Oil: A Imprecise History
Most people think oil comes from decomposed dinosaurs. It doesn’t. Oil comes from plant and marine life much older than the dinosaurs, when Earth was covered in mostly water and the atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide and our planet seemed like no place for high tea.
Come with me on a journey. Imagine a prehistoric strand of seaweed in near pitch-black darkness, anchored to a still ocean floor. The seedling sprouts from a chalky surface and stretches up towards the last few photons of sunlight capable of reaching this depth. Its smooth, green tentacle sways and twists side to side with the ocean’s deep water currents. It’s completely silent. Even the woosh of water doesn’t make a sound. It’s cold, dark, and quiet, for what feels like an eternity.
A ghostly-looking fish with more bones than innards bites through the seaweed’s midsection. The fish jets away and the upper half of the seaweed tumbles to the seafloor, joining other plant remnants. Pebbles, unlucky fish, and more plants pile onto the seaweed over the subsequent weeks, months, and years. Before long, the seaweed is completely covered with organic debris.
Years turn into decades. Decades turn into centuries. Centuries turn into millennia. As time passes, the weight of the organic debris changes the very structure of the seaweed. From solid to liquid. A molecular shift. Unrecognizable. Hundreds of thousands of years turn into millions of years. Tens of millions of years. Even hundreds of million years. A deafening silence, all that time. The vast, unimaginable weight of the world above, and the incomprehensible emptiness. Waiting. Waiting.
And then the ground around the prehistoric leaf trembles. A sub-perceptible vibration at first, then a little louder. There’s shaking. The noise of drills and shovels and suction. The clang of metal against rock as old as Earth itself. Suddenly, the seaweed’s lithic home cracks apart and it’s sucked into a giant, rusted pipe.
The seaweed is blasted into its constituent parts and “refined”. Transformed. It now has become a drop or two of this new, amber-tinted substance, coursing through pipes, back and forth. Back and forth. There’s yelling outside the pipes.
The transformed seaweed is almost at its final pitstop. From underground to above ground for the last time. Pre-pay at the pump. The transformed seaweed sloshes around a small tank. Splash, splash, stop. Splash, splash, stop.
This marine and plant life takes an incalculably long time and an unfathomable journey from the bowels of our planet to the surface, where we light it on fire and make it explode in precise ways. These controlled explosions ultimately power miracles in this energy-hungry world we’ve built. Hospitals’ neonatal incubators, the pixels on our work monitors, the lightbulbs dangling over our family dining tables. Our shiniest memories are possible because of the infinite journey oil has taken.
But sometimes, this liquid gold is combusted in a 1998 Corolla driven by an overweight woman speeding through a yellow on her way to a Wendy’s drive-thru in rural Arkansas.
I wonder how the seaweed feels about that.