April 18, 2012

Power Up: Oil

Shelby Holliday looks at the benefits and risks of oil.

Shelby: In our Power Up series, we are taking a closer look at the different energy sources that will affect your future.

We just told you about how the president and Republicans are battling over how to keep gas prices down, yet even when prices goes up, people keep paying, since we rely on oil and gas every single day. It is a substance millions of years in the making but it is gone in an instant.

Oil is the world’s top source of energy. In the United States alone, we use about 800 million gallons of the stuff every day. Most of our oil, also known as petroleum, is burned in the form of gasoline. Gas fuels more than 250 million vehicles now in the U.S. And each vehicle travels about 13,000 miles every year. That means, one car travels more than halfway around the world every year! So you can see why we have become so dependent on gas and oil.

But where does all that oil come from in the first place? Well, to understand that, I took a trip to the Ocean Star Museum, a retired off-shore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hi! Lisa?

Lisa: Good morning! Welcome aboard.

Shelby: I am Shelby. Nice to meet you.

This rig used to pump oil out of the Gulf. Today, the rig helps teach visitors about how the process works, going all the way back to the beginning.

Lisa: Sandstone, limestone. This is called tight gas sand. These are examples of oil and gas bearing rock, so people don’t necessarily realize that there’s not an underground lake of oil.

Shelby: And so, do these have oil in them? These little rocks? Wow!

Lisa tells me that the word petroleum actually means “rock oil” or “oil from the earth.”

Oil is considered a fossil fuel. Most scientists say oil was created millions and millions of years ago, when the remains of plants and animals were covered by layers of sand and silt. Under intense pressure and heat, those remains eventually turned into petroleum, trapped in rocks deep below the earth’s surface.

After drilling into source rocks, which lie under both land and ocean, crews then pump water into a well, and that forces oil and gas up to the surface.

Lisa: If you visualize the sponge in your kitchen, it can be full of water or you can squeeze the water out. The sponge is still there. So when we extract oil and gas, the rock is still there, we’re just allowing an escape path for liquid and gasses that are trapped under a lot of pressure.

Shelby: After the petroleum is brought to the surface, it is taken to a refinery. Sometimes the fuel is transported by pipelines, which can be thousands of miles long. At the refinery, the oil is separated into barrels like this.

Ok. So this is a barrel of oil?

Lisa: Yes. Barrels are just a traditional oil field measurement, and it’s actually 42 gallons.

Shelby: From each barrel, about 20 gallons are put through a process called refining that changes the fuel’s physical and chemical state, and turns it into gasoline. The rest goes toward other products like diesel, jet fuel and propane.

While oil is the number one transportation fuel in the United States, it is also fueling a big debate about the environment, the economy and our nation’s security. When cars burn gasoline, they release carbon dioxide, or CO2. Now, not everyone agrees, but many scientists say those emissions, along with other gases, are causing our earth to warm and our climate to change. In fact, it is believed that transportation accounts for about a quarter of the greenhouse gasses emitted in the U.S.

And remember the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago? More than 200 million gallons of oil leaked into the ocean after an explosion on an oil rig. The spill killed wildlife and coated the beaches. And some say the oil may have contaminated the food chain. The long term effects on the Gulf are still not known.

Then there is the question of supply. Experts say we just don’t have enough of it here in the U.S. to keep up our gas guzzling lifestyle. More than half of our oil comes from other countries and some of those countries are unreliable, even possibly corrupt. That is why many are pushing for the U.S. to become energy self-sufficient.

“We can’t just rely on fossil fuels from the last century. We can’t just allow ourselves to be held hostage to the ups and downs of the world oil market. We have to keep developing new sources of energy. We have to keep developing new technology that helps us use less energy.”

Shelby: Why less energy and new sources?

“Because oil won’t last forever, especially since it takes millions of years for new petroleum to be created.”

“if we’re going to be competitive and successful and make sure families are protected over the long run, then we’ve got to find a set of options that reduces our overall dependency on oil.”

Shelby: Breaking our oil habit won’t be easy. It is a fuel that is relatively cheap, extremely efficient and still widely available all over the world. So, the experts say until there is an affordable and easily accessible replacement, oil will be driving our lives for years to come.

Shelby Holliday, Channel One News.


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