When did planet Earth become Planet Oil?

By Prof Iain Stewart
Presenter, Planet Oil

media captionProfessor Iain Stewart explains how oil is believed to have health benefits

The truth is that most people have no inkling of the world that lies beneath their feet, or where the bulk of their current energy fix comes from.

When we flick the light switch or kettle, ancient plant and animal material, that formed hundreds of millions of years ago, are consumed in an instant.

The ancient geological past is powering the present, but for how much longer?

How ironic that our modern world is so hopelessly wedded to a substance that began life tens of millions of years ago.

And yet it is the liberation of that fossil solar energy tens of millions of years later that transformed the planet and redefined us as a species.

It is that transformation that I'm fascinated by and why I wanted to make this three-part series about our addiction to crude and to help me answer a fundamental question.

image captionProf Iain Stewart's three-part series is about our addiction to crude oil

When did planet Earth become Planet Oil?

It's a series that's also been a personal journey.

My childhood and teenage years were spent oblivious to the stunning advances in petroleum science and technology that evolved furiously to exploit the buried bonanza off our shores.

I was born in November 1964.

A huge gas field had been discovered off the coast of Holland a few years earlier and geologists soon worked out that the very same hydrocarbon-bearing rocks ran all the way to the British coast.

By December 1964, the race was on to find oil and gas in the British sector of the North Sea.

The well drilled that winter was dry. But the following year, the Sea Gem drilling platform hit pay dirt, or rather natural gas.

The euphoria was short lived after disaster struck on Boxing Day 1965, with 14 men losing their lives.

image captionStatoil oil platform in the North Sea

It was an inauspicious start of what would become an engineering revolution that turned the UK's energy fortunes around.

By the time I was starting primary school, attention had shifted to the deeper waters northeast of Aberdeen and the first oil fields had been found - Brent and Forties - so-called "giant" fields that rivalled those of the Middle East.

My school days were punctuated by evening news footage of the latest platform being dragged out of yards and off to the wilds of the North Sea.

As a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 20-year-old geology student, my subject always seemed to be in the news.

During the early 80s, Margaret Thatcher was at war with coal, or rather Britain's miners.

Thatcher had vowed the UK's coal supply would never again be held to ransom by the National Union of Mineworkers and I remember at the time, it was like watching a fight to the death.

British governments had been here before, during the 1970s, but this time the balance of power had shifted.

Britain was no longer dependent on British Coal or the workers who mined it.

Thatcher's pledge to build more oil and gas-fired power stations helped put an end to both the strike and many of the mines that had fed the UK's insatiable appetite for coal for more than a century.

image captionBalakhani oil field, in Azerbaijan

And the prime minister's promise was made in the knowledge Britain was for the first time in decades, energy secure - because the UK now belonged to a very exclusive club.

The North Sea was producing so much crude oil; we had become a net exporter and the wealth it generated flooded into the UK treasury.

Britain was awash with oil money.

The economy was booming.

So much so, that by the mid-80s, most of the students I shared my geology course at university with were immediately recruited into the swelling ranks of the offshore energy industry.

I took a different route, following an academic career that now finds me training students for geo-science careers, many of whom will go into the industry.

But in all other aspects I am a product of our homegrown hydrocarbon age - tupperware parties - polyester and new materials - fertilisers - I am Hydrocarbon Man.

As we show in this series, crude oil is a fuel which has come to dominate both our daily lives and the modern world.

It's also been used as a powerful weapon in international politics.

For much of the 20th century, global history and the environment were shaped by nation states whose acquisitive and aggressive foreign policies were determined by unsustainable economic growth and energy consumption.

As carbon energy sources became finite and the oil producing nations struggled to take back control of their own oil from Western energy companies, the oil and gas fields of the Middle East became a focus for coup d'états and military conflict.

Come the 70s, this is why the stakes were so high.

Plagued by the energy crises rooted in the Middle East, it became a race against time to find alternative supplies in the shallow, but turbulent waters of the North Sea.

Through the development of deep sea drilling technology, once inaccessible and unviable oil reserves suddenly became viable.

It was the moment when Western Europe and the US finally unshackled themselves from their 20th century energy security nightmare.

In 2015, the North Sea oil industry will be 50 years old.

The truth is, our backyard has now become what the industry calls 'mature'.

A lot of the infrastructure out there has reached the end of its working life.

Many of the oil fields are on the decline. But while the former energy goldmine is fast becoming a fossil fuel graveyard, Britain is now poised to take the lead in developing the decommissioning technologies and facilities for dismantling and disposing of the ageing pipes and platforms that once supplied our energy golden age.

While decommissioning lacks the glamour of the booming 80s, Britain also leads the way in enhanced oil recovery technology or EOR for short.

EOR basically means sucking Planet Oil dry.

The age of what we call 'easy' oil is over.

The age of discovering vast new reserves like the North Sea has passed, so we're now left with oil that's more difficult - and expensive - to extract from existing reserves.

And that's because as wells age, they fill with water rather than oil, so extracting the remaining oil starts getting very complicated.

In the eyes of many in the industry, the North Sea is one of the test beds - a proving ground - for these new super-smart ways of draining the bottom of Nature's barrel.

With new technology extending the life of conventional wells, and "unconventional" alternative fuels like shale gas and oil being extracted in many parts of the world, it seems the Hydrocarbon Age will extend well into the 21st Century.

But the dilemma we face is that while there are plenty of fossil fuels left in the ground, can we really afford to burn what's left?

It is pretty clear to anyone that looks at the science that much of the remaining oil and gas reserves have to stay right where they are, if we're to avert the runaway effects of dangerous climate change.

As the latest report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes clear, an important tool in our carbon emissions reduction strategy must include the capture of CO2 and other greenhouse gases and their permanent storage underground - Carbon Capture Storage (CCS).

And this is where the North Sea might well play another vital and final role.

The idea is something deceptively simple.

Carbon dioxide emissions from the UK's power stations would be captured, and existing pipes in the North Sea would be used to transport it to decommissioned and re-configured platforms, where the waste emissions would be pumped down into the empty reservoirs that once provided us with natural gas.

The big vision is that this technology can be applied in any country and across a number of industries and would eventually be rolled out across the world.

CCS seems to offer us the chance to keep burning fossil fuels. But there are questions over its viability.

Some fear that the stored carbon dioxide could leak, and others point out that implementing this on an industrial scale is possibly decades away.

But the fact that British energy companies are at the forefront of developing CCS technology, means that the extraordinary North Sea story is far from over.

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