As young people become increasingly aware of the climate change predicaments that we face, they are taking action. Greta Thurnberg — Out of the Mouths of Teenagers — started the meme. Now young people in western Europe and the United States are following her lead. (By young, we mean less than 20 years old)
One of the slogans chanted at their rallies is, “Fossil Fuels Must Go!” But, as they say, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” Do these young people know what they are really asking for? Do they comprehend the utterly fundamental role of crude oil, natural gas and coal to our way of life, a role that goes way beyond merely supplying us with energy?
Writers such as Steven Pinker and Bill Gates point out that humanity has become far more prosperous over the course of the last 300 years than at any time in recorded history. By virtually every measure — life span, infant mortality, safety, peace, knowledge, happiness — there has been steady improvement, not just in the West, but worldwide. Pinker attributes this change to Enlightenment thinking — the development of rational thinking and the use of reason. But a simpler and more obvious explanation for the sudden and extraordinary improvement in the quality of life is that, also about 300 years ago, we learned how to extract and then use the enormous amount of energy available to us in fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and, above all, crude oil.
If we have to pick a specific date for that event I would go with the year 1712. It was in that year that Thomas Newcomen developed an “atmospheric/steam” engine for removing water from mines.
The Energy Business
The sketch below is a visualization of how many people view the oil industry. A hole is drilled in the ground, oil flows out of that hole; it then flows along a pipeline to a refinery, which separates the oil into various fuel streams such as gasoline, diesel and heating oil.
Proponents of alternative energy propose that we build wind turbines and solar panel farms. They generate electricity, thus replacing the fuel streams. This would then allow us to shut down the fossil fuel industries, particularly the oil business.
Unfortunately, it is not nearly so simple. There are two objections to this far too simplistic scenario.
The first objection is that the energy density of wind, solar and other alternatives is much, much less than that of oil. To generate enough electricity for the United States, for example, much of the southwest would have to covered in solar panels. Which in turn would require an enormous build out of the electric grid. We would also have to replace all forms of transport with their electrical counterparts. (This would exclude airplanes — we are nowhere close to having batteries with sufficient capacity.)
The second objection, and the one that is the focus of this post, is that crude oil contains an enormous number of complex chemicals that provide the chemical feedstocks that are used to manufacture a bewildering array of products — all of which contribute to the prosperity that Pinker talks about.
The sketch below is a very simplified schematic of a typical oil refinery.
And here is a picture of an actual refinery.
One reason that so many processing steps are required is that crude oil, the composition of which varies enormously depending on the source, rarely contains the desired product mix. For example, the gasoline fraction in crude oil is typically around 15%. But the market demand for gasoline is such that many of the lighter and heavier streams are treated so that they can be added to the gasoline pool.
In addition to containing the relatively simple molecules (such as octane/gasoline and butane/lighter fluid) that make up the fuel products, crude oil also contains many complex molecules that are refined and sent to petrochemical plants. It is these complex molecules that provide the basis of so much of our modern industrial civilization.
The sketch shows some of the products that a refinery produces. The naphtha stream has been highlighted.
When mixed with various other product streams that contain the complex molecules, naphtha becomes a petrochemical feedstock. This feedstock is sent to chemical plants where it is further treated and used to make the enormous range of products that provide the basis of modern life: plastics, antibiotics, fibers, agrochemicals, inks, packaging, dry cleaning agents, engine coolant, synthetic rubber . . . the list goes on.
So, if “fossil fuels must go”, then so must all the other useful chemicals that our society relies on.
Windmills Cannot Make Anaesthetics
Our civilization relies almost entirely on crude oil, not only as a source of fuel, but as the foundation of our way of living. This means that, even if we do install an enormous number of wind turbines and solar panels to, at least partially, replace the fuels that we use now, we will still need to extract and refine crude oil. to provide petrochemical feedstocks. This is something that windmills and solar panels will never do.
The goal of the posts at this blog is to try to figure out the parameters of a new theology — one that works in an Age of Limits. Some thoughts as to how to do this comes from looking at the works of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). His book City of God provides a basis for my own A New City of God. But Augustine also wrote other important works, one of which is De Mendacio (On Lying), part of a larger book entitled Retractions.
Augustine took the ninth commandment very seriously.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.
In other words, you must always tell the truth.
In the context of the Age of Limits, telling the truth is not always as simple as saying, “I cannot tell a lie . . . I did cut < the cherry tree > with my hatchet”. (It’s a neat irony that the story about George Washington and the importance of telling the truth is not itself true.) In our world, telling the truth means doing the hard work of understanding the nature and complexities of our multiple predicaments.
With regard to coal, natural gas and crude oil, the truth is,
Fossil fuels should not be burned, they should be used only to manufacture petrochemicals.
We can conclude by saying that the slogan “Fossil Fuels Must Go!” is correct, but only if the emphasis is on the word fuel. The complex molecules that are derived from oil, natural gas and coal are truly irreplaceable. We should make every effort not to use them to make useful products, not just burn them.