Episode 35

#35 - Climate Change III: Fossil Fuels


November 29th, 2021

47 mins 48 secs

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About this Episode

Come experience the thrill of the shill as we discuss the somewhat-controversial natural resource called "fossil fuels". In this episode, we drill deep into opto-pessimist Vaclav Smil's excellent book Oil: A Beginner's Guide, in what is possibly our only episode to feature heterodox Russian-Ukrainian science, subterranean sound waves, and that goop lady - what's her name? It's unbelievable, right?

We discuss:

  • The science behind fossil fuels: How they're made, found, processed, and used
  • Energy transitions and the shale gas revolution
  • Global oil dependence and human rights
  • The environmental costs of fossil fuels
  • Will we reach Peak Oil?
  • Why natural resources aren't milkshakes
  • The future of fossil fuels

(Note to Big Oil: Please send shilling fees to incrementspodcast@gmail.com)


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Modern life now begins and ends amidst the plethora of plastics whose synthesis began with feedstocks derived from oil - because hospitals teem with them. Surgical gloves, flexible tubing, catheters, IV containers, sterile packaging, trays, basins, bed pans and rails, thermal blankets and lab ware: naturally, you are not aware of these surroundings when a few hours or a few days old, but most of us will become all too painfully aware of them six, seven or eight decades later. And that recital was limited only to common hospital items made of polyvinylchloride; countless other items fashioned from a huge variety of plastics are in our cars, aeroplanes, trains, homes, offices and factories.

  • Oil: A Beginner's Guide, p.10

A free market has not been one of the hallmarks of the 150 years of oil’s commercial history. The oil business has seen repeated efforts to fix product prices by controlling either the level of crude oil extraction or by dominating its transportation and processing, or by monopolizing all of these aspects. The first infamous, and successful, attempt to do so was the establishment of Standard Oil in Cleveland in 1870. The Rockefeller brothers (John D. and William) and their partners used secretive acquisitions and deals with railroad companies to gain the control of oil markets first in Cleveland, then in the Northeast, and eventually throughout the US. By 1904 what was now known as the Standard Oil Trust controlled just over 90% of the country’s crude oil production and 85% of all sales.

  • Oil: A Beginner's Guide, p.32

Photochemical smog was first observed in Los Angeles in the 1940s and its origins were soon traced primarily to automotive emissions. As car use progressed around the world al] major urban areas began to experience seasonal (Toronto, Paris) or near-permanent (Bangkok, Cairo) levels of smog, whose effects range from impaired health (eye irritation, lung problems) to damage to materials, crops and coniferous trees. A recent epidemiological study in California also demonstrated that the lung function of children living within 500m of a freeway was seriously impaired and that this adverse effect (independent of overall regional air quality) could result in significant lung capacity deficits later in life. Extreme smog levels now experienced in Beijing, New Delhi and other major Chinese and Indian cities arise from the combination of automotive traffic and large-scale combustion of coal in electricity-generating plants and are made worse by periodic temperature inversions that limit the depth of the mixing layer and keep the pollutants near the ground.

  • Oil: A Beginner's Guide, p.50
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