US petroleum dependency factor of history

When the Drake Oil Well in Titusville, Pennsylvania began seeping crude oil 150 years ago, humanity allowed itself to become engulfed in the ecology of oil, according to a Penn State environmental historian. Now in the midst of an energy transition, the U.S. and the world need to keep moving forward toward alternative methods of power generation.

"American consumers must take stock and understand our dependency on oil in the context of how we got to this point," said Brian Black, associate professor of history and environmental studies, Penn State Altoona. "Just as a certain path of consumption led us to petroleum dependence, a path will lead us out of it. These paths, of course, are composed by the choices made by the American consumer."

In the late 1800s, oil was not a commodity. In fact, crude oil was a product looking for a purpose. While people did distill a little kerosene and use it in place of whale oil in lamps, one of the first commercial products produced was petroleum jelly -- Vaseline -- patented in 1872 and discovered when it accumulated in the equipment and workers found it softened their hands. It took Henry Ford and the mass production of automobiles to push the industry into complex processes like cracking, fractionation and distillation that now produce the gasoline, kerosene, Jet A, benzene and the myriad other products that derive from crude oil. This also opened up industry to other petroleum-based products including plastics, fabrics, coatings, medications, cosmetics and the entire world of petrochemicals that permeate modern life.

"Together, these uses composed a dependence so pervasive that it remade the ecology of human life," said Black. "This slow growth of petroleum products over the 20th century led to a centrality in American life that no resource had possessed for humans before. This occurred to the point that in the 21st century petroleum dictates decisions of national security and human security," he told attendees at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science today (Jan. 14) in Chicago.

Such a dependence on petroleum really contradicts the United States' founding principles. Black considers that it would be a telling exercise to imagine the reaction of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin perhaps, allowing the country's autonomy to become compromised by the necessity of a resource for which the nation was beholden to others.

"By declaring our dependence on oil, we can clearly view our history in a way that will allow us to better approach the problem of our energy future," said Black.

According to Black, history tells us that consumers never imagine the next energy source, that the transition from one source of energy to another is unforeseen and sometimes unguided and that in the past, governments have not been involved in these transitions.

"In the 21st century, it may be that governments need to be involved," said Black. "We see some of that in the way President Obama is approaching the nation's plans for future energy."

Regardless of who initiates the change, it is one that must take place if we are going to continue our way of life as it is with no major disturbances. From the beginning, it was known that crude oil was a finite resource and that eventually it would run out. It seems that only now does the American public understand this reality.

Black suggests that our energy transition may begin with a reevaluation of our uses for crude. One of the first things to go in a switch to alternative energy sources would be petroleum-powered transportation, according to Black. Burning derivatives of crude oil would have to stop because the commodity is too valuable for use as a feedstock in chemical processes.

"In the future, I think, people will look back at burning petroleum as a wasteful practice that demonstrated 20th-century Americans' lack of appreciation of petroleum's diverse applications," said Black. "That will likely seem jarring to the energy sensibilities of the 21st century.

"We have no definable way to say what energy transitions will take place or when a culture has to let go of everything that they know," said Black. "My argument is that we are in an era where we will reconsider some of our most basic ways of using and acquiring energy," said Black. "We have a culture now that is more open to these new ideas and concepts than ever before."

Despite lower gasoline prices, Black believes that the country and the world are ready to meet the challenges of a change away from oil. He is optimistic that Americans will take the knowledge they now have of how problematic oil dependency is to the country and make the decisions that will ensure our future security and freedom. By declaring our dependence on petroleum, Black argues that we will help to establish a more independent energy future.

Source: Penn State

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Feb 16, 2009
"Such a dependence on petroleum really contradicts the United States' founding principles."

Here, here!

Firstly, we are not consumers. We are citizens, people, and individuals. Quit using a word that is insulting as it is meaningless.

I disagree with the conclusion that the use of oil in the 20th and 21st century was the result of weakness or lack of foresight. The utility of hydrocarbon fuels cannot be denied - it is chemically too useful a compound to have been ignored by the world. It was necessary to build our world, and it is necessary for us to use until we develop our sciences enough to find a more efficient means of energy storage. I don't feel bad about using oil, but when the system becomes so ugly that the USA must embark upon resource wars like the Axis powers in WWII, it's time to reign it in with full spurs and halter.

It is simply unacceptable for a free republic to aggress other nations, pillaging and destroying innocent life for financial incentive. It is an ugly scar we will bear when the truth of the 20th century is clearly seen by the world. We behaved so miserably because of our dependence on petroleum that we forgot all virtue.

Like a miserable crack addict, we cruised the nations with a gun, seeking our fixes with quick robberies. And while our teeth fell out and our minds rotted from the addictions our foolish rulers had, we did unspeakable things to innocent human life. Most Americans still deny themselves this realization, but I can understand the psychology behind it. Very much like the Germans who could not see the evils of the Reich, even while the smoke rose up from the camps.

It is my generation that will feel the brunt of this burden, once the psychotic era of the TV generation comes to a close.

Feb 17, 2009
This perspective is a peak oil perspective: we need to change because we will be running out, or because we depend on other nations for the resource, or because we could be using the resource for other things. To all this I would add: ecological toxicity. I'm sorry if this is a politically incorrect reason but if you belittle ecological concerns then the 'next energy source' could prove to be just as stressful compared to oil as oil has become compared to trees and whale oil. Good discussion to have.....

Feb 17, 2009
My greatest fear isn't in the climate, chemistry, or even the economics of our energy needs. What frightens me is the game plan of the powers-that-be. The path they have followed so far is based on capitalist monopoly and vertical integration. This, when expanded to the scale necessary to meet global demand, will lead us into the next century's global resource wars.

We need to remember the motivations behind the 20th century's terrible wars - It was resources both times. Empires need resources, and inefficent empires using 19th and 20th century tech need lots of them.

The imperial capital-industrial model can't be sustained anymore. The rulers of that system deluded themselves that their vehicle to wealth and power would continue indefinately, but it's presently breaking down and almost totally out of gas.

My fear is that the delusions the rulers are led by will cause them to commit acts of violence in the vain hope of continuing their power and wealth just a little while longer.

We need to scale down our empires, and liberate our societies to create small scale, self sufficient industries. We need to broaden our energy supply and differentiate its sources, so we are not all dependent on a vile monopoly of powers.

Furthermore, we need to scrap the plans of the globalists, who would create a system of interdependence based on remote manufacturing and fossil fuel distribution. I can't think of anything more destablizing to the human race than specializing our entire planet in this fashion. They hope to eliminate competition by consolidating and regionalizing, but all they will do is create collasal collapses as their unstasble and marginal system breaks down at one point or another.

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