The Fruits of Civilization (24-4-8) Petroleum


Petroleum is another energy source that came into prominence in the back half of the 19th century, though the substance was known since ancient times. Asphalt was used in constructing the walls and towers of Babylon in the 18th century bce. By 347 there were bamboo-drilled oil wells in China.

Scottish chemist James Young distilled kerosene from petroleum in 1847. Kerosene was to prove a cheaper alternative to whale oil, to cetacean relief.

Polish pharmacist and petroleum industry pioneer Ignacy Łukasiewicz invented the modern kerosene lamp and street lamp in 1853, then proceeded to construct the first modern oil well (1854) and oil refinery (1856).

One of the first engine-drilled oil wells belong to American oil driller Edwin Drake, who sank a gusher in 1859 near Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Like electricity, the first employment of petroleum distillates was for illuminants. While the lighter fractions first went to lighting, thicker fractions served as machine lubricants, while the heavy, residual fractions, once waste, became heating oils. The lightest, most volatile fractions – naphtha and gasoline – were regarded for decades as dangerous nuisances.

Fossil fuels went everywhere pipelines, planes, ships, trains, trucks, and automobiles would take them, and from everywhere they were exploited, with little regard to the continuing viability of the environment to support life.

Everywhere that oil is extracted, transported, or processed, it spills. Everywhere. (There were 5,712 significant leaks or ruptures in US oil and gas pipelines 1998–2017. Offshore oil drilling in US waters resulted in 2,441 spills 1964–2015.) Sooner or later, there are significant spills at every major find where oil is extracted. The economics of oil is the practice of accident.

Affected ecosystems do not fully recover for centuries. Water polluted by petroleum simply cannot be made potable for any plant or animal life.

There are no fish in the lakes. ~ Peruvian Galo Vásquez after an oil spill in the remote Amazon

Ships carrying petroleum regularly have spills, most of which are ignored. Only those where the vessel does not get away are polluters even identified.

Most major offshore oil spills involve tankers being hit or running aground. Time and again, carelessness is the cause.

Exploding oil rigs are more spectacular but less frequent. America has had such 2 historic events, though there have been hundreds of others.

On 28 January 1969, an oil rig exploded off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, spilling ~14,000 tonnes of oil into the channel and onto the beaches. The marine and coastal ecosystems were devastated.

At the time, the US government had no regulations on offshore drilling. It took 9 years for the federal government to take any interest, to scant effect. The government does not enforce safety or environmental quality regulations on offshore drilling sites.

On 20 April 2010, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico – the Deepwater Horizon – exploded and then sank. The rig was 66 km off the coast of Louisiana. The massive leak, the largest in history, was never stopped and continues as you read this.

The environmental destruction from the spill has been estimated to be over $17 billion. This ridiculous price tag – based on projected loss of revenues from other exploitation of Nature no longer possible – does not account for ongoing damage nor that ecosystems will never recover.

British Petroleum, owner of the rig, paid a tax-deductible fine equivalent to ~10% of its annual revenues, and helped with the cleanup. No effective regulations were put into place to prevent a recurrence.

Another long-standing leak of gross proportion in the Gulf of Mexico is from an oil-production platform 19 km off the coast of Louisiana that sank during Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Nothing has been done to cap the many leaking wells which spew 300–700 barrels of oil per day into Gulf waters.

Almost all oil pipelines leak at some time. Even pipelines that do not visibly leak exude toxins which kills fish and other aquatic creatures. Universally and unequivocally, petroleum is a death sentence for life.