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Who Needs Hydrocarbons?

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

9 February 2021

There is an argument put forward not only by large oil companies and governments but also by social organisations and one or another run of the mill leftie intellectuals, that we need oil, that there is no other way to meet our energy needs, not to mention other uses for the liquid.  This argument not only lends itself to justifying exploration and drilling for hydrocarbons but also Fracking to obtain them.

So, we should ask ourselves, who needs them? and for what?  In a certain sense they are right about it.  The way in which we use our sources of energy in the world, there no alternatives that are up to the task.  And here is the real problem: our patterns of consumption.

The main consumer of hydrocarbons is the US, not the peasants who live beside the well or whose lands are occupied, intervened and contaminated.  But the issue goes beyond that.  Even when we look at the US we see patterns of consumption that are not justifiable.  The first problem our run of the mill intellectuals should remember is that if the armed forces of the US were a country they would be the 47th largest global consumer of oil.  In 2017, they bought 269,230 barrels per day,(1) i.e. the imperial forces need oil in order to dominate the world and consume almost the same amount of oil as Colombia and way more than most countries.  So, the first point is that our enemy needs oil to dominate us.

When we look closer at how the country consumes hydrocarbons, we see just how irrational it is.  In 2019, the US consumed an average of 20.54 million barrels per day including 1.1 million barrels of so-called biofuels.  If we look at what that consumption consists of, we see that 68% of the oil is used for transport, 26% for industrial uses, just 3% is domestic use and 2% in the commercial sector and barely 1% is used to generate electricity.(2)  So we should be clear about it, the greatest consumption is in transport and in that country, transport means the private car.  There are various aspects to this.  One of them is the stereotypical layabout who wouldn't walk 200 metres to get to a shop.  They do exist and we should not underestimate this category nor its cultural roots, and that it doesn't just apply there but also to other countries, such as parts of the Spanish State.  But asides from the layabouts, there is a real problem that private transport has been promoted over public transport and there are many cities and towns where the option of public transport does not exist at all or is deficient and problem ridden.  To ask a community to accept Fracking so as the layabouts can go everywhere in their cars or that cities continue to be built on the basis of the idea of private transport rather than mass public transport is shameless.

The nature of the problem can be seen in the number of trips made in the US.  In 2018, the North Americans had 273.6 million vehicles, 46 million more than licenced drivers and they covered 3.2 trillion miles in trips, i.e. the equivalent of 6.5 million return trips to the moon.  Furthermore, 76.4% of North Americans went to work alone, in their own car, with just 9.1% car-pooling compared to 5.2% who used public transport, 4.6% who worked from home, 2.7% who walked and no more than 1.7% who used other methods such as a motorbike or bicycle etc.(3)

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic many cities have seen what the streets could be like when they are not jammed with thousands and thousands of private cars, asphyxiating the population and the mass public transport systems.  One result of the pandemic is that a group of architects in New York has proposed pedestrianising Manhattan.  They point out that the cars not only consume large quantities of oil and that sometimes their speed is only marginally more than that of a person walking, but that the cars also occupy large amounts of land, both in terms of wide roads built to facilitate their passage, as well as parking space.  All of that space could be used for pedestrians, parks, social housing etc.(4)  According to the authors, cars kill about 90,000 people per year in the US, about 40,000 in accidents and a further 50,000 through contamination.  They also point out that in Los Angeles the space given over to parking spaces amounts to more than 23 Km2, enough space to build homes for a million people at current urban density rates and land use in the city.

Abandoning the car, means investing in public transport which would be quicker and cheaper without cars blocking the roads.  It also means changing how we view the world.  Why does a person who lives in Soacha work in the Éxito supermarket chain at the opposite end of Bogotá in the Portal Norte and a person from the north works in Soacha?  It means reorganising our lives with a degree of logic, thinking in terms of the well being of the human being concerned and also the environment.

The fourth largest use of oil in the US is jet fuel.  Yes, you have to travel and sometimes the only efficient way is in an aeroplane, but that is due to how we organise our time and society.  It is an irrational use and to destroy an area just so as the average yank can go where they want quickly, makes no sense and makes less sense to ask a community whose members will never get on an aeroplane that they allow the destruction because the "world needs" oil is an insult to their intelligence, their dignity and their welfare.

A similar situation occurs with those other hydrocarbons, the gases such as ethane, butane, propane etc.  The main gas used in the US is ethane (1.54 million barrels per day) followed by propane (870,000 barrels per day) and the main end use of all these gases is industrial (2.66 million barrels per day or 84.7% of the total).  But that doesn't make them more essential, it can't be said that they are necessary, as much of it is used to make plastics.(5) Plastic is generally a highly contaminant material both in its production and final use.  There are some plastic products that now seem indispensable and it may take some time to find alternatives, but the immense majority of plastic products are not necessary.  Are we going to destroy an area because someone doesn't want to wash dishes and prefers plastic disposables?

Sooner or later we will run out of hydrocarbons, they are a finite resource and we will have to seek alternatives, either to maintain current levels of consumption or better still review how modern society works and what changes are required to reduce our impact on the planet.  The consumption of natural resources does not happen on an equal basis.  The US represents less than 5% of the world's population and yet it consumes 17% of all global energy, compared to China which has 18.1% of the world's population and consumes 24% of its energy and 37% of all energy in the US comes from oil.(6)  If there exists an unequal consumption between countries there is also an unequal consumption within countries.  Not everyone consumes their corresponding share of energy.  The peasants consume less than the average person and the rich more than the average everywhere.

Those who seek to destroy an area because hydrocarbons are necessary, defend the most savage and predatory model of capitalism.  They also defend their own privileges within that system, their SUVs, their frequent unnecessary air trips, their air-conditioned hotels and other luxuries that do actually require hydrocarbons.  The challenge we face is to build other models of production and consumption and that can only be done through opposing that capitalist model and capitalism in general.  Oil workers have won good salaries, social security and other monetary and non-monetary benefits through their trade union struggles, which have cost them lives, displacements, threats and other things.  This cannot be denied and where there is an oil well, they should be paid well and their hard-won conquests acknowledged.  But that doesn't mean we should defend the oil industry.  The workers in arms factories also have trade union rights, but we don't defend wars.

The bank workers, specially in Colombia, are another sector that have won good salaries and working conditions compared to other sectors of the economy.  But the fighters in that sector don't usually come out defending speculation, usury and home repossessions from the poor that can't pay their mortgages.  Nor do they defend the billionaire gifts that Duque gave to Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo and others.  However, there are those in the oil industry who do exactly that, they defend the bosses and the industry as such. When a multinational or national company wants to go into a new area or revive through fracking wells that were considered exhausted the demands are not, pay me well and fuck the peasants!  The only valid legitimate demand is No to Fracking!, No to the oil well!  No to the exploitation of hydrocarbons!  Nobody defends the destruction of the Amazon because there are workers whose livelihoods depend on the manufacture of mahogany furniture.  Nobody should defend the oil industry and the predatory companies.  We need to save the planet and our place in it, not to live like decadent emperors in the face of the fall of Rome.  We are not emperors we are rather the gladiators, our task is not to fight against the peasant communities but rather against the multinationals, the modern emperors and their lackeys.


(1) Belcher et al. (2019) Hidden carbon costs of the “everywhere war”: Logistics,geopolitical ecology, and the carbon boot?print of the US military en Transactions of the British Institute of British Geographers, June 2019 p.8

(2) EIA (2020) Oil and Petroleum Products Explained: Use of Oil

(3) CSS (2020) U.S: Environmental Footprint Factsheet

(4) Manjoo, F (09/08/2020) I've Seen a Future Without Cars and it is Amazing

(5) EIA (2020b) Hydroncarbon gas liquids explained: Uses of hydrocarbon gas liquids

(6) CSS (2020) Op. Cit.

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