The River Clyde is about 100 miles of driving from where I live, though much nearer ‘as the crow flies ‘. A recent announcement that drilling for oil may soon commence there has created a campaign by Greenpeace to stop drilling prospects for this fossil fuel. Back in the 1980s the former Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine, blocked the oil boom off the West coast for fear drilling would interfere with the nuclear submarines travelling to and fro Faslane. The SNP have clearly stated they want Trident out – do they want the oil now instead? Scotland needs revenue and, having argued that revenue from North Sea oil was squandered by the Westminster based government, this might be an opportunity to secure any revenue entirely for the benefit of the Scottish population. But this is in contradiction to the renewables message the country has boasted after the SNP embraced wind farms which now cover thousands of hectares of Scotland’s once wild and untouched landscape.
The history of oil and its power implications is therefore of interest if not crucial.
Whilst 28 year old Prussian, Frederick the Great, was waging war on Austria during 1745, Empress Elizabeth of Russia was no doubt delighted that the first oil well and refinery were built in Ukhta by Fiodor Priadunov. The refinery produced a form of kerosene which was restricted to use in churches and monasteries. The same year oil sands were mined in Merkwiller-Pechelbronn, Alsace under Louis XV direction of a specially appointed Louis Pierre Ancillon de la Sabionniére. (The first modern refinery was built in Pechelbronn in 1857. This oil field was the birthplace of companies like Antar and Schlumberger. It was exhausted in 1970). Oil in tar form was found and used since ancient times, but the concept of drilling for it was what transformed its usefulness. This happened in Pennsylvania on 27th August 1859. A bi-product of oil was kerosene, which replaced whale oil for lighting lamps, and was so abundant it was much cheaper. This boom in oil changed the balance of power in the world to those who lead in how much a country can be said to produce.
In 2014 the Grangemouth Refinery, on the East coast of Scotland, owned by Ineos, was threatened with closure due to a dispute with unions over pay and conditions. This is the only refinery in Scotland. It has used the vital North Sea gas in the process of refining the oil as it arrived onshore. As the gas ran low in supply, Ineos sought new supplies and purchased it from the results of fracking in the USA. This added to the expense of refining and it was running at a loss. The only choice was to threaten to close the refinery, killing Scotland’s vital supply. The First Minister held last minute talks with Ineos. The next we heard was Ineos were going to invest millions in a new gas storage terminal and had obtained a license to secure gas through fracking on the land they owned around the refinery. This caused an uproar amongst anti fossil, particularly anti frackers, in Scotland.
I appreciate historically oil became the new gold. All my life I have consumed food packaged in plastic protections, used and cast to waste thousands of plastic items, this keyboard on which I write is plastic as is the casing of the computer I am using. I am unable to imagine my life without plastic. Renewables such as solar panels and turbines, all use plastic to create their durable forms. Humans are dependent on oil, even the Bedouin Wahhabi, who must use technology if wishing to network with other Wahhabi (as seems to be the case as war rages in the world today).
Oil products surround me, from the clothes I wear to the carpets I walk on to most items I use on a daily basis. I am trapped by my dependence on products made from oil. The Rockefeller family made their wealth from buying up failed leases from oil businesses. By 1877 John D. Rockefeller owned some 90% of American oil businesses, his company became Standard Oil, which gave rise to Exxon, Amoco and Chevron. In 2014, his heirs to his vast fortune withdrew funds from fossil fuel investment as a symbolic gesture ahead of the United Nations summit on climate change, and 800 global investors followed suit. Now investment is directed at renewables. The Rockefeller Fund now aids those anti fracking groups and those fighting the destructive Keystone XL pipeline. They no longer fund tar sand oil extraction. But all that seems ironic to me. Nothing has replaced oil with something which could then be said to be ecologically sound yet equally so incredible in its many applications. Unless something does replace it, we will continue to depend on it. Our planet will become uninhabitable as a result, sooner rather than later.
Polymers such as acrylic, polystyrene, polyester – I thought them miracles of science as they developed over my lifetime. Now we realise they are indestructible and end up in our oceans, ingested by ocean life which dies as a result, tipping the ecosystem into the end game. The plastics I have seen become pervasive over my 68 years have found their way into the oceans and we now see the heartbreaking results. New plastics will degrade, but these older plastics may take 100 years to finally decompose through abrasion, oxidative degradation and other chemical and biochemical processes. If a mussel eats plastic it will be retained in its gut and is likely to be taken up in the food chain, the plastic then in the gut of another creature, which may have more than one plastic eating creature ingested.
Like many bits of plastic detritus they will be recycled into a new life as part of another product, but, like the recycled plastic which is used to make up the material that forms turbine blades for windmills, that is likely to be the last time they will be recycled. Multiple plastics, combined to create a solid mass, become too complex to recycle again. The end destined for many, such as turbine blades, is – horror of horrors – landfill.