Feature Story: Oil Use in the US
Students buzz around the cafeteria as Aubrey Tingler and I discuss her future vehicle choices during lunch, electric versus gasoline. She is a senior at Emory University who is passionate about the Keystone Pipeline and oil use in the United States.
“I’m one of those optimists that thinks if you can make if your voice heard, things will start to happen.” She believes that students can have an influence on the government and preventing oil’s business as usual mentality.
In her opinion, she described the future as mixed energy, and prefers to transition away from oil stating that, “I don’t think digging deeper and causing more environmental degradation is the solution.”
Aubrey is discussing one of today’s hot topics in society – oil use in the United States.On February 24 of this year, President Barack Obama vetoed the construction of the final 60% of the Keystone Pipeline.1
If passed, this pipeline would have connected Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Stretching 2000 miles in total, the pipeline would have transported 830,000 barrels of oil a day.2
This controversial issue has highlighted oil use in the United States, reminding individuals of how they get their energy. Currently, America is the number one user of oil in the world, with roughly 18.9 million barrels of oil that are consumed daily.
Oil is one of the three regularly used fossil fuels, oil, natural gas and coal. America has progressively moved away from coal, due to its environmental consequences, however, the states are still extremely reliant on the oil industry.
The primary uses of oil in the US is transportation, roughly 70% of total use.5 Due to America’s infrastructure and size there is a strong dependency on private vehicles and long travel times. Gasoline, the primary fuel for these vehicles is made from oil.
The concern over oil use is the negative impact on the environment. Oil spills, climate change and the impacts on human health are arguments against oils’ use and production.
This strong reliance on oil, in addition to other fossil fuels, has caused America to lead the way in CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary byproduct of oil use. Out of the 32,155 metric tons of CO2 emitted annually, the US is responsible for 5,270 of those.6
Carbon dioxide is an example of a greenhouse gas. These gases include water vapor, methane, and nitrous oxide.4 They act as a blanket, trapping the sun’s heat close to the Earth’s surface. This allows humans to live comfortably with the temperatures on earth.
Currently, average temperatures have climbed roughly 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit.3 By the year 2100 this number is predicted to raise another 2-11.5 degrees Fahrenheit.3 This increase in temperature is due to a parallel increase in these greenhouse gases.
Dr. Barry Ryan from Rollins School of Public Health discusses that, “We’re at a point of saturation in carbon dioxide,” and the consequences of this are more energy in the atmosphere. This results in more dangerous and powerful storms.
This increase in global temperature also affects sea level, melting ice, and increases in oceanic acidity and extreme events. Dr. Ryan specifies that many countries have low altitude and would be greatly impacted by this sea level rise.
Another environmental danger is oil spills. Gary Harper from the Environmental Protection Agency describes the protocol for oil spill clean ups. Roughly once a week or 50 times a year the EPA responds to an oil spill in the southeast.
The oil spills range dramatically in size. However, they can impact the local water and wildlife. Any coated vegetation either dies or is removed by the state or EPA. Birds and other wildlife are particularly influenced and there is always the potential need for human evacuation due to health hazards.
Despite the negative environmental issues, oil remains one of the key drivers of the United States and other global economies. “Oil is liquid money,” and “it helps keep our country strong,” Dr. William Size a geologist from Emory University clarifies.
Oil has a high content of energy compared to other energy sources like coal and wood. There’s very little waste from burning, it’s easily transported, has a strong infrastructure base and is a political and economic giant. It boosts other industries that use oil for their production.
Oil brought the US into the industrial age. It provided a method for economic development. However, besides the environmental flaws, oil is also only 30% efficient. The other 70% is lost energy.
However, this economic power isn’t distributed equally and causes political and economic disparities between countries. It has caused wars and conflicts in the past.
Dr. Ryan from Rollins also mentions that oils use is a balancing act. Removing oil from the economy may boost human health by removing the pollution from the atmosphere, stop rising greenhouse gas levels and preventing oil spills.
However, what would the consequentially health effects be? He mentioned the loss of jobs and the loss of health insurance, which could trigger a decrease in overall human health. “It’s a balancing act,” between human health, environmental health, oil and economics.
In order to eventually move away from fossil fuels it’s important to invest in alternative energy. However, so far according to Dr. Size, there have not been enough substantial financial investments in this field.
Dr. Size goes on to explain that, “It’s human nature not to get serious until things really get bad. It may take a calamity,” to shift away from the massive oil industry.
The Keystone Pipeline controversy had similarly strong arguments for and against. The project would have created 42,000 temporary jobs and roughly 50 permanent jobs, boosting the economy.
However, the pipeline would have increased CO2 emissions by 24.3 million metric tons per year.9 Plus the oil from Alberta, Canada is extremely dirty. The area holds several tar sands, which once refined and burned release three or four times more CO2 emissions than conventional oil.7,8
Others argue the oil will continue to be pulled from the tar sands and delivered to the gulf even without the completed pipeline. The alternative will simply be by trains, which have much larger carbon footprints.
The pipeline would also cut through one of the largest natural aquifers in the US, the Ogallala Aquifer. This aquifer provides water for farms and people in eight states in the Midwest.
If the pipeline were to run through that area, it may trigger contamination and reduction of this essential water source.
Dr. Tracy Yandle an environmental science professor at Emory says, “It [the veto] was an empty gesture. It’s not going to accomplish anything,” because ultimately the oil will continue to be refined and travel through alternative measures.
Ultimately, oil use in the United States has its limit. Environmentally, there will be a point when it’s no longer economically viable to continue using fossil fuels.
It is important to begin now by researching and creating alternative energy sources and building the infrastructure so that eventually the other options are available. This is essential to keep the US economy strong, even without its oil industry backbone.
Word Count: 1179
Dr. Tracy Yandle
tyandle [at] emory [dot] edu
Dr. William Size
wsize [at] emory [dot] edu
Dr. Barry Ryan
bryan [at] emory [dot] edu
Aubrey [dot] elise [dot] tingler [at] emory [dot] edu
Daniel [dot] rochberg [at] emory [dot] edu
harper [dot] greg [at] epa [dot] gov
- Brady, Jeff, and Scott Horsley. “What You Need To Know About The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline.” NPR. NPR, 17 Nov. 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2015.
- FactCheck. 2014. “Pipeline Primer: The Keystone XL project: We examine the facts about jobs, spills, climate change and gasoline prices.” Accessed: http://www.factcheck.org/2014/03/pipeline-primer/
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2014.“Climate Change: Basic Information.” Accessed: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/basics/
- Facing the Future. Accessed: https://www.facingthefuture.org/IssuesSolutions/ClimateChange/ClimateChangeF astFacts/tabid/175/Default.aspx#.VOJuXJUmW0s
- The Sierra Club. http://myscsierra.org/chapter/oil/60-energy/258-oil-dependence- facts.html
- Friends of the Earth. “Keystone XL Pipeline.” Accessed: http://www.foe.org/projects/climate-and-energy/tar-sands/keystone-xl-pipeline
- Pembina Institute. “Climate Impacts.” Accessed: http://www.pembina.org/oil-sands/os101/climate
- Levi, Michael A. 2009. “The Canadian Oil Sands: Energy Security vs. Climate Change.” p 11. Council on Foreign Relations.