Petroleum: Economic Uses and Dependency
When modern transportation was evolving in the early 1900s, automobiles were designed to run on petroleum-based fuels because the fuels were inexpensive and readily
Available at the time. In 2006, more than 95% of all energy consumed in the transportation sector was petroleum-based—mainly gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.
As the world population grew in the twentieth century, so did the demand for modern transportation and with it greater use of . In 1950, the world population was just over two billion people. By the end of the twentieth century, it had reached six billion.
Increased population, especially in the United States, disproportionately increased the use of gasoline. Between 1941 and 2000, the vehicle-driven distance in the United States increased by 724%. Not only did the population increase and the vehicle distance traveled increase, but the driving distance per person increased. The distance traveled per person in the United States between 1941 and 2000 increased 290%. Driving habits had become similar among all the industrial nations by the end of the twentieth century.
Petroleum reserves are finite. What had been a ready supply of petroleum in countries like the United States in the early twentieth century became inadequate with increased demand. However, large oil reserves were located in other parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East. Importing oil became a way of life for developed countries around the world.
The dependency on imported oil has become an economic, political, and social crisis in the twenty-first century. The use of fossil fuels has also become an environmental crisis due to the emission of greenhouse gases when they are burned. The use ofhas made transportation the second largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, second only to burning coal for electric power.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
In the early history of modern transportation, renewable resources were promoted by leaders in the industry. In
1900, German inventor Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913) demonstrated the new engine he had invented at the World Exhibition in Paris, France. He ran the engine on peanut oil. In 1912, Diesel promoted vegetable oils as the fuel of the future for his diesel engine.
In 1925, Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford (1863-1947) promoted corn-based ethanol as the fuel of the future for the automotive industry. However, the ready availability of very cheap petroleum at that time put an end to any efforts to promote local renewable resources for fuels.
The United States, currently the world’s largest importer of petroleum, uses two thirds of the petroleum imported for transportation. Coincidentally, two thirds of the world’s petroleum reserves are found in just a few countries, most of them in the Middle East. In 1960, these countries banded together to form OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries).
The result of the widespread use of petroleum for fuels, heating, and petrochemicals by the industrial countries that do not have large reserves of petroleum, or in some cases have no reserves, is a global economy that is based on importing petroleum from very few countries. The world energy demand for petroleum reached 84.4 million barrels per day in 2006. OPEC has economic power over oil-dependent developed nations whose economies and lifestyle are controlled by the availability of petroleum.
All the major countries of the world are attempting to increase their use of renewable resources and to conserve their use of petroleum. Energy independence is a goal that industrially advanced countries are striving to achieve through alternative energy sources and conservation.
While efforts are being made to use alternative energy resources, other efforts are underway to develop new or existing sources of petroleum. The United States has over 700 oil drilling sites on land and 140 offshore, in coastal waters such as the Gulf of Mexico. This represents more than five times the number of drilling sites than are being used in the Middle East. There are petroleum resources other than the deep wells currently being used, but recovery of petroleum from unconventional sources of heavy oil, oil and tar sands, and shale oil is not economical at this point in history.
WORDS TO KNOW
DIESEL FUEL: A liquid engine fuel used in diesel engines, which ignite fuel vapor by increasing pressure in a cylinder rather than by an electric spark. Diesel engines tend to be more efficient than gasoline engines. Most diesel fuel is refined from petroleum, but diesel may also be made from vegetable oil, in which case it is termed biodiesel.
FOSSIL FUELS: Fuels formed by biological processes and transformed into solid or fluid minerals over geological time. Fossil fuels include coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Fossil fuels are non-renewable on the timescale of human civilization, because their natural replenishment would take many millions of years.
GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth’s surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth’s atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.
PETROCHEMICALS: Chemicals derived from petroleum, such as gasoline, propane, and most plastics.
PETROLEUM: A complex liquid mixture that is mostly composed of hydrocarbons, compounds of carbon and hydrogen, that is separated into different products with different boiling ranges by a process called cracking.
RENEWABLE RESOURCE: Any resource that is renewed or replaced fairly rapidly (on human historical time-scales) by natural or managed processes. No mined substance (e.g., copper, coal) is renewable. Some resources, such as crops or forests, are truly renewable only if exploited in a way that does not deplete soils faster than natural processes can replace them.
In addition to the political, social, economic, and scientific drivers to reduce the use of petroleum-based fuels, there is also a compelling need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, primarily gasoline and diesel fuel. In the United States, automobiles alone put 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.
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