Can electric cars kill the oil industry & save the planet?

This is just a rant, and a half hour or banging the keyboard because it is raining and not nice for going out to plant more seeds in my back yard.

I noticed a lively thread on social media where I had commented that I did not feel strongly that electric cars would kill the oil industry or the dependence on fossil fuels, mainly because electricity, by and large, will continue to come from fossil fuels, unless we consider nuclear energy, which has its own bag of issues. That generated a nice and healthy chain of comments from learned and well meaning folks. I did not wish to bother them with any more lengthy posts from my cantankerous self. But, it was raining outside, and I was stuck indoor for a while. The coffee was hot, and so here I am, on my own blog.

As to having a choice on what kind of electricity one gets may be relevant in very few spots on the planet. For a vast majority, on a global scale – there is no choice. What you get is what is on offer, and fossil fuel burning plants that produce electricity is the global norm right now. So, I do not see electric cars to bring a death knell to fossil fuel industry.

Of course, there are many many other issues far more relevant than a car, with regard to fossil fuel industry. Folks say, though I have not read the actual measurements, that a single flight by a single person on a cross Atlantic round trip in a year, as one passenger in a three hundred passenger carrying commercial plane, makes you responsible for a higher carbon footprint annually, than you driving around as a travelling salesman clocking 300 KM every day of the year.

So, perhaps one should talk about electric aircraft, rather than electric cars, or perhaps conscientious folks should start a movement to boycott air travel altogether to save the planet.

But, again, on a global scale, one can consider how much of the fossil fuel goes into industrial scale agriculture used in new world nations such as Canada, USA and Australia and compare it with fossil fuels used for on surface of air transportation, to get a perspective on our fossil fuel consumption.

This of course does not cover the non commercial flights such as cargo flights that bring goodies to our neighbourhood but was produced in China or Indonesia. It also does not cover our tax payers money used to fly bombers over Syria to drop bombs over civilians in the name of fighting terrorism.

Fossil fuel usually means hydro-carbon. This means a series of molecules, of a thousand different variety, that has carbon and/or hydrogen in bond. ON one end of the spectrum is pure carbon. Folks think coal is pure carbon, but it is actually not so. It has hydrogen too, but much less. As the percentage of hydrogen increases, the fossil fuel gets lighter and lighter, into liquid mode and eventually into gaseous mode.  Among the lightest that is still around on earth in plentiful quantity are gasses like natural gas or methane, Liquified petroleum ( a mix of propane and butane) etc.

They are all called fossil fuel because, billions of years ago, they along with carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapour constituted our atmosphere. There was no oxygen at all. One could argue that the CO2 in our atmosphere back then came from burning up whatever oxygen was available at the time with too much hot carbon. Either way, the atmosphere was full of stuff that would not allow us to live even one minute.

Then came a long chain of slow reactions, thought to be triggered and engineered by tiny living creatures we generally identify as micro-organisms, or bacteria. They invented photosynthesis, used sunlight as a source of energy, started splitting CO2 to grab the carbon, pull hydrogen out of water vapour and other hydrogen containing molecules and started constructing biological molecules that would be the foundation for a whole plethora of life forms. In the process, it did a few interesting things. It removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, produced oxygen as a byproduct, sequestered excess carbon and hydrocarbons into the ground and away from the atmosphere, and made it possible for plant and animal kingdom to evolve. And all those sequestered hydro-carbons are today known as fossil fuels, handiworks of billions of years of industrious micro-organisms that changed the planet and made it habitable for us air breathing animals.

Up came man or man’s predecessors, found out how to make fire out of wood, and started a two million year process of reversing the four billion years of work done by the bacteria.

It took our ancestor hominids and modern humans around two million years to finish off easily available wood on the surface of the planet, so clear cutting of forests became the next major source of energy. Around five hundred years ago, Europe finished off most of its forests so no more wood was available for energy. Man had invented a thing called “technology”, so buried “fossil fuel” called coal, could be pulled out of the earth, and used in place of wood.

Steam engine got invented so water that flooded coal mines could be emptied without manual labour. The rest was an inexorable march of human “technology” to undo the work of the bacteria.

It took around 400 years or so, for man to run out of enough coal on a global scale, to satisfy its ever increasing greed. So, around the beginning of the 20th century, large deposits of the next best thing – oil, was discovered and technology developed to use it for energy production. Being liquid, it had its other advantages that could be exploited better.

However, unlike wood that lasted us two million years, or coal that lasted about four hundred, mans ever increasing demand is finishing off oil is just over a hundred years. So we finished off solid fuel and liquid fuels and the last remaining frontier in fossil fuels is fuels that would be gaseous, but are somehow kept underground by those industrious micro-organisms as part liquid in strange conditions of pressure and temperature that is only possible deep underground or underwater.

So the next, and last, remaining source of “fossil fuel” appears to be natural gas and its other cousins such as LPG etc.

By now, demand for this gas, in places such as BC, Canada, is making the industry cut away last of the remaining forests, flood good agricultural lands, in order to make gigantic dams using the last of the meltwater fed rivers to produce hydro-electric power that can be used for hydraulically fracturing our stone foundations on an earth-quake prone continent, to get at the trapped natural gas, so that more “fossil fuels” can be extracted to power our ever more thirsty civilization.

How long would this natural gas last, compared to wood, coal and oil of the past? Your guess is as good as mine, but my guess is it would last far less than a hundred years. What the bacterial world achieved over 4 billion years, man will finish off in less than a hundred.

When hydro-carbons, or fossil fuel, is gone, what kind of energy is there in nearly inexhaustible quantity that man’s ever increasing greed is not likely to exhaust any time soon?

Far as I can see – it is nuclear fuel, and not wind power or solar or ocean waves etc all of which will remain as fringe. Nuclear fuel has kept the core of the earth hot, molten and magnetic ever since the planet formed and there is enough of it around.

However, just like burning fossil fuels have a nasty side effect. So has nuclear fuel. The reason mankind particularly chose Uranium for power generation and not one of the less dangerous nuclear fuels is because Uranium is a particularly good dual-technology fuel. It not only allows power generation, but it, and its synthetic derivative Plutonium also helps greatly in making atomic and eventually hydrogen bombs. Its great for warfare and weaponization.

So, in the long run, just as I do not believe electric cars are going to solve the planet’s environment on a global scale, I also do not see natural gas to solve it either, and do not see an end anytime soon, of an unending increase of nuclear power plants across the planet either. Till now, Uranium-Plutonium duo remains the most favoured technology which has allowed at least nine nations to develop nuclear bombs (USA, Russia, France, UK, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea) and at least a few more merely months away from making one if needed.

Meanwhile, an equally increasing number of nations have now the capability of building rockets than could carry such bombs across continents and deliver it at your doorstep, raining death and destruction from the sky, all following the age old model of warfare designed to enhance someone’s economy.

There are, meanwhile, environmental scientists that are beginning to predict that the current business-as-usual model of world civilization is long past the point of no return and the planet has absolutely no chance of maintaining life forms as we know it now. We are already in the midst of the sixth mass extinction phase, which is not even a disputed argument any more. The last mass extinction happened 65 million years ago that make the dinosaurs go extinct. Today it is recognized to have happened because of a massive asteroid strike on planet earth. However, the current sixth mass extinction is not due to any extraterrestrial phenomenon. This one is wholly man made.

So, how much time does the planet have left. Again, your guess is as good as mine. But a rising group of scientists, mostly kept out of mainstream and out of public eye, are claiming that this century, the 21st will not end with the business as usual model still in place.

Some are predicting 95% of living animals we can now identify will be gone by the end of the century, along with 99% of human population. What will the earth look like – I have absolutely no idea, but cities as we know it will be gone, as would be civilization.

Maverick scientists like ex-Jet propulsion laboratory and NASA notable James Lovelock predicted some years ago through his gaia series works that world has less than thirty or so years left before all hell breaks lose. That was made a decade  ago, so perhaps today, by his calculation, we have less than ten years left. His advise at the time was – there is actually nothing one can do to reverse this cataclysm, so might as well put your feet on the table, have a coffee and enjoy life while it still lasts.

I do not know if Lovelock’s prediction and time table is correct, but instinctively, I believe him to be fully correct even if the time table is arguable, and the reason I believe this to be correct is not just on account of man using up fossil fuel alone, but on an increasing different ways including our economy, money creation, agriculture, ever increasing population, ever increasing material demand made by the so called ‘Developmentality’ of civilized humans etc etc etc. So, in my mind, we are the very last generation of living people that are seeing the world as a continuum and peaking of a specific trend of human civilizational evolution and planetary sustainability.

For the next generation on – it is going to be a dog eat dog downward slide where it gets to be impossible for the bacterial world to keep maintaining the earth’s environment in a habitable range for air breathing animals in a manner that we humans of today can still relate to.

Time for a coffee ?