Saturday, June 28, 2008

Final Warning

This is the article that accompanied the dangerzones interactive media map below. Available to NewScientist subscribers only, I found a copy at, enjoy.
a few well-placed explosives, an energy-sapping cold winter or an unusually intense hurricane season could send shock waves across the globe. The potential consequences are so serious that governments are drawing up emergency plans to cope should the worst happen. According to one analyst who took part in a simulation of just such a crisis, the situation most experts fear is what they call a "psychological avalanche".

Here's what happens. A small, distant country one day finds it can no longer import enough oil because of a spike in prices or problems with local supply. The news media whip this up into a story suggesting an oil shock is on the way, and the resulting panic buying by the public degenerates into a global grab for oil.

Most industrialised countries keep an emergency reserve as a first line of defence, but in the face of worldwide panic buying this may not be enough. Countries in which the oil runs out face transport meltdown, wreaking havoc with international trade and domestic necessities such as food distribution, emergency services and daily commerce. Without oil everything stops.

The roots of our oil addiction can be traced back to the end of the 19th century, when petroleum began to be pumped from wells across America. It wasn't long before it become obvious what a great transport fuel it could provide. Oil-based fuels paved the way for intensive farming and extensive road networks; they drove the influx of populations into cities, drove growth in shipping and eventually made mass air travel possible. "Oil has shaped our civilisation. Without crude oil you'd have no cars, no shipping, no planes," says Gideon Samid, head of the Innovation Appraisal Group (IAG) at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

And it's not just about fuels. A giant chemical industry relies on oil as its feedstock, and without it many of the products we now take for granted would vanish. "You'd see no plastics, no bags, no toys, no cases on TVs, computers or radios. It's absolutely everywhere," says Samid.

"Much of the economic expansion and growth of the human population in the 20th century is directly tied to the availability of large amounts of cheap oil," says Cutler Cleveland, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University. "There isn't a single good or service consumed on the planet, except in rural economies, that doesn't have oil embedded in it. Oil is the lifeblood of the global economy."

The secret of oil's success is its portability and extraordinarily high energy density. One barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of 46 US gallons of gasoline; burn it and it will release more than 6 billion joules of heat energy, equivalent to the amount of energy expended by five agricultural labourers working 12-hour days non-stop for a year.

The vast majority of oil is consumed by transport. In the US, that sector accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the 20.7 million barrels the country gets through each day.

More than half of the world's oil comes from seven countries, the leading supplier being Saudi Arabia, which produces more than 10 million barrels a day. Then come Russia, the US, Iran, China, Mexico and Canada. Twenty years ago, there were 15 oilfields able to supply 1 million barrels a day. Now, there are only four. The largest is the Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia.