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Living without oil
Living without oil

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1.1 Oil consumption

One way of establishing the importance of oil in the modern world is simply to look at the numbers. Oil fuels an estimated 95% of the world's transport. In 2010 the world consumed a staggering 12 million tonnes of oil daily, which is roughly equivalent to 14 billion litres of oil every day. These are enormous quantities - equivalent to the volume of over 5000 Olympic swimming pools or filling enough road tankers to stretch the distance from London to New York (Figure 1).

Described image
Figure 1 A pictorial representation of the amount of crude oil consumed globally each day.

In 2010 the UK alone was responsible for the consumption of 92.3 billion litres of oil. It can be difficult to imagine what a large quantity like 92.3 billion litres represents, so it's useful to convert this figure into something more meaningful - in this case, you will calculate the average daily consumption of oil for each person in the UK.

When performing calculations involving very large numbers, like those involved when estimating oil consumption, scientists tend to write numbers in a specific way - using scientific notation. In scientific notation, 92.3 billion litres is written as 9.23 × 1010 litres. (One billion is 1 × 109, so 92.3 billion becomes 92.3 × 109, which is written in formal scientific notation as 9.23 × 1010.)

  • The UK population in 2010 was approximately 62 million. Express the UK population in scientific notation.

  • 6.2 × 107 people (one million = 1 000 000 = 1 × 106)

  • Setting out your calculation using scientific notation, calculate the number of litres of oil consumed on average by each UK resident on each day in 2010.

  • The average annual consumption of oil for each person

    = (9.23 × 1010 litres per year)/(6.2 × 107 people)

    = 1.49 × 103 litres per year per person

    Converting this to a daily consumption:

    = (1.49 × 103 litres per year per person)/(365 days per year)

    = 4.1 litres per person per day

A typical adult needs to ingest up to 3 litres of water in drinks and food each day - so it could be argued that a typical UK adult is responsible for the consumption of more oil than drinking water!

In assessing the importance of oil and its potential replacements, it's inevitable that some numerical comparisons have to be made. This book will include a small number of calculations - in particular, it will be important at times to be able to convert quantities quoted in one set of units into another.

The oil industry tends to measure the quantity of oil in barrels - a rather old-fashioned unit, given the fact that oil is no longer transported in barrels. A careful web search for the world consumption of oil might lead to the annually published BP Statistical Review of World Energy (the source of most of the data in this section), where the value quoted will always be in millions or billions of barrels of oil. The daily global consumption of oil for 2010 is given in the BP Statistical Review as 87 million barrels of oil per day. The price of crude oil is generally given as the price (in US dollars) per barrel. On the other hand, scientists internationally tend to use SI units, where SI is an abbreviation for the Système International d'Unités (International System of Units). Examples of SI units are the kilogram or tonne for mass and the litre for volume. This course uses SI units wherever possible, but on occasions it will be necessary (or just more convenient) to go along with the oil industry and quote values in barrels.

In order to translate the units used in oil industry publications to those more commonly used in scientific publications, you need to be able to convert 'barrels' into standard SI units of mass and volume.

Converting quantities of oil quoted in barrels to litres is relatively straightforward, since one barrel of oil contains a volume of 159 litres. To convert from barrels to tonnes is slightly trickier as it depends on where the oil comes from. Crude oils from different sources have different densities but, on average, one barrel is equivalent to 0.14 tonnes of oil.

  • Express the UK's annual oil consumption for 2010 in barrels, and estimate what the mass of that oil might be in tonnes.

  • The 2010 annual consumption of oil for the UK was 9.23 × 1010 litres.

    Annual consumption in barrels = (9.23 × 1010)/159 = 5.81 × 108 barrels

    Estimated annual consumption in tonnes = 5.81 × 108 × 0.14 = 8.1 × 107 tonnes

Crude oil in its unrefined state is not very useful - it has to be processed to produce the fuels and materials so essential in the modern world. However, for now, you just need to be aware that each barrel of oil undergoes extensive refining and processing to produce fuels and materials. You estimated that each person in the UK consumes around 4 litres of crude oil each day - in the following sections you will explore what that 4 litres is used for.

A note on sources

The statistical data quoted in this section comes from the annually published BP Statistical Review of World Energy which was mentioned above. This is widely accepted as a reliable source, though there are those who have challenged its trustworthiness. Academic publications indicate the sources of the information they have drawn on by using references. This course does not reference every source of information used in the text, as this might distract from the flow of the material.

Activity 1 Living without oil

The estimated time for this activity is 15 minutes.

Watch the 3-minute video clip in which some of the central issues surrounding living without oil are introduced and then answer the questions below. If you have time, you may wish to watch the whole clip through once, and then read the questions before watching the video again. Use the pause button while noting down your answers to each question.

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Video 1
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  • a.The clip states that 'the extraction and use of oil have damaging impacts on local environments and global climate'. Give one example each of
    • the extraction of oil has damaged a local environment
    • the use of oil damages local environments
    • the use of oil has a damaging impact on the global environment.
  • b.What alternatives to oil as a source of transport energy feature in the video?
  • c.There are three broad alternatives to oil-based transport: biologically derived liquid fuels (biofuels), hydrogen and battery electric vehicles. The video makes it clear that all these technologies are likely to be tested in the near future. Which of these, if any, do you personally think is most likely to feature in meeting our transport needs in the long term?


  • a. 

    • i.The extraction of oil can damage local environments through oil spillages; one example would be the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (Section 6.2), though there are many others.
    • ii.The use of oil can damage local environments through air pollution; one example you might mention is the role that particulates from diesel engines play in smog formation, though again you may have chosen other examples (Section 8).
    • iii.The most damaging impact that the use of oil has on the global environment is its contribution to anthropogenic global warming (Section 7).
  • b.The alternatives to oil (which all feature in the video) are:
    • getting oil (biofuels) from algae
    • converting used cooking oil to biodiesel
    • using hydrogen-fuelled cars
    • battery electric vehicles
  • c.Your answer will depend on your point of view, and your view may change. For my part (John Baxter), my experience in writing the course has led me to feel that perhaps battery electric vehicles may dominate the long-term future of transport - but I am far from sure!