Liquid fuels are king
The Environmental Contrarian
Published: Monday, September 16, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 16, 2013 20:09
Hydraulic Fracturing, ultra-deepwater drilling, well-acidizing, Arctic drilling and tar sands. What do they all have in common? They represent the latest manifestations of society’s increasing desperation to exploit additional sources of liquid fuels. That’s right; in much of the developed world, we are not desperate for electricity, solid or gaseous fuels, but liquids (primarily oil).
While many individuals are conceptually opposed to these environmentally destructive extraction methods, few acknowledge it is our personal checkbooks that finance the operations to the tune of thousands of dollars per year. However, this column isn’t about the dissonance between our beliefs and our actions (I’ll save that for a later week), but simply about the unique properties of liquid fuels and why we will likely remain stuck with them for the foreseeable future.
Many Americans don’t realize it explicitly, but liquid fuels rule. Quite literally, the world runs on the liquid derivatives of crude oil; mostly gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and bunker fuel. Whether it is planes, trains, ships or automobiles, and whether carrying human cargo or various goods, liquid fuel powers that motion. In essence, liquid fuel is transportation and transportation is liquid fuel.
This isn’t the way the world needs to be, nor is it necessarily the way the world should be. However, replacing liquids with any other fuel poses serious technical and behavioral challenges. For an overview of the importance of liquids in transportation, check out “Prime Movers of Globalization” by Vaclav Smil. Also, look at “The Quest” by Daniel Yergin for a perspective on technical and geopolitical trends in oil exploration and production.
It is also important to understand the issue of transportation and liquids is not a trivial one. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory estimates that in 2010 nearly 40 percent of end use energy in the United States was consumed by the transportation sector alone. Nearly all of this energy came from liquids, the extraction of which has become increasingly environmentally destructive as lower quality reserves are exploited.