Explaining Why We Opt To Cruise On Crude Oil

Oil has become the most popular fossil fuel on the planet and provides 31% of our energy need.1 But why is oil in such demand and is there any way we can stop the emissions that it produces?

Q1 // What Exactly is It?

Crude oil is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid found in rock formations.2 Similar to coal, crude oil is made up of organic compounds that were buried, heated and subjected to intense pressure for millions of years beneath the Earth’s surface.3

Q2 // What Exactly is Crude Oil Used for?

Crude oil plays a fundamental part in modern life by providing the energy source for nearly all our transportation needs.4 It also forms the basis for many of the products, drugs and chemicals that we buy. This includes everything from plastic containers to fertiliser, aspirin, laundry detergent and even denture adhesive.5

 Pumping jacks extract crude oil from the earth’s surface.

Q3 // How Much Does Crude Oil Cost?

Crude oil costs around 3¢ per kWh.6 This makes it around three times more expensive than coal.

Q4 // So Why Do We Like Crude Oil So Much?

We like it because it takes up less space, can be transported with relative ease, and, due to its liquid form, can be integrated more readily into mechanical devices such as combustion engines.7 Subsequently, crude oil has become the fossil fuel of choice for the vast majority of mobile machines such as cars, planes, buses and boats.10 Fortunately for us, distillation offers an easy way to do this. Distillation is the process of separating one or more liquids, or in this case, organic compounds, when they have different boiling points.11 For crude oil, the process takes place in an oil refinery where the crude oil is heated at the base of a tall, slender tower until it vaporises.12 As the vaporised oil rises through the tower, the organic compounds condense into a variety of liquids, such as petrol, diesel and jet fuel which then settle into a series of trays.13 From there, the various liquids are syphoned off for use.14 Unfortunately, our work does not stop here though. This is because there is a huge demand for one liquid in particular that emerges from the distillation process – petrol.15 Subsequently, we have to chemically modify some of the other liquids by using a process known as cracking.16

The Bangchak Oil Refinery is clearly visible along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.

Q6 // That Sounds Like Hard Work! How Do You Crack Crude Oil Then?

Cracking consists of taking the liquids with the larger, heavier organic compounds and breaking those organic compounds into lighter ones to form petrol.17 There are a number of ways of doing this, but they generally all consist of one primary process – heating the organic compounds to upwards of 800°C until they break into smaller pieces.18 Additional chemicals can be added to reduce this temperature, but either way, a significant amount of additional energy is required to complete the cracking process.19

Q7 // Interesting – So How Much Energy is Used Just to Transform Crude Oil Into a Useable Fuel?

Incredibly, despite all the energy-intensive processes involved in refining petrol, the equivalent of just 20% of the energy contained within crude oil is used to create the petrol.20 This means, more than four-fifths of the energy contained within petrol is retained from the well to the petrol tank. Of the energy used to transform petrol, around 60% is used for refining the petrol, and 29% is used for drilling the crude oil from the ground.21

Q8 // So How Much Crude Oil Do We Consume?

Each year, we consume a massive 33.8 billion barrels of crude oil.22 Amazingly, if these barrels were piled on top of each other, they could be stacked to the Moon some 75 times over.23 Of the 33.8 billion barrels we consume, 55% is for transport, 7% for industry, 7% for buildings and 7% for electricity.24 The remaining 24% includes fishing, agriculture, feedstocks for all our products and a variety of general losses.25

 An offshore platform drilling beneath the seabed to extract crude oil.

Q9 // How is Crude Oil Transformed Into Electricity?

Transforming crude oil into electricity takes place very rarely because it is expensive. However, when it does happen, the crude oil undergoes a similar process to coal, whereby it is burnt to create steam that is used to spin a turbine connected to a large magnet.26 As with coal, the process is very inefficient, and only some 40% of the energy contained within the crude oil is converted into electricity.27

Q10 // How Much Does Electricity Generated From Crude Oil Cost?

Due to the price of crude oil and the relatively inefficient process of creating electricity, the average cost is around 12¢ per kWh.28 This makes electricity generated from crude oil around 25% more expensive than electricity generated using coal.

Petrochemical refineries can be readily identified by the network of exposed pipes and walkways that wrap the plant.

Q11 // How Much Pollution Does Crude Oil Create?

For each kWh of energy extracted from crude oil, 250 grams of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.29 This makes it the second most polluting fossil fuel available to us. When crude oil is used to generate electricity, as much as 650 grams of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere per kilowatt-hour.30 Overall, crude oil is responsible for around 11.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere every year.31 That’s enough carbon dioxide to fill New York’s Grand Station Central Concourse more than 50 million times over.32

Q12 // What Are We Currently Doing to Reduce Crude Oil Consumption?

Despite the enormous amounts of pollution created from crude oil, there are no signs of oil use slowing down. By 2040, it is estimated that we will be consuming a total of 115 million barrels per day.33 That’s 22 million more barrels than we use today.

Q13 // Are We Likely to Run Out Soon?

There is the equivalent of around 1.7 trillion barrels of proven reserves that are still untapped around the world.34 This is the equivalent of approximately 50 years supply at current consumption rates.There is the equivalent of around 1.7 trillion barrels of proven reserves that are still untapped around the world.35 This is the equivalent of approximately 50 years supply at current consumption rates.36 Furthermore, there is estimated to be some four times this amount in undiscovered locations, however, much of this crude oil will be far more complex and costly to extract.37

Crude oil is also used extensively to create a variety of materials. This includes plastic for bottles.

Q14 // Can We Make Crude Oil Carbon-free?

Releasing carbon dioxide when burning crude oil is unavoidable. Furthermore, using carbon capture storage will most likely be unfeasible. This is because crude oil is mainly used by motor vehicles and the cost of constructing a carbon capture storage device for every vehicle will almost certainly be prohibitively expensive. Added to this, some form of temporary storage would also have to be fitted to every vehicle for all the carbon that is captured. All this means, if we want to put a stop to our crude oil carbon dioxide emissions, we are going to have to look at alternative fuel sources.

Crude Oil in a Nutshell

To summarise, crude oil is a liquid energy source that lends itself well to powering vehicles as it requires less space than coal and is easier to transport. However, crude oil comes at three times the cost. Creating energy from crude oil also produces large quantities of carbon dioxide – the key driver of climate change. Unfortunately too, capturing this carbon dioxide produced would be both impracticable and prohibitively expensive. As such, we need to find another solution. Let’s see if natural gas offers this to us.

Image Credits

Title image taken by Signature Message and reproduced under license from Shutterstock.

Image of pumping jack taken by by Bengsoon Chuah, released on Flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.

Image of oil refinery taken by ake1150 and reproduced under license from Adobe Stock.

Image of offshore platform taken by Dabarti CGI and reproduced under license from Shutterstock.

Image of petrochemical refinery taken by Secl, released on Wikimedia Commons and reproduced under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0.

Image of plastic bottles taken by London Looks, released on Flickr by and reproduced under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.

General Notes

For the total landmass of the UK, a figure of 248,532 square kilometres has been used. The figure has been sourced from UK Office for National Statistics – 'The UK and Its Countries: Facts and Figures' – www.ons.gov.uk.

Barrels of oil equivalent based on 1628.2 kWh of energy being contained within each barrel. Data sourced from Unit Juggler – 'Converter: Barrel of Oil Equivalent to Kilowatt-Hour' – unitjuggler.com.

Article Endnotes

  1. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – 'World: Balances for 2012' – www.iea.org.
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica – ‘Crude Oil’ – www.britannica.com.
  3. United States Department of Energy – ‘How Fossil Fuels were Formed’ – www.fe.doe.gov.
  4. Based on oil providing 93% of the world’s transport energy demand. Calculated using 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org.
  5. Petroleum.co.uk – ‘Other Uses of Petroleum’ – www.petroleum.co.uk.
  6. Data based on February 2015 price of $54.93 per barrel. Oil price sourced from IndexMundi – ‘Crude oil (petroleum)’ – www.indexmundi.com.
  7. Space requirements based on coal having an energy density of 24 megajoules per kilogram and petrol having an energy density of 45.8 megajoules per kilogram. Energy density sourced from Rodrigue, Jean-Paul – ‘Energy Content of Some Combustibles’ – hofstra.edu. Integration into mechanical devices sourced from Woodford, Chris – ‘Steam Engines’ – www.explainthatstuff.com.
  8. Based on oil providing 93% of the world’s transport energy demand. Calculated using 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org.8

    Q5 // Strange – We Don’t We Pump Crude Oil Into Our Vehicles?

    Crude oil, by itself, is not very useful. This is because it contains hundreds of different types of organic compounds mixed together, all of which need to be sorted before you can have anything worthwhile.9American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers – ‘The Refining Process’ – www.afpm.org.

  9. Freudenrich, Craig – ‘How Oil Refining Works’ – howstuffworks.com.
  10. Freudenrich, Craig – ‘How Oil Refining Works’ – howstuffworks.com.
  11. Freudenrich, Craig – ‘How Oil Refining Works’ – howstuffworks.com.
  12. Freudenrich, Craig – ‘How Oil Refining Works’ – howstuffworks.com.
  13. American Petroleum Institute – ‘Understanding Crude Oil and Product Markets’ – Page 23.
  14. SchoolScience – ‘Fossils Into Fuels: Changing Hydrocarbon Molecules’ – schoolscience.co.uk.
  15. BP – ‘How Refining Works’ – www.bp.com.
  16. Freudenrich, Craig – ‘How Oil Refining Works’ – howstuffworks.com.
  17. Freudenrich, Craig – ‘How Oil Refining Works’ – howstuffworks.com.
  18. Sheehan et al. – ‘An Overview of Biodiesel and Petroleum Diesel Life Cycles’ – Page 10.
  19. Sheehan et al. – ‘An Overview of Biodiesel and Petroleum Diesel Life Cycles’ – Page 10.
  20. Figure based on 92.7 million barrels of crude oil being used globally per day. Sourced from Smith, Grant – ‘IEA Raises 2014 Oil Demand Estimate as World Economy Recovers’ (14 Mar 2014) – Bloomberg.
  21. Data based on the standard height of an oil drum being 86 centimetres and the distance from the Earth to the Moon being 384,400 kilometres. Standard height of an oil drum sourced from Sembera, Alan – ‘What Are the Dimensions of a 55-Gallon Oil Drum?’ – www.ehow.com. Distance to the Moon sourced from Sharp, Tim – ‘How Far is the Moon?’ – www.space.com.
  22. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org. Electricity use includes both electricity plants and combined heat and power plants.
  23. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org.
  24. EDF Energy – ‘How Electricity is Generated Through Oil’ – www.edfenergy.com.
  25. EURELECTRIC – ‘Efficiency in Electricity Generation’ – Page 7.
  26. Based on 2009 data for Mexico sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘Projected Costs of Generating Electricity’ – Page 63.
  27. Environmental Protection Agency – ‘Title 40: Protection of Environment’ – Table C-1.
  28. EDF Energy – ‘Measuring Energy’s Contribution to Climate Change’ – www.edfenergy.com.
  29. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion: Highlights’ – Page 42.
  30. Calculation based on the main concourse having a volume of around 116,800 cubic metres. Volume calculated using data sourced from Kalmbach, A. C. – ‘Grand Central’ – Page 10.
  31. United States Energy Information Administration – ‘International Energy Outlook 2013’ – Page 23.
  32. Based on 2013 consumption levels sourced from British Petroleum – ‘BP Statistical Review of World Energy’ – Page 6.
  33. Based on 2013 consumption levels sourced from British Petroleum – ‘BP Statistical Review of World Energy’ – Page 6.
  34. Tully, Andy – ‘BP’s Latest Estimate Says World’s Oil Will Last 53.3 Years’ – OilPrice.com. Figure rounded to nearest ten years.
  35. Potential reserves sourced from World Energy Council – ‘World Energy Resources: 2013 Survey’ – Page 12. Cost of extraction sourced from Alkan, Christopher – ‘Oil and the Global Economy: Will High Prices Stifle Recovery?’ – Economia.

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