The negative impact of oil in the world. Wars, climate change and health

The consequences of oil extraction and use are devastating. From the environment to health, from human rights to armed conflicts.

“I don’t think there is a more ideal country for renewables than Saudi Arabia”. The person who stated it on 17 March 2016 was not an environmental activist but Ali al Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Oil. The country is the second largest producer of crude oil (the first is the United States), with as many as 11.5 million barrels a day.

It’s not a case that, according to Bloomberg, the Arab monarchy seems to have long planned the energy transition, planning to install 54 gigawatts of clean energy capacity by 2040.

Oil in the world

(1 = l'anno più caldo dal 1880 al 2015)
AnnoAnomalia in °C
oil leak taiwan
Two workers dirty with oil after a crude oil leak off Taiwan’s northern coast © Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

The world consumes 90 million barrels of oil every day

It seems that the revolution is about to begin. However, our societies still strongly depend on oil. Which doesn’t mean that we only depend on petrol, but even on plastic, tarmac, lubricating oil, kerosene, tar and diesel. It is estimated that every day about 90 million barrels of oil are used all over the world, the equivalent of over 30 billions a year.

For this reason the nuclear power lobby insists that it is necessary to invest in atoms. But it forgets that reactors also use sources we’ll sooner or later run out of. In fact there are high reserves of uranium in the world but – as a 2012 documentary by Dermot O’ Connor explains – if we decided to produce the same amount of electricity generated by fossil fuels with nuclear power, at least 10,000 plants would be necessary. And these would use up all the existing uranium reserves in less than 20 years.

oil united states demonstration
A demonstration against the use of oil in the United States © Win McNamee/Getty Image

From the United States to Canada, poor and risky decisions

It’s not an opinion but a fact that long-term solutions are needed. Nonetheless, tens of governments around the world seem to be inclined to support oil extraction. The United States invested huge amounts of money in shale oil, despite the environmental risks that it poses. Canada did the same with the harmful bituminous sand.

These new productions substantially increased the global demand, lowering the oil price per barrel. And the member countries of OPEC, instead of stopping the production of oil to rebalance the market, strongly increased it to go into competition with the United States.

co2 energy
A graph taken from the report carried out by the International Energy Agency shows the CO2 emission trend in the energy production. The use of renewable sources of energy in the last few years, and mostly wind energy, alowed to reduce emissions © IEA

The links between war and oil

The black gold rush hasn’t come to a stop neither for environmental nor for economic reasons. Evidence comes from the fact that there are ever more oil conflicts in the world involving countries that want to take control of wells, drills and oil refineries. These wars often erupt due to extreme weather conditions mostly caused by climate change, which is in turn caused exactly by the use of fossil fuels (that still today account for 80% of global energy consumption).

The Syrian case in this sense is emblematic. The country, according to a study conducted by Le Monde, in 1996 reached the “peak oil”, the moment when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which it progressively declines. So, in the following years the rate of extraction diminished.

syria war oil
In the Syrian war the ISIS is mostly financed thanks to oil © John Moore/Getty Images

In 2008, in an effort to tackle the public deficit, the Bashar al-Assad regime substantially reduced fuel subsidies that accounted for 15% of the GDP. Therefore, the price of petrol soon tripled, causing uncontrollable inflation levels even as regards agricultural prices.

Three years of drought in Syria

Extreme weather conditions also added to this dramatic situation: from 2007 to 2010, Syria experienced the worst drought in its history. This extreme phenomenon was caused by climate change, which was in turn triggered by the use of fossil fuels. The population’s despair and the extremists’ goals led the country in a war that has been raging for five years.

Yemen also reached the peak oil in the early 2000s: in brief, the production decreased and today Sana’a is also in war. Algeria is also likely to have reached the peak oil and Venezuela, Mexico, Indonesia, Russia, Iran, Nigeria and China saw irreversible decrease in production levels.

oil price
The oil price were at its lowest because of the increase in the production of shale oil and bituminous sand in North America © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Renewable sources: an eco-friendly and sustainable alternative

So the world is at a crossroads. On one hand, keeping on expanding an energy production system that is dangerous for the environment, economy, society and climate. On the other, start a transition towards a new way of producing energy: a clean, eco-friendly, renewable way that both rich and poor countries can afford.

A transition that would avoid 3.7 million dead, according to the WHO the number of people who in 2012 died as a consequence of air pollution all around the world. Many other people working on oil platform add to these victims: just consider the Deepwater Horizon that killed eleven people ein 2010 after an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that is considered one of the worst environmental catastrophes ever.

cop 21 demonstration renewables paris
A group of environmental activists asked the government to produce 100% renewable energy during the COP 21 © Yann_A_B/SpectralQ

And consider also the environmental damage that oil causes locally. For example: Ken Saro-Wiwa, an environmental activist who fought for the local population’s rights, was killed after a process that was considered by the majority of the international community a farce because of pollution caused by oil exploitation in the Niger Delta.


Featured image: the consequences of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 © Justin E. Stumberg/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

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