Thursday, May 26, 2005

End of the Age of Oil, part 2

End of the Age of Oil

Chapter 2:
Towards 'E'

And thus, in the first decade of the 21st century, a big ominous ‘E’ appeared on the great petrol tank in the ground. Slowly, it became obvious to some that there will be changes to everyone’s lifestyles when the petroleum is finally depleted. Air conditioners run on electric power generated by burning natural gas. Air conditioners are shrouded in plastic, a petroleum by-product. The manufacture of automobiles require a tremendous amount of energy for the cutting, deforming, welding, transportation, painting, heat treating. To say nothing of running the said automobiles.

Without oil, there will be no plastics, no natural gas, no petrol, no kerosene, no diesel fuel, no bitumen. With no plastics, there will be no televisions, ordinateurs, plastic food containers, PET drink bottles, hypodermic syringes. Without natural gas, petrol, kerosene and diesel, there will be no cheap, plentiful energy. With no cheap, plentiful energy, it will be impossible to manufacture automobiles and air-conditioners, operate computers and televisions, run cars and aeroplanes.

More critically, farming and food production of the era was chronically dependent on nitrogen fertilisers, derived from ammonia made from hydrogen extracted out of natural gas. With no oil and natural gas, it will be impossible to generate hydrogen at dirt-cheap price. Consequently, ammonia, nitric acid and ammonium nitrate will not be widely available, causing widespread food shortage in the short term. It was the opinion of some learned individuals that without the aid of fertilisers and diesel powered equipment, food production would decrease by a massive 70%.

With these realisations, the enlightened few came to a collective gasp, followed immediately by “oh, shit!” The transition from a lifestyle of luxury and convenience to the post-oil age will not be an easy one. Whoever held control over the last remaining oil fields would hold power as long as those oil fields remain in working order.

Consequently, the first two decades of the 21st century were marked by a progressively vicious scramble for oil fields. The United States of America made the first move in 2003. Under the dubious pretext of anti-terrorism and liberation, it occupied the state of Iraq, gaining control over Iraqi oil reserve. Deciding to secure their own trophy oil-tanks before the reservoirs were all dominated by the United States, various other players joined the rush for The Last Droplets of Recoverable Oil. The European Federation, China and Russia used their own methods to acquire fresh fields in the Artic Circle, the Pacific Rim and Central Asia. Much to the delight and glee of spectators, the United States discovered at great surprise and expense that the purportedly rich oil fields in Antarctica were already empty.

While there was a frenzied rush for oil, there were also parallel efforts to prepare for the day when fossil fuel supplies were exhausted. Alternative sources of energy were investigated, with great strides made in hydro, tidal, wind, solar, fusion and fission power generation systems. More radical propositions include giant orbiting solar collectors and distributed fusion power generation. Meanwhile, the manufacturing and consumer products industries were preoccupied with developing plastic substitutes and technologies for manufacture of plastics from plant oils. However, this was assuming that there will be fertiliser substitutes to nourish these plants for their oils. One avenue was the use of engineered biological agents to produce the required products for fertiliser manufacture; another was by means of synthesis. Both required large amounts of energy, and thus everything hinged on the success of finding alternate energy sources.

With the rush for The Last Droplets of Recoverable Oil, developments in technologies to wean off society’s addiction to fossil fuels, the developed world marched on towards the great big ‘E’ for empty.

*ordinateur - computer (French)

Read Chapter 1