24 May 2010

Oil, risk and technology: Choices we need to make

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The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico should be a wake-up call to governments and energy companies, argues William Jackson, raising deep questions about our addiction to oil. Compensation may be paid for immediate damages - but what about the wider environmental harm?

The world changed one summer's day in 1858. In a field in Pennsylvania, in the United States, the world's first specially constructed deep well struck oil. The trickle of oil from the Earth, long extracted by humans in small amounts, became a torrent.

Relatively easy to find, extract, process, store and transport - and above all cheap - liquid oil quickly became our most important energy source to cook, heat, cool and transport things.

From plastics to supermarkets, and from globalised industry supply chains to the layout of our towns and cities, almost every aspect of human life has been radically altered over the past 150 years by oil.

Although cheap and plentiful oil has given many people choices and freedoms that never existed before, our addiction has been costly, measured in increased air and water pollution, rampant land use change, overharvesting of our seas, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and consequent climate change, acid rain and urban sprawl.

After 150 years, and with the Gulf of Mexico being the latest place where a major oil spill threatens nature and people in predictable and unpredictable ways, it is time to look again at the technologies and risks involved in getting the oil to which our societies are addicted.

The days of easy access to oil are over. Humans are inventing ever more ingenious ways to find and extract more difficult to access oil reserves in more extreme and generally more ecologically pristine regions.

(BBC News)

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