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A History: from Fossils to Fuels

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author photo by Nadonnia Jones October 2007

With a mighty roar, the last of the dinosaurs fell to the earth. Later, they turned to oil — thus the term “fossil fuel” — and so begins our story.

For years, humans have been using oil for lighting and heating purposes. It started by people scooping it up from where it seeped out of the ground all the way to the modern pumping fields and floating platforms. The age of oil production as we know it today was ushered in with the invention of the kerosene lamp. Animal oil was in use prior to this, but it gave off a funny odor as it burned, and it could go bad after a time. Kerosene didn’t have these problems. Originally, it was rather expensive, as the coal-to-kerosene process was rather complicated, but then a much simpler petroleum-to-kerosene process was discovered, lowering the price and raising the demand. Only six years after the lamp was invented, there were over 30 kerosene production plants in America.

A second boon to oil production was the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of the many machines that were suddenly in use everywhere, there was a critical need for lubricant. The machines’ many parts rubbing together produced heat; once they got too hot, the machinery would either break or simply stop working until the parts cooled back down. As with the lamps, other oils were used at first, but there were drawbacks. Vegetable oil was not very well suited for the job, and whale oil became extremely costly as demand skyrocketed and whales were hunted almost to the point of extinction. In the late 1870s, oil-burning lamps were replaced by electric lighting, slowing oil demand a bit, but one decade later, along came a little invention called the automobile — and the world was once again changed.

When kerosene is refined, one of the waste products produced is gasoline. This highly flammable liquid was once little more than a dangerous substance to be burned up or otherwise discarded, but after cars came on the scene, gasoline had a whole new purpose. By the roaring twenties, the U.S. was producing 450 million barrels annually, but World War II, which lasted from 1939 until 1945, significantly reduced those surpluses — and everything else. The government began rationing food, clothing, and rubber. Conserving rubber meant conserving tires, which meant keeping cars off the road. The best way to do that was to ration gas. Depending on their classification, drivers had to get by on coupons which entitled them to four or eight gallons per week, while some (members of the clergy, medical personnel, etc.) were able to purchase unlimited gallons. Gas rationing lasted right up until the end of the war.

Post-war, things calmed back down again. In fact, oil was so cheap during the 1950s that in 1960, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Kuwait banded together to protect their interests, forming the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Unfortunately, the calm was short-lived. When Israel defeated a coalition of Arab nations in the Yom Kippur War in late 1973, the Arab members of OPEC announced they would no longer send oil to those nations that had backed Israel. As fully a third of the United States’ oil at this time was coming from the Middle East, the embargo had drastic effects. By 1974, the price of oil had quadrupled. Things got so bad that coupons for gasoline rationing were once again printed, but never used. A few months later, in March 1974, successful negotiations led to Arab oil ministers lifting the embargo.

Although the crisis had passed, the effects were felt for the rest of the decade. Thanks to soaring gas prices, American big body cars with their huge engines were no longer the ideal, and auto manufacturers rushed to provide an answer to the crisis. The era of the hatchback had begun: AMC Hornets, Chevrolet Novas, Ford Pintos, and Volkswagen Golfs, among others, were suddenly all the rage. The classic gas-guzzling muscle car got about 10 to 12 miles per gallon; this new class of gas-sipping hatchbacks, 20 to 30. Economical and family friendly, these little cars made quite an impression. The Golf, the third best-selling car of all time and Volkswagen’s best-selling model ever, is still being made today.

Hatchbacks stayed popular well into the 1980s, when federally mandated minimum mileage standards (a reaction to the oil embargo) made large cars obsolete. The mileage standards also helped contribute to a rise in popularity of diesel during this time, as diesel engines provided 40% better mileage than comparable gasoline engines. The '80s also saw a welcome drop in oil prices, which by 1986 had decreased by about half worldwide.

Despite the Gulf War very early in the decade, the 1990s were a benign period of excess, oil glut, and falling oil prices. Oil companies profited greatly. In 1998, Exxon merged with Mobil, and British Petroleum (BP) merged with Amoco.

These days, many factors are contributing to the search for alternative fuels: dire predictions of irreversible damage to the environment, war, the U.S. dependence on oil from unstable regions, the recent spike in gas prices after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, etc. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, oil consumption (in thousands of barrels) was 5,100,020 in 1981 and 6,462,057 in 2004. During his 2006 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush stated:

“America is addicted to oil…. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly ten billion dollars to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources, and we are on the threshold of incredible advances. So tonight I announce the Advance Energy Initiative: a 22% increase in clean energy research at the Department of Energy to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas: to change how we power our homes and offices…, [and] we must also change how we power our automobiles.”

With this, several other initiatives from the White House, and research from the automotive and relative industries, great strides are being made in finding alternative fuels, methods for conservation, and encouragement for people to begin reducing their consumption. As history has taught us, making cultural changes, whether it be based in technology or habit, can take years to decades. So, even as we discover the problems and solutions, time will be the biggest hurdle in implementing change.

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A History: from Fossils to Fuels - Autotrader