through enemy submarine infested waters. The development of synthetic rubber played a significant role in the WWII Allied victory.

Following WWII, technological advances in virtually every field known to humankind accelerated even further, with petroleum continuing to play a major role. Among the many molecules that make up the very complex chemistry that is petroleum, are a group known as olefins. That part of the crude oil alone accounts for a myriad number of plastic materials we take so much for granted today, from grocery bags to car seats to the bodies use to house TV and computer monitors and the many pieces of equipment they are integrated with. The list of items made possible by polyolefins and their derivatives is endless. Ffinding suitable substitutes for these things that make modern life comfortable will not be easy, just one more reason why petroleum is so dear to all of us. It is not just the fuels we use to generate electricity or power automobiles and trucks and aircraft.

It is estimated that there are about 3 trillion barrels of recoverable crude oil remaining in the world. That's about three times what was estimated 50 years ago, such being the nature of advancing technology. Still, we know it will run out some day, and because of that and many other factors we must continue the search for new oil while researching and developing alternate sources of energy.

The Politics of Oil

Many of the same people who want us to reduce our dependence on foriegn oil have fits when suggetions are made to develop oil production in ANWAR and nearer to the shores of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the same people want us to pull out of Iraq even though they, along with Iran and Saudi Arabia, produce much of the oil we and other nations around the world import. Our physical presence in the Middle East is critical for many reasons not the least of which is oil.

ANWAR is believed to be sitting on a lot of oil which certainly could be developed with minimum disruption to the wildlife in the area. There remains a lot of oil in the Gulf of Mexico as well. Fear of a spill reaching the Florida beaches has caused objection to allowing drilling closer than 125 miles. Modern technology worked to shutdown existing Gulf wells that were damaged during such recent strong hurricanes as Katrina and that would suggest Floridians would have little to be concerned with were oil wells to be permitted closer to Florida.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Because I am still somewhat computer illiterate I will make this initial posting a rather short one. In future postings I will comment on the problems humankind face as we draw closer to the depletion of fossil fuel resources which we have depended upon so heavily since the beginning of the Industrial Age. The problems are numerous and impact every aspect of our lives, from the air we breathe to the water we drink, from the clothes we wear to the automobiles we drive, from the price we pay for the forms of energy we consume to the medications we take when we are sick, from the homes we live in to our impact on global warming. Political viewpoints will enter my comments as well because of the close tie between most energy resources, the regions of the world where those resources are found, economic impacts, and the environment. Let me start with the environment.


All fossil fuels produce particulate matter (soot and dust) when burned which enters the atmosphere ultimately settling out in surrounding areas. Other products of combustion include among others, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. The effect of these products on living creatures is of concern in a variety of ways. Carbon dioxide is the primary component of so-called "greenhouse gasses", sulfur dioxide can combine with water to form "acid rain" and nitrogen oxides are primary ingredients of the "smog" found in the Los Angeles Basin and other large urban areas of the world where the lack of air movement allows the smog to build. The issue today is what can and is being done about these pollutants.

We know that "global warming" is real and. like global cooling, it is cyclical. We can't do much about the cyclical part of it, but we can alter humankind's contribution to it. A major step would be to replace fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) burning electricity generation plants with nuclear power. I would argue that we never should have halted the building of nuclear power plants. There are other non-polluting options for generating electricity which can be employed where conditions permit. Future postings will deal with the options.

We have accomplished a lot in curbing the generation of "acid rain" with the installation of stack gas scrubbers in fossil fuel powered plants and through the desulfurization of fuel oil and coal. This problem could be eliminated entirely by moving to nuclear power.

The generation of smog producing nitrogen oxides in automobile exhausts has been greatly reduced with the development of more combustion efficient engines, exhaust catalytic converters, positive crankcase ventillation and fuel vapor recovery systems. By themselves, electric powered automobiles have yet to become a serious substitute for internal combustion engines. Autos combining conventional internal combustion engines with electric power are growing in popularity. Other approaches such as ethanol/gasoline blends, solar power etc. will be the subject of future postings. Reader comments are always welcome.