Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know that yesterday was the one year anniversary of the BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion, resulting in an oil disaster whose effects will be felt for years to come.
Believe it or not, there’s a badge for scouts that’s devoted to teaching girls about oil in our lives – its uses and its impact on the environment. I’ll be devoting several posts in the coming weeks to this work, in remembrance of last year’s disaster and as a personal/public reminder that we have a long, long way to go before we meaningfully reduce our dependence on this energy source.
BADGE WORK UPDATE: OIL UP! (yes, that’s actually the name of the badge…)
Let’s start with a small geology primer. Most geologists subscribe to the Biogenic Theory of oil production which states that crude oil develops from the decayed remains of prehistoric animals and plants. Compressed and heated over the ages, these remains metamorphose, turning from a wax-like substance called kerogen into liquid hydrocarbons which trickle their way into underground reservoirs of oil. This is the stuff that oil companies are looking for.
So where’s this oil hiding? Government, academic and corporate geologists look for oil reserves in the same way pirates looked for treasure. There are plenty of maps out there representing the world’s known oil reserves, but I like this one because the percentage of oil is represented by the relative size of the country. Ironically, this map was created by British Petroleum in 2010.
And here’s my own small data visualization of the same thing. Not as cool, but I don’t have mapping software:
Good grief. No wonder the U.S. is so tight with the House of Saud…
So what has to happen for us to ween ourselves off of oil?
When Americans think about oil, we think first and foremost about the cars we drive and our MPG. But as I learned when I first dipped my toe into this topic last January with the No Impact Project, we are surrounded by petroleum (oil-based) products. They’re part of every hour of hour day (including sleeping).
Naively, I thought we were being pretty good in this household about reducing the plastics in our house, but I’ve got a different (depressing) opinion today. One of the tasks for this badge asks scouts to list all the petroleum products they use in the course of a week, and the badge book offers a short list of possibilities. I did some research and compiled the following list of petroleum products.
I monitored the list in two ways, illustrated in the (again, depressing) table below. Where there is a black box next to an item, it means that we either own or encounter the item regularly in the course of our lives, even if we don’t purposefully use it in the moment. Where there is a red box next to an item, it means that in addition to owning/encountering it, I actually used it.
PETROLEUM PRODUCTS IN EVERYDAY LIFE
This blows my mind. Seeing it in black, white, and red stuns me. Now, it’s true that I’ve reduced my purchasing of petroleum products in the past year. For instance, I’ve had those the plastic utensils in the cabinet for about six years now and I won’t be buying any more after these are gone.
But this experience makes me think that there is a comparable and serious disconnect between what Americans think we are using and what we’re really using. And this isn’t even a complete list! Since I started this blog post, I’ve peered around my office for items not on the list above. I could now add my stapler, tape dispenser, picture frame, lamp base, electronic keyboard, aquarium lid and pump, and my custom-made hula hoop.
In future posts, we’ll look at the environmental costs we pay for living high on the oil-slicked hog.