of oil and other fossil fuels
77% of the energy we use to run factories, travel, provide heat and lighting, etc., comes from burning coal, gas and oil derivatives (fossil fuels), oil accounting for 44%.
Half of the world’s oil production is used for transport, which runs almost exclusively (96%) on oil derivatives. The number of journeys, by people and goods alike, is growing continually. In the global economic model, regions have become specialised, and products, raw materials and resources are often transported between regions which are far from each other. A study by the Wuppertal Institute showed that the ingredients of a strawberry yoghurt travelled 8,000 kilometres, even though they could be found within a radius of 70 kilometres. At present, in the European Union we may expect the same trend to continue .
Although the main use of oil is as a source of energy, approximately 6% is transformed into materials we use every day. We only need to look around us to see plastics everywhere (from TV cabinets to ballpoint pens, on to synthetic leather and plastic bags). Most chemical products are also derived from oil (detergents and cleaning products, paint, food additives, lubricants, pesticides, etc.) building materials (PVC, insulating materials, asphalt, etc.) the synthetic fibres with which we make clothes (polyester, polyamide, lycra, etc.), cosmetics, medicines, and many other items. Indeed, we could say that everything is an oil derivative, because oil is used as a raw material or in the object’s manufacture or transport.
Consequently, many of our activities depend on a single resource, but it is a single resource that is being used up.
What would happen if all the oil derivatives suddenly disappeared? The way society works would clearly collapse. A small variation in the price per barrel rocks the world’s economies; as oil lies behind any consumer product, an increase in its price creates inflationary pressure.
Centralisation and wars
Oil is found in a limited number of places. 65% is produced by 13 countries and over 60% of reserves are in the Middle East. Control of these regions is an important source of power and has led to many wars over the years. The US now imports 54% of its oil, compared with 2% in 1950. It thus comes as no surprise that the country’s energy security policy has become a US defence strategy priority. We all know the reasons behind the invasion of Iraq (the country with the world’s second largest reserves).
There are many cases of wars, currently and in the past, where oil has been one, if not the only, cause: Vietnam, Indonesia-Timor, Angola, Algeria, Congo, Nigeria, Sudan, Chechnya, Paraguay, Ecuador-Peru, Guatemala, the Falklands, etc. These conflicts are not only to obtain oil but also to gain access to oil-producing areas, as in the case of Afghanistan (access to the Caspian Sea and the Arabian Gulf) and the Balkans (corridors between the Black Sea and the Adriatic).
In many cases, Western governments are involved, sometimes competing with each other, alleging other justifications for their intervention, as in the case of Iraq (weapons of mass destruction) and Colombia (drug trafficking). On other occasions their intervention is covert: they may finance armed groups that will help them to achieve their aims, corrupt local officials, supply arms, and threaten or kill local leaders. The oil multinationals act similarly but conceal their activities even more behind their strategies to gain political power (three oil companies were among the largest contributors to Bush’s election campaign and many members of his government have connections with the industry); Repsol and Cepsa have licences to extract a million barrels each in Iraq.
Oil has a major environmental impact throughout its life cycle. Oil prospecting and drilling lead to the destruction of woodland and other ecosystems. While oil is being extracted and transported, there are spills on land, damaging agricultural land and inhabited areas, and in the sea (5 to 8 million tonnes per year). The carelessness with which oil is handled is a sign of the industry’s disregard for the consequences of such spills for people and the environment.
The refining and use of oil and its derivatives and the burning of gas and coal are the main source of the CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, leading to climate change, now recognised by everyone, but which thousands of scientists drew our attention to over a decade ago.
Although we cannot say precisely what the effects will be, it will clearly affect agriculture (totally dependent on climate), disturb ecosystems, cause sea levels to rise and interfere with wind and water cycles, leading to increases in the severity and frequency of hurricanes, tropical storms, etc.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the recognised authority on the issue, says that to counteract the effects of climate change, emissions would need to be reduced by 60% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050. In Kyoto, a 5.8% reduction was agreed, but the agreements are not ratified or are not implemented. Spain is committed to ensuring that emissions in 2010 are no more than 15% higher than in 1991, but the government itself calculates that they will be 64% higher; in 2002 they had already risen by 35.12%. This increase in emissions is the second highest among industrialised countries, after Australia.
Moreover, many products derived from oil are toxic for health and the environment.
The way in which we use oil is unjust in many senses.
- Unjust to future generations who will inherit a planet which has been damaged and which has lost a very valuable resource.
- Unjust to the victims of wars; the populations of Afghanistan and Iraq have surely consumed little oil themselves.
- Unjust to those most seriously affected by climate change. The lives of many small-scale agricultural workers in the Southern Hemisphere have little connection with oil, but they will be the first to suffer its effects, as their crops depend directly on the climate balance. People with few resources, who use the least amount of oil (an American uses 35 times as much oil as an Indian), are the ones who are least able to deal with extreme weather conditions (hurricanes, drought, hot and cold spells, etc.).
- Unjust to those who suffer the direct impact of extraction and transport. Oil drilling activity has annihilated native cultures which might never have used an oil derivative. Oil wells and pipelines are scattered throughout the forests in which they live to produce oil that they do not use and the sale of which they do not benefit from. The destruction of the ecosystem in which a community lives, like that suffered by Galician seafood producers in 2002, is a regular event in many parts of the world. However, those affected receive no compensation or media coverage and ‘politically correct’ companies such as Repsol YPF are involved in these practices.
- It is also unjust with regard to our own society, as many polluting refineries and petrochemical plants are unfortunately located in areas occupied by disadvantaged social groups and ethnic minorities.
 European Commission: White Paper. European transport policy for 2010: time to decide. Brussels 2001.
 OPEC Annual Statistical Bulletin (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries).
 Worldwatch Institute: State of the World 2004: Special Focus: The Consumer Society. UNESCO Centre, Catalonia, 2004.