Watching the recent desecration of some of Europe’s most famous paintings by vandals affiliated with the group Just Stop Oil has been both horrifying and perplexing.
While the vandals claim they are acting to save the planet, the reality is they are only demonstrating their ignorance of the fundamental realities of modern civilization and the substance that drives our economy. Love it or hate it, oil is a miracle substance. Without it, our economy would come to a grinding halt. Indeed, as I first wrote 12 years ago in my book, Power Hungry, “if oil didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it.”
The importance of oil to modern society is hard to overstate. As industry analyst Art Berman likes to say, “oil is the economy.” According to the Energy Information Administration, “petroleum products accounted for about 90% of the total U.S. transportation sector energy use” in 2021. Six percent came from biofuels (which can only be produced because farmers use oil-fueled tractors and trucks) and the final four percent came from natural gas.
You can loathe Exxon, Chevron, BP, Saudi Aramco, and all the other oil producers if it blows your skirt up, but your feelings about petroleum don’t change the math and physics that have shaped the scale and shape of the energy and power systems that our society has gradually constructed over the past century or so. Nor does it change the reality that nothing else comes close to oil when it comes to energy density, cost, scale, flexibility, ease of handling, and convenience.
Before going further, it’s essential to point out that the demonization of the oil sector is nothing new. Back in 2006, President George W. Bush, a Texan, whose father was in the oil industry, declared during his State of the Union Address that “America is addicted to oil.” This week, President Joe Biden castigated the oil and gas industry for “war profiteering” and threatened to impose new taxes on the sector.
That claim, along with the shenanigans of the Just Stop Oil vandals, ignores the three factors that have made oil an irreplaceable commodity in our economy: energy density, cost, and convenience. Let’s take those in order.
Energy density is a basic metric in physics that’s used to tally the amount of energy (which can be measured in watt-hours, Btus, or joules) contained in a given volume or mass. In the transportation sector, we are particularly concerned with gravimetric energy density because the heavier the energy source, the less cargo can be carried in the vehicle. So how do batteries stack up?
The latest Tesla batteries have an energy density of about 300 Wh/kg. For comparison, both gasoline and diesel contain about 13,000 Wh/kg, that’s 43 times more. Even if we account for the greater efficiency of electric vehicles, that’s still a staggering difference. And it helps explain why, after more than 100 years in the marketplace, electric vehicles still are an also-ran in the new-car market. Yes, EV sales are setting new records. But thus far in 2022, pure EVs accounted for less than 6% of all new car sales. (About 576,000 new EVs were sold out of 10.3 million new cars sold through the first three quarters of the year.)
The second issue is cost. Consumers like to complain about motor fuel prices, but here’s another fact: according to the Energy Information Administration, the price of gasoline today, on an inflation-adjusted basis, is about the same as it was in the mid-1970s. A gallon of gasoline costs less than a gallon of milk. Furthermore, for all the hype about electric vehicles – and there is a staggering amount of it – they are still largely bought by the Benz and Beemer crowd. Last year, a data analytics firm called BlastPoint found that the average annual household income for EV buyers is about $150,000, that’s more than two times the median household income in the U.S. last year, which according to the Census Bureau, was about $71,000.
Finally, gasoline is convenient to use. It’s relatively easy to store in low-cost tanks. Plus, thanks to its high energy density, we can refuel our vehicles in two or three minutes. By comparison, recharging an electric car can take hours.
These facts are evident to anyone who dares to look at the fundamentals of our society. And they bring to mind something that a colorful railroad lawyer named Don Cheatham told me more than two decades ago. He said, “without transportation, there is no commerce.” Cheatham’s point is clearly true. But it leads to a corollary point, which is that without oil, there is no transportation. Therefore, without transportation, there is no commerce and without commerce, modern society collapses.
The punchline here is obvious: The vandals at Just Stop Oil, aren’t just committing vandalism, what they are advocating would result in the destruction of modern society. And it’s remarkable how casually they are doing so. In a YouTube video posted on November 1, two unnamed young British women from Just Stop Oil declare that the group will “pause its campaign of civil resistance” to give policymakers time to give in to their demands and halt all drilling for oil and gas. And if the government doesn’t agree to their demands by today, November 4, they said Just Stop Oil will step up their hooliganism and disruption.
I watched the video several times. The two women claim they want a “livable future for all, without oil.” But the tone of their voices -- and their demands -- sound like what you might hear from members of a cult, or kidnappers, or a terrorist organization. And come to think of it, those are all pretty apt descriptors for Just Stop Oil.
Robert Bryce is the host of the Power Hungry Podcast, executive producer of the documentary, Juice: How Electricity Explains the World, and the author of six books, including most recently, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations. Follow him on Twitter and TikTok: @pwrhungry