Ah, oil. It’s close in everyone’s minds because we rely on it absolutely. It fuels our vehicles, some houses, provides lubricants, is used for all our plastics and in many industrial applications.
The first major factor in the chain is surveying and drilling of crude. As recently made the news, a massive reserve in the Gulf of Mexico has increased our domestic supply by 50%. There are also newer technologies coming on board for extracting oil from tougher resources (Shales, sands, deep wells, from under permafrost) and also manufacturing oil from organic waste, in a process called Thermodepolymerization (TDP). The TDP process also adds support to newer theories that oil and other hydrocarbons are produced in an ongoing process, and are not just fossil. Certainly we’re all aware of methane production in compost and the slimy, tarry “oil” that results from rotting animal carcasses. The fact is that most of the oil fields that had a “20 year supply” in 1970 still have a “20 year supply” today. Of course, that only addresses the current demand and does not account for future increases in demand.
I have extracted the following info and summarized, from the US Energy Information Administration. I should also credit an article by Dr. Robert Metzger, a fellow science fiction writer and PhD in Electrical Engineering from UCLA, who has worked for both Georgia Tech and Hughes Labs.
Of the 400 million barrels of crude used in March 2006, 240 million barrels, 40%, were domestic production. Other sources were:
Canada, 70 million barrels
Mexico 56 million barrels
Venezuela 47 million barrels
Saudi Arabia 42 million barrels
Nigeria 37 million barrels
Angola 16 million barrels
Iraq 15 million barrels
Algeria 13 million barrels
UK 9 million barrels
Kuwait, Qatar, UAE (combined) 3 million barrels
First, this gives lie to the claims that the Iraq War is about oil. Only 9% of our oil comes from the Middle East, and 2/3 of that is Saudi oil. If it was really about oil, we’d be better off invading Nigeria (or annexing Mexico as a state, but I digress.) Chavez in Venezuela, however, can have great impact over one of our closer and larger suppliers.
Europe and Asia depend much more on Middle Eastern oil than we do, and a shift of that small percentage can indeed affect prices at our end–again, reference the Gulf find, which will not be in production for months or years, created a public perception of relief that has brought pump prices down by 35% around here.
Once the oil is here, we run into the first critical issue–refinery capacity. Increasing government standards have made oil refining one of the most complex and least profitable businesses in the US. We are chronically and acutely short of refineries, and they are a prime target for terrorism or military attack. It didn’t help that there are large terminals and refineries near the Louisiana and the Texas coast, subject to further hurricanes and civil unrest.
Then we come to one of the key factors in chaotic price changes–formulation standards set in place in the late 1990s. In an effort to reduce vapor and exhaust emissions, precise formulation standards were put in place that are based on climate and altitude. If San Francisco runs short of gas, they can’t just transfer from suppliers in the Central Valley–it’s illegal to use that fuel in that fashion. Obviously, this can result in massive regional jumps, which affect public perception elsewhere, and do allow local stations to feed on panic. Around here, I’ve seen a 25 cent difference per gallon in a ten mile radius. (One advantage of a 35 gallon tank is being able to wait for a price drop.)
Obviously, in the wake of a massive disaster, it is reasonable, practical and obvious that such standards should be tossed and gasoline taken where needed. This was done somewhat after Katrina. But will it be reasonable, practical and obvious to a future government, particularly one with “green” leanings? A healthy dose of cynicism is the survivalist’s friend here.
Electricity by and large is produced by coal, and coal is something we possess in almost ludicrous quantities by comparison to most nations. But coal, tremendously more energy-efficient than oil, cannot fuel vehicles, and is much harder to convert to lubricants and plastics. That latter is one of our biggest uses of oil. Everything from vinyl siding to blister packs for medication is made from oil. Expect that to change (as fast food containers are now cardboard instead of styrofoam) because of both landfill considerations and materials cost. Most people don’t even think of the fact that their new computer cable is plastic insulation and fittings in a plastic package with oil-derived inks on the slip of paper inside. Plastic, nylon and other polymers were a large part of the fuel bunker in the World Trade Center fires. Like any other petroleum product (or ANY organic product), heat it up and it burns. We depend on plastic as much as fuel oil, and anything that affects the oil supply also affects the cost of plastics, paints, packaging as well as transport. This has to be taken into consideration when planning for economic disasters.
Obviously, trite as it sounds, we can “all do our part” by recycling anything we can. It’s cheaper to reuse materials than refine new ones, and a good survival minded person should not be throwing out steel, aluminum, brass that can be used for generating income or as raw materials, or plastic bags and such that can be used for storage, waterproofing or recycled to reduce the burden. Long term, however, alternatives will have to be found to keep our society working. How many of us would find it harder to survive without plastic trash bags, duct tape, spray lubricant in a can and solvents?
Most of Europe is already paying $6 a gallon for gas, and their governments have turned a deaf ear to complaints in wake of the profit made in taxes. While it won’t destroy our society to pay that much, I’m sure we can all see what effect it would have on travel, disposable income and other aspects of the economy. Creeping socialism attacks both supply and demand with taxes and controls that hinder business and reduce efficiency. A heck of a lot to think about when filling the tank, isn’t it?