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Oil: a destructive energy source
Every day the world consumes over 80 million barrels of petroleum or crude oil. The majority is used to create fuels such as petrol, diesel, jet fuel, kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas. Oil reserves are distributed unevenly around the world, with Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Iran and Iraq having the biggest proven reserves. A fossil fuel, oil is a key source of carbon dioxide emissions. Oil-based fuels were responsible for 36 per cent of CO2 emissions from fuel combustion in 2010. Current reserves of oil alone are more than enough to push the world over likely tipping points into full-blown climate chaos. Yet, each year the oil and gas industry continues to spend in excess of US$150 billion looking for new reserves.
The oil economy – including extraction, processing, transportation, consumption and the struggles between different actors to control these processes – is the cause of a plethora of major environmental, social, economic, political and cultural problems and conflicts. A highly toxic and extremely polluting substance, it causes widespread damage to ecosystems and to the health of communities:
- Oil exploration often requires seismic explosions and the removal of large areas of forest.
- Oil extraction produces highly toxic muds and waste waters and often results in gas flaring, where gas released alongside the oil is burned. Gas flaring has been linked to cancers, asthma, chronic bronchitis, blood disorders, and other diseases.
- Oil refining creates further chemical, thermal and noise pollution and affects the health and safety of refinery workers and nearby communities and ecosystems.
- Oil transportation gives rise to a significant risk of oil spills from pipelines and tankers.
- Oil combustion causes air pollution associated with health problems, especially in cities where pollution is concentrated.
There are strong correlations between oil economies and human rights abuses, corruption and conflict. Oil operations frequently result in extensive human rights abuses, including expropriation and forced relocation, repression, torture and murder. Control over oil resources was, and in some places continues to be, a key factor underlying conflicts, such as in the Niger Delta, Sudan, Colombia, Libya, Kazakhstan, and the US-led invasion of Iraq, with the latter being just one example of decades of US military involvement and covert action in oil-producing regions, especially the Persian Gulf. A recent study estimates that the cost to the US taxpayer of ‘defending’ the country’s oil supplies amounted to US$7.3 trillion over 30 years.
While there are exceptions, such as Venezuela and Bolivia where oil revenues have been used for the provision of basic services and to make significant reductions in poverty, oil resources are not a guarantee of a strong and healthy economy – in fact the opposite is often true. A 2005 report found correlations between oil production and exports and increasing debt, indicating that while increasing oil exports improves the ability of developing countries to service their debts, it also generally correlates with an increase in the overall size of their debt.
Technological developments in the oil industry, combined with the drying up of easily-accessible proven oil reserves, are leading oil companies to exploit new, unconventional, higher risk and more destructive sources. These include tar sands in Canada and Madagascar, deep-water extraction in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Brazilian coast, and drilling in remote and highly sensitive environments like the Arctic. Tar sands exploitation in Alberta, Canada has wrought devastation across millions of acres of land owned by Indigenous Peoples, destroying pristine boreal forest, polluting rivers and lakes, poisoning drinking water, agricultural land, plants and animals, and destroying the livelihoods of communities who have lived in harmony with rich ecosystems for thousands of years.
Efforts are being made to expand unconventional oil extraction around the globe, including in highly sensitive ecosystems in Madagascar and Mozambique and the Orinoco river basin in Venezuela.Oil companies are increasingly using more toxic, destructive and high-risk ‘Enhanced Oil Recovery’ techniques to increase the amount of oil they are able to extract. Such techniques include the injection of steam, gas and chemicals into oil wells.
For more information on the destructive impacts of oil see: www.priceofoil.org.