Society has become dependent on oil, and itís easy to see why: after all, it’s so convenient! One gallon of oil can propel a ton of metal (i.e. a car) over dozens of miles, for just a few dollars. Imagine the effort it would take to push the same vehicle over that kind of distance. Itís been calculated that in terms of energy a gallon of oil is the equivalent of 8¬—80 weeks of human work.
Another advantage of this type of fuel is that it is highly concentrated, easy to use, and easy to transfer. It only takes a minute to fill a tank with fuel. It would take a whole night to transfer the equivalent amount of electricity. Coal, which has to be shoveled into a furnace, is even less practical.
The enormous quantities of energy contained in fossil fuels derive from organic matter which has decomposed over tens of millions of years. This matter originally captured solar energy, so you could say that oil is a pocketful of sunshine. But this is also why oil is not a renewable source of energy —not at least in terms of human lifespans.
Oil is also remarkably cheap, considering the functions it performs. For a long time all you had to do was dig a hole in the ground (in the right place of course) to recover it. Today, the price of oil includes prospecting, extraction, refinement, distribution, and speculation. But it does not include the cost to the environment; nor the financial investment that will be required to produce an alternative energy source when it finally runs out.
Oil, and before it coal and other fossil fuels, have transformed our society and been fundamental to the development of modern chemistry, plastics, and fertilizers. Fossil fuels have enabled us to operate machines at a rate previously unimaginable, accelerating our way of life on a global scale. But we will have to wean ourselves off oil. Only a limited amount remains. And burning hydrocarbons releases large quantities of greenhouse gases, which are responsible for climate change.