The world is currently reliant on consuming vast quantities of oil every day, and is likely to require even greater amounts of oil in the future. As oil is a finite resource, this poses a number of problems, the most of important of which is what will replace oil when it runs out?
Biofuels: Using Food for Fuel
Biofuels were seen to be a sustainable, technologically-viable, and eco-friendly way to replace crude oil as the fuel for transportation. This view was supported by the example of Brazil, which has developed a large biofuels industry and has, since 1975, required transport fuel to have at least 10% bioethanol mixed in it.
However, the implementation of biofuels programmes on larger scales than that of Brazil has recently raised concerns in the UN about their negative impact on worldwide food security. This is because biofuels consume vast amounts of agricultural land, can require food crops as their base source and, subsequently, raise world food prices by decreasing available food supply – putting the basic necessities of life outside of the financial possibilities of the world’s poorest.
Non-Conventional Oil Reserves
Non-conventional reserves of oil refer to oil in a degraded or semi-solid state that comes in two main forms; tar sands and oil shale. The world’s reserves of non-conventional oil are estimated to stand at many times that of conventional reserves, with Venzeuela’s Orinoco Belt tar sands estimated to contain more than the world’s reserves of conventional oil on its own. Also, tar sands have already proven to be commercially viable sources of oil in the Orinoco Belt and in Canada’s Alberta Tar Sands.
But, while non-conventional reserves are currently economically viable and could satisfy oil demand for many years to come, they don’t appear to be environmentally viable. The processing of tar sands requires several barrels of water for each barrel of oil extracted from the tar sands. Following use, this water is highly contaminated and dangerous to humans and local wildlife. Currently there are no ways of dealing with waste water and, in Alberta, huge lakes of the polluted water have come to be the largest bodies of water in the region.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology
Hydrogen fuel cells are the most highly regarded of the potential successors to oil. Millions of dollars is currently being spent, both privately and publicly, in researching hydrogen technology, with improvements in efficiency, cost, and size regularly occurring.
However, while the technology is improving, the likelihood of implementing hydrogen fuel cell technology remains remote. This is because, unlike oil, hydrogen is not an energy resource in and of itself. While oil is pumped from the ground, hydrogen must first be generated, which, if it were to replace oil, would require a huge expansion of the already strained worldwide electricity-generating capacity. This in turn could lead to the extensive use of other finite fossil fuels, or require a shift to nuclear power.
Fuels for the Future?
It appears that oil will remain as the main fuel for transportation for a number of years to come. It is possible that biofuels and non-conventional reserves will supplement conventional oil reserves and, when the technology is sufficiently developed and the required infrastructural changes have taken place, that hydrogen will supplant it.
However, it is important to recognise that the changes required to shift the world economy from being oil-based will be expensive, hard, and take a long-time to implement – a magical technological solution is not in the pipeline and should not be relied upon as a way out of the problem of overreliance on a finite resource.
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