IOOA Chairman, Professor Pat Shannon, examines the impact of oil and gas in our daily lives
Oil and gas have been used by humanity for thousands of years. For centuries pitch (bitumen or tar) was used to caulk the seams of wooden sailing vessels helping to waterproof them and enabling exploration, travel and transport of goods. Hydrocarbons (oil and gas) have been a key enabler for building society, fueling the global industrial revolution and powering travel.
The birth of the modern oil industry with Edwin Drake’s oil discovery at Titusville in Pennsylvania in August 1859 started a new age of lighting and power, replacing whale oil with a more efficient and plentiful form of energy.
Oil and gas are now the world’s most important energy and transport fuels and underpin rising standards of living globally. They provide modern convenience and freedom of movement. By-products from oil refining are extremely valuable while natural gas, in addition to its role as a clean and efficient energy source, is used to make products including fertilizer, pharmaceuticals, plastics and fabrics.
However, we now need to transition to lower carbon forms in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly and rapidly.
As we plan and implement the transition, it is worth examining the many ways in which oil and gas are used in our lives. Either as fuels or feed-stocks, they impact in so many ways in our home, workplace, schools, hospitals and shops, and when we travel on the roads, by air or by sea.
A quick journey through our average day illustrates how they are an integral and essential part of our daily lives.
First thing in the morning we might rush to take a warm shower (almost 83% of the energy used to produce Ireland’s heating comes from oil and gas). Oil is used in the manufacture of cosmetics, toothbrushes and hairbrushes. As we get dressed, remember that if our shirt is made from nylon or polyester, or if our jumper is acrylic, then we are wearing a product that comes from natural gas.
Having grabbed our mobile phones (containing a significant amount of petroleum-based plastic), the rush is on to get on the road to school, college or work. The soles of our shoes are usually made of synthetic oil-based rubber, our outdoor and sports clothing are petroleum products, the roads are made of bitumen and virtually all our cars and buses run on petrol or diesel (97.5% of the energy used in Ireland’s transport sector comes from oil.
Most of the fittings in the cars (even electric cars) and buses – for example the instrument panels, tyres, window seals, hydraulic steering fluids, brake fluids, lubricants, bumpers and interior coverings – are made using oil as a major feed-stock.
When we get to work where much of our surroundings would not exist without oil or gas. Look at the chairs and office furniture, the computers, lampshades, paints, pens and plug sockets – they all have a petroleum ingredient.
The heating and the lighting in our workplace are likely to be largely produced from oil or gas (48.5% of the energy used to produce Ireland’s electricity comes from gas . If we work in a manufacturing industry, much of the power will come from oil or gas. They are important for fueling many industrial operations, including glass and steel foundries, aluminium production, and many manufacturing industries.
Oil is used to power the mining, transport and refining of a vast number of elements used in everyday life and especially in the renewable industry. These include copper used in electrical equipment such as wiring and motors (including electric cars), rare earth elements such as neodymium in wind turbine magnets, and cobalt, lithium and cadmium in batteries and in our electronic devices such as our mobile phones, tablets and laptops. Gas is used in producing fertilisers and a wide range of industrial products, including plastics, polymers and textiles.
On our way home, a journey almost certainly powered by oil, we might drop into the supermarket to buy the ingredients for the dinner. Much of the produce there needs to be kept refrigerated or cooled and this requires energy (probably oil- or gas-derived).
If there is a power cut, the food stock will be lost unless the backup generator (oil-fueled) kicks in almost immediately. Much of our food has been grown using fertilisers (made from gas, oil or oil by-products) and has either been imported or transported by road, sea or air, requiring oil. Paying by credit card for our purchases we are again using an oil-based product.
When we get home, we may cook by gas and wash up using oil or gas-based detergents.
Relaxing on the sofa (the upholstery and foam fillings are oil-based), we might turn on the TV (note the plastic surround and covering, close the windows (the frames of which are probably and oil-derived product), pull the curtains (which, like many of our clothes, may be and oil- or gas-based product), turn on the lights (the lampshades are almost certainly produced using a by-product from oil refining), relax and wind down at the end of the day.
This is the reality of the role of oil and gas in our everyday lives. During the day we have almost certainly experienced the benefits of close to a hundred products that would not exist without oil or gas.
This piece is written to demonstrate the many uses of oil and gas, and to start a discussion as to how we can transition away from these uses as we move to alternative fuel sources.
As we face into the transition to a low-carbon energy future, we need to consider which of these products we can rapidly find an affordable, producible and reliable substitute for or are willing to eliminate from our daily lives. We all have a role to play in this regard.