Oil A Beginners Guide by Vaclav Smil
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Oil A Beginners Guide by Vaclav Smil

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Oil A Beginners Guide Contents

  • Oil’s benefits and burdens
  • What oil is and how it was formed
  • How oil is found and where it has been discovered
  • How oil is produced, transported  and processed
  • How long will oil last? 
  • Appendix A Units, abbreviations, and  their definitions and conversions
  • Appendix B Additional reading and  websites

Preface to Oil A Beginners Guide PDF

Like the other books in this series (including my previous book on energy), this is not a guide for the beginner in the strictest sense. In this particular case, a certain amount of basic scientific understanding (above all reasonable numeracy) is essential.

The minimum entry-level for this book could be specified as an equivalent of the North American high school education; a year or two of university studies (no matter in what subject) would make for an easier read but, as always, it is not formal qualifications but individual interest, inquisitiveness and willingness to learn that matter most.

From that point of view readers who could profit from this book range from true beginners to people who know a great deal about a specific segment of the vast oil-centered enterprise but who would like to learn more about other aspects of this inherently interdisciplinary subject of scientific inquiry.

The book teems with numbers (I am sure too many for some tastes) but I make no apologies for this: a real understanding of oil’s origins, geology, exploration, extraction, transportation, processing, use

And linkages to society and the environment can come only by appreciating the magnitudes of specific time spans, depths, volumes, durations, rates, cumulative totals, concentrations, prices, subsidies, and costs that define and govern this vast global endeavor.

As for the multitude of technical terms, I have tried to explain them (however briefly) whenever they are first used. All units and their abbreviations are listed in appendix A, and appendix B offers a dozen books for additional reading and a small selection of highly informative websites.

This is my twenty-fifth book, and writing it was enjoyable, but not particularly easy: for every interesting bit of information, for every number and for every conclusion that I have included I had to leave out several times the number of fascinating facts, explanations and useful asides pointing in unexpected directions.

Squeezing the universe of oil into 60,000 words of text was an unending exercise in truncation and exclusion.

And although this does not excuse all omissions and imperfections of the book, I ask both the experts (who might be incensed by the absence of matters they would have considered essential) and the true beginners (who would have wished for more extensive explanations) to keep in mind the fundamental restriction under which I had to labor.

Finally, my thanks to Marsha Filion for giving me another opportunity to write (within the word count bounds) without any bounds, and to Douglas Fast for preparing another crisp set of appropriate images.

World of Oil

If history is seen as a sequence of progressively more remarkable energy conversions then oil, or more accurately a range of liquids produced from it, has earned an incomparable place in human evolution.

Conversions of these liquids in internal combustion engines have expanded human horizons through new, and more affordable means of personal and mass transportation.

Anybody with a car in a country with decent highways can travel more than 1,000 km in the course of one day (in Europe this could entail driving in four countries).

Any city with a runway long enough to accommodate large jets can now be reached from any other city on the Earth in less than twenty hours of flying time, and trips to Bali or Mauritius are no more exotic than those to Birmingham or Munich.

Liquid fuels have created new landscapes of concrete and asphalt highways, overpasses, parking lots, shopping mega centers, and endless urban sprawl. Private cars also provide unprecedented access to choice.

They make it easy to buy imported foodstuffs in a store at the other end of a town or to drive, on the spur of the moment, to a restaurant, symphony concert or a football game.

They make it possible to live far away from a place of work, to set one’s own schedule during vacation drives, to spend free time far from home by fishing or inside a garage installing monster engines and wheels or minutely reconstructing vintage car models.

Liquid fuels, through the combination of fast ships and massive eighteen-wheeler trucks, have brought us Chilean apricots and South African grapes in January and garlic and ginger from China and the Philippines all year round.

Liquid fuels have also helped to rationalize productive processes ranging from farming to retailing, changes that include such remarkable organizational feats as just-in-time delivery of goods (large assembly plants working without expensive part inventories) and such profound macroeconomic changes as the runaway globalization of manufacturing where everything seems to be made twelve time zones away.

Modern life now begins and ends amidst the plethora of plastics whose synthesis began with feedstocks derived from oil – because hospitals teem with them.

Surgical gloves, flexible tubing, catheters, IV containers, sterile packaging, trays, basins, bedpans and rails, thermal blankets and labware: naturally, you are not aware of these surroundings when a few hours or a few days old, but most of us will become all too painfully aware of the six, seven or eight decades later.

And that recital was limited only to common hospital items made of polyvinylchloride: countless other items fashioned from a huge variety of plastics are in our cars, airplanes, trains, homes, offices, and factories.

But if the new oil-derived world has been quasi-miraculous, enchanting, and full of unprecedented opportunities, it has been also one of the dubious deals, nasty power plays, endless violence, economic inequalities, and environmental destruction.

Ever since its beginnings, the high stakes of the oil business have attracted shady business deals (from J.D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil to Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos) and begat some questionable alliances (be it the US and Saudi Arabia or China and Sudan).

Oil ownership and the riches it provides have empowered dictators (from Muammar al-QaddaAfAh to Saddam Husain), emboldened autocrats (Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez being only the latest prominent examples)

Financed terrorists (including much of al-Qaida's murderous activities), encouraged massive corruption (be it in Nigeria or Indonesia), promoted ostentatiously excessive consumption (mastered by the legions of Saudi princes as well as by new Russian oligarchs)

Engendered enormous income inequalities and done little for personal freedoms and the status of women. Many (perhaps too many) books about oil have looked at these economic, social, and political linkages.

I will begin by briefly examining oil in this context before going on to explore the innumerable quotidian tasks of discovering, producing, transporting, refining, and marketing the requisite volume of oil, a mass that now amounts to 4 billion tons a year.

Once appreciated, these actions are no less fascinating than the world of political oil intrigues, and only their cumulatively immense ingenuity has made crude oil the single most important source of primary energy in our world.

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