Photo: Oil

Oil well. (Credit:joshuadelaughter via Flickr.)

A brief history of oil

The discovery of oil can be described as both a blessing and a curse. This once cheap and plentiful energy source has driven huge economic expansion and increased living standards over the last 100 years. But its use has also had devastating environmental consequences.

The use of oil for energy dates back a mere 150 years. During its first 50 years, oil production was marginal and was mostly used for heat and light. The scale and salience of oil production really took off at the beginning of the 20th century, in conjunction with Henry Ford's assembly line and the beginning of automobile mass production.

Throughout the 20th century, and up until the present, oil's essential role has been as a transportation fuel. Oil fuelled both World Wars—transforming them into mechanized conflicts using tanks and aircraft—and both post-war booms. America's love affair with the car began in earnest during the Roaring '20s. Economic growth in the 1950s accelerated the migration out of city centres and the expansion of suburbia. Drive-in movies and restaurants epitomized North America's love of the automobile during this period.

The manufacturing and use of plastic, a synthetic polymer derived from oil, also became an ever-increasing trend over the last century. Though the practice began in the 1920s, its prominence, like that of the car, really accelerated in the post-WWII years. Today, its use is ubiquitous, yet few people are aware of all the products derived from oil: toothpaste, contact lenses, credit cards, golf balls, polystyrene cups, plastic bags.

Who has oil and who needs it has shaped world politics for a century. In the early 1900s, important oil discoveries were made in Texas and Persia (now Iran). Venezuela joined the oil club in 1922, with the discovery of the Lake Maracaibo reserves. Large reserves in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were discovered in the late 1930s. In 1960, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was created. OPEC's oil embargo in 1973 and the Iranian revolution of 1979 led to price spikes that caused a global economic downturn and revealed the world's critical dependence on this non-renewable resource.

Despite short periods of increased energy efficiency and the development of alternative forms of energy during the oil crises, global production, demand and use of oil have continued to climb. Though the U.S. remains the second-largest producer of oil, its production peaked in the early 1970s while its demand has continued to soar. The U.S. has remained firmly committed to oil consumption and has largely eschewed energy efficiency and energy self-sufficiency. It is therefore extremely dependent on imports, mostly from Canada, the Middle East and Venezuela.

Environmental impacts of oil

Like other fossil fuels, oil's production, transport and use have significant environmental impacts. Oil production creates air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, and wilderness destruction. Impacts on the landscape are so significant that Alberta's oil and gas industry now cuts more trees and destroys more habitat than the province's forest companies. The proliferation of offshore oil production, essentially a search for more remote sources of oil, has produced numerous large-scale oil spills, including a major spill from Nova Scotia's Terra Nova offshore platform in 2004 and the BP oil spill that devastated the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Transporting oil also has produced its share of environmental peril, from the Exxon Valdez disaster to leaks from oil and gas pipelines everywhere they exist. Even when pipelines operate as intended, they cut swaths through the landscape that fragment important habitat.

And then there's climate change . Oil production and use have made significant contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions, increases in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and the consequent changes to our climate.