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Randy Udall,

with Steve Andrews ©2001 Randy Udall

uring the last century, oil has

transformed the world. British coal launched the Industrial Revolution,

but American petroleum put the pedal to the metal. No other material has so profoundly changed the face of the world in such a short time. Petroleum is black magic, the lifeblood of our civilization.

The petroleum industry provides 40 percent of the globe’s energy, and is humanity’s largest commercial enterprise. Oil is our most concentrated, flexible, and convenient fuel. Without petroleum, there would be no automobile industry and no tourism. Without petroleum, 2 percent of Americans could not feed the remaining 98 percent.

But oil is more than energy. It’s the key feedstock for plastics, medicines, clothing, pesticides, paint, and thousands of other products. Fueling Toyota or fabricated into Tupperware, petroleum is the world’s premier commodity. Soon, experts say, world oil production will reach an all-time high, an apex, a peak. Then, after a short plateau, it will decline forever. What historians will someday call the Oil Era will last only about 250 years. In 2000, we are closer to the era’s end than to its beginning.

The Oil Tribe

In 1859, oil was struck in Pennsylvania. The magic fluid unleashed Yankee ingenuity, put America on wheels, and helped to create the world’s richest superpower. The transformation was unimaginably swift. In 1859, Americans traveled on horseback; in 1969 they drove Mustangs and flew to the Moon.

Today it is difficult to overstate oil’s importance to the American economy. We have almost five percent of the world’s people, but we use 25 percent of the world’s oil—nearly 20 million barrels per day. We are the Oil Tribe, the Petroleum Clan, imbibing about 3 gallons per person per day. The automobile is our most cherished icon, a new car our symbol of success.

The Oil Age: A Brief Fling in Human History

1820

World production will peak by 2020

2020 2220

We are here

Home Power #81 • February / March 2001 43

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