Civilization can only exist with energy. Petroleum provides most of the energy and products we need to live environmentally responsible, healthy, sustainable and comfortable lives. Recent events in Europe prove that petroleum continues to be critical.
In the first three articles of this series, we discussed the petroleum base “wedge” to various energy sources, the skill sets needed to find petroleum (and the resources offered by AAPG to develop those skills) and the unintended consequences and limits to alternative low-density energy machines.
We should also explore why petroleum matters.
Benefits of oil and gas
Oil and gas provide 68 percent of the energy consumed in the United States. The world consumes 98 million barrels of oil a day. Global consumption has snapped back after the COVID drop, defying the predictions of the International Energy Agency and OPEC.
Today, billions of people continue to live in poverty, and they want better lives that only reliable energy can bring. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Africa can’t sacrifice its future prosperity for Western climate goals. NGOs are pushing Africa to unreliable solar and wind. This goal forestalls Africa’s attempts to rise out of poverty, which require reliable energy.” To the Ugandans, “going green” means “staying impoverished.”
Petroleum and petroleum-based products improve our environment profoundly. In the 1800s, oil saved the whales by replacing whale oil with “rock oil.” Today, natural gas from the frac’ing boom enabled the United States to transition coal to natural gas in power generation, which lowered U.S. CO2 emissions and stopped acid rain.
The world is getting healthier as fossil fuel use increases. In “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” Alex Epstein shows fossil fuels’ benefits. The air and water are cleaner, and climate-related deaths are decreasing because of fossil fuels. Energy makes it easier for humans to adapt to environmental changes and live comfortable, long lives.
Even if we could replace energy from fossil fuels, a world without petroleum products would be much poorer. Petroleum products surround us. Petroleum products are a major part of our cars, clothing, cell phones, skis, kayaks, medical equipment, eyeglasses, contact lenses, hairdryers, medications, plastic forks and thermal underwear. A person might use 6,000 different petroleum-based products. Fossil fuels provide electricity for homes, hospitals, schools, construction, manufacturing and transportation.
The Haber-Bosch process made synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and modern, high-productivity agriculture possible. Synthesizing nitrogen fertilizer consumes 3-5 percent of all natural gas produced. Nitrogen fertilizer prices are now spiking because of rising natural gas prices. Many farmers say they will cut back on fertilizer use, further limiting food production. Going green and dropping synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is not practical, as the county of Sri Lanka has just discovered. In 2021, Sri Lanka banned the use of synthetic fertilizers – for seven months – removing it in November when its catastrophic impact on crop yields became apparent. But it was too late to avert the crisis of food shortages and skyrocketing prices.
Energy decisions need clear-eyed realism and science – not facile tweets from child activists like Greta Thunberg. Before the Ukraine crisis, bad energy policies in Europe caused natural gas to break $10/MCF in June of 2021 and then pass $30/MCF in October. “Surprised” European leaders are now scrambling for a new source of oil and gas. Presidents since Ronald Reagan have warned Europe to eschew dependence on Russian oil and gas.
Fossil Fuels Needed to ‘Go Green’
We will need more petroleum as we continue along the energy integration highway. It might be counter-intuitive to the popular anti-petroleum narrative. Still, we will probably increase global demand for oil and gas as the governments mandate more electric vehicles to be “green.” Alternative energy machines require more steel, iron and minerals than conventional power sources. Mining these materials will require more energy as we “go green” because we need more material per machine.Hydrocarbons are a large part of electric vehicles. Over the next 20 years, experts project 300-500 million electric vehicles will be manufactured. Each EV requires 772 pounds of petrochemicals for paint, vents, headlights, mirrors, tires, handles, seats, computers, dashboard, trim, the body and steering wheel. They will require a third of a billion pounds of petrochemicals or about 1 billion barrels of oil. One EV battery requires moving 250 tons of ore. To replace America’s 275 million internal combustion engine cars with EVs will require moving 68 billion tons of ore – just for the batteries. EVs require more exotic minerals than conventional cars.
Oil Industry Jobs
Nothing makes people in our industry more optimistic than oil at more than $100 a barrel. Geoscientist jobs are coming back. Many “Congrats, new role” announcements replace LinkedIn “open to work” banners. According to the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry provides more than 11 million jobs generating $892.7 billion in wages.
For the future workforce considering entering our industry or contemplating leaving the industry, our message is that “renewables are not taking over.” The oil and gas industry will always be volatile and cyclic. You can be proud to work in an industry that provides so much for communities and families and reduces human poverty. An industry that is cleaner and more efficient every day welcomes talented workers. But what are the skills needed to enter and thrive in this industry?
Let’s ask some recent new hires. In February 2022, the Houston Geological Society did just that with a group of newly hired geoscientists sharing their tips for success with student scholars. The tips included persistence, training, and technical excellence. You can learn more from the HGS Bulletin at HGS.org and from the HGSGeoEducation YouTube channel.
The petroleum industry is an important part of energy integration. We cannot allow the petroleum industry, vital to human flourishing, to be marginalized by misguided and uninformed misrepresentations.
Chris Wright of Liberty Oil Field Services provides a full-throated celebration of hydrocarbons as an agent to better human lives in Liberty’s 2020 ESG 2020 statement. More companies need to take a similar tone.
It’s going to be challenging to meet the world’s energy needs. Please engage with the AAPG. Build your network, contribute to our geoscience heritage, and develop your career.
We look forward to seeing you soon!