An Energy Primer

Man’s ability to create and harness fire by burning wood began very early in our evolution, and was one of our most important competitive advantages. As civilization grew, we learned more efficient ways to harness that fire. But, the burning of organic material for fuel is still the most efficient and readily available source of energy. For most of human history, burning wood was sufficient. But, with the evolution of machines in the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800’s, the need for a more plentiful and efficient fuel drove us “underground”. There, ancient deposits of buried plant material, which derived its energy from the sun to grow lush, prehistoric forests and swamps, created “fossil fuels” within rock layers.

Of these, the easiest and first to be used was coal, mined from thick seams near the surface. Like coal, oil and natural gas also result from the natural conversion of buried plant material. Therefore, all three are, in a sense, “organic batteries”, ready to release their ancient sunlight.

“King Coal” in the 1850’s was surpassed in the 1950’s by oil and then natural gas as the primary fuel. Fossil fuels have transformed our lives. Oil fuels the cars, trucks and planes, and heats our factories and houses to support our modern economies and lifestyles. By-products from oil refining are used in the production of plastics and many important organic chemicals and medicines, as well as many lubricants, waxes, tars and asphalts. Nearly all pesticides and many fertilizers are made from oil or oil by-products.

Gas is used to heat water for generating electricity, and is also used for cooking, heating houses and buildings, and heating homes and factories. It is also important for fueling many industrial operations, including glass and steel foundries, aluminum and nickel smelters, and many manufacturing industries. Gas is used in producing fertilizers and a wide range of industrial products, including plastics and polymers, textiles and paints and dyes. It can also be used in the form of compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a transportation fuel to replace oil.

Affordable food production by industrial agriculture needs inexpensive natural gas and oil inputs for fertilizers, pesticides, industrial machinery, planting, cultivating, harvesting, processing, packaging, transportation and marketing. In our daily lives, energy is the vital force powering business, manufacturing and the transportation of goods and services throughout the world economies. According to the Global Energy Project (EARTH, a Graphic Look at the State of the World), “The backbone of energy is fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. These fuels provide over 85% of our energy needs…2/3rds of electricity and almost all of our transportation needs.”

The Future of Energy

With a rapidly increasing worldwide population, the demand for energy will continue to increase. Possible alternatives to fossil fuels are being aggressively pursued, including hydro-electricity, wind, tide, solar, geothermal, biomass, hydrogen and nuclear power. But, none of the known alternatives is as cheap, convenient or as energy-rich as oil and natural gas, and none of them is positioned to meaningfully meet our huge and growing energy appetite. Although a tremendous amount of time, money and effort are being spent to promote and develop these so-called “renewable” energy sources, including huge government subsidies to make them potentially viable, it would take a quantum leap in those technologies to replace fossil fuels in meeting the needs of our burgeoning populations. While those “renewable” energy sources may offset some of the increasing need, we must continue to rely upon fossil fuels to meet the largest portion of our energy needs into the foreseeable future.

Alongside aggressive development of these alternative energy sources, tremendous amounts of time, money and effort are also being spent to develop better and more responsible ways of utilizing our depleting fossil fuel resources. More important to this discussion though, the technologies used in exploring, drilling and producing these fossil fuels has an excellent track record, and is being improved daily, with much more emphasis on preservation of the environment. In fact, despite what the media often portrays, almost all of the recent scientific studies by governments in response to anti-“fracking” and anti-“shale-gas” hype have concluded that the oil and gas exploration and production industry is actually a relatively “clean player”, and works hard to minimize its environmental impact.

Whether you believe these studies or not, the simple fact is that economic development and prosperity over the past century has been, and for the foreseeable future will be built on relatively cheap energy from coal-, oil- and natural gas-based (fossil) fuels.

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