What is in Crude Oil?

When we think of crude oil we probably don’t think of much unless we are somehow connected to a science or oil career.  Our image of pumping oil from the ground or from the ocean floor probably involves some sort of pipe with black sludge flowing out of it.  What Joel Achenbach explains in his book A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea is that the oil, and the process of pumping that oil, is far more complex than what we imagine.  To help us understand what happened during the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, he spends time detailing what exactly comes out of the ground when pumping oil, and what must be sent back into the ground to replace what comes up.  We don’t just pull up oil as we drill, but we get gas, water, sand, and more, and the men and women working on the oil rigs must account for everything that comes through the pipe.

 

When it comes to the crude oil itself, Achenbach writes about what actually composes the sludge. “There is no single hydrocarbon molecule named “oil.” There is, however, benzene, toluene, m-Xylene, n-heptylbenzene, indene, indan, naphthalene, tetralin, biphenyl, acenaphthylene, flourene, pyrene, chrysene, benzopyrene, pentacene – these just being a partial list of typical aromatic hydrocarbons found in crude oil. There are also hydrocarbon cases: predominantly methane, but also ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hexane, and heptane, and there are other gases mixed in with the hydrocarbons—gases that have more than just hydrogen sulfide, and helium. One also finds traces of phosphorus, iron, nickel, and vanadium.”

 

He details the contents of the crude oil to show that what we pump from the ground is incredibly varied, and hard to predict because of the wide array of compounds often contained.  When BP and scientists around the world raced to close the well in the Gulf of Mexico gushing oil into the ocean, they had to consider the nature of the oil.  Understanding what is in the substance helps us know how it will react to specific situations and how it will behave under different conditions. It also helped us to better understand what the oil would do when it diffused into the ocean.

 

I like the quote above about the oil because it serves to show how large of a disconnect exists in our world between insiders and outsiders when it comes to things like science, technology, and industry.  Achenbach’s book is full of examples of the complex process and nature of drilling for oil that the general population is not aware of.  I spend a lot of time consuming science podcast and blogs, but even then I have only a superficial understanding of any scientific field. Our experts know increasingly more about how our world operates, but that knowledge is increasingly hidden from the general public who is too busy, too stressed, and too preoccupied to learn and engage in scientific studies that use complex language and focus on seemingly obscure subjects. What we must demand as a population is better science communication to help us understand how our engineered world operates.  We must find time to focus on understanding at least part of the complex world around us, if for no reason other than to appreciate the work of science. It may never help me to know that there are so many varieties of contents in crude oil, but it may help me better understand the science that goes into refining oil, and it may help me accept the prices that I pay when I  fuel up my car.

The Gulf

Joel Achenbach explained the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in great detail in his book, A hole at the Bottom of the Sea. He explored what went wrong on the oil platform that exploded and what was done to seal the well at the bottom of the ocean.  Achenbach also explored why we have so much oil off the coast of the United States and Mexico in the Gulf and he wrote, “The gulf has always lacked the deepwater circulation of open ocean. Bad circulation means lots of anoxic layers, dead zones, places where there’s so little oxygen that organic matter doesn’t decay.  That’s great for the eventual creation of oil and gas fields.”

 

His quote is explaining the long history of the Gulf of Mexico and hinting at the dangers that lie in the future for the gulf.  We are currently doing a lot of damage to the gulf, and not just from our oil explorations. Every day we send large amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen into the gulf via the Mississippi river.  Run off from farms and farm communities all along the river lead to a high level of nutrients in the water of the Mississippi river. Our fertilizer intended for our farms and produce eventually washes into the river and all the way down past New Orlean’s into the Gulf of Mexico.  When the large amounts of nutrients reach the gulf we see massive algal and phytoplankton blooms that can be visible from space.  When the blooms die off after absorbing all the nutrients they fall as a giant mat to the bottom of the ocean where they are slowly decomposed in a process that is very oxygen intensive.  The process continues until the water has become depleted of free oxygen, meaning that shellfish, fish, marine mammals, and life in the affected areas of the gulf cannot exist.  Life is smothered by the algal blooms the way that a fire is smothered by a large blanket.  Oxygen is denied from the fire preventing it from continuing to burn, and oxygen is deprived from life inhibiting cellular metabolic functions.

 

This process in the past created situations where lots of carbon based life forms coagulated along the sea floor and became covered over by marine snow, dirt, and debris.  Millions of years after the blooms first appeared on the ocean they are miles and miles below the sea floor in the forms of various hydrocarbon molecules.  We have the ability through complex machinery to drill out the hydrocarbon shells of these million year old algal blooms, but our actions in the United States that feed into the gulf, and our actions in the gulf, put the region in a new type of danger.
Achenbach raises the question in his book of whether we should be pursuing oil in more remote and hard to reach places. We may have the technology, and we may develop the means to reach oil quickly and safely, but it is also possible that our actions and missteps along the way could be incredibly threatening to not just the survival of animals and ecosystems, but also to ourselves. Ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico is a complex ecosystem that we have come to dominate through new technology and ever advancing engineering. At a certain point it is worth recognizing the power we wield over the land, and asking ourselves if we should progress unchecked in our battle against nature to further develop the fuel for our relentless engineering and technological progress.

Saving the Country

In Joel Achenbach’s book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, we are presented with a reality that is very concerning about the designed, engineered, and increasingly complex world that we live in. Our systems today are so well connected and include so many different moving parts that it can be nearly impossible for any single individual to fully understand how everything functions together.  When one, or multiple, parts of a system fail it can have catastrophic and unpredictable results that challenge even those who built the system. Achenbach however, does not look at our world with fear because it is not just our systems that are increasingly interconnected, but also our smart people. Toward the beginning of his book he writes, “You never know when someone’s fantastically esoteric expertise may be called upon to help save the country.”

 

As our problems have become more complex we have developed higher education and research opportunities for individuals  to specialize in increasingly narrow fields. A common refrain heard on college campuses is that as one advances through multiple degrees they know more and more about less and less. Their focus shifts from a broad knowledge base to an increasingly narrow, specific, and complete understanding of a single subject. What this means is that we have many experts in single areas who understand the problems and science related to their field in truly profound ways.

 

When disasters arise and systems fail, which Achenbach believes may happen with increasing frequency in the future, we don’t simply need to rely on the on the ground and local experts, designers, and engineers who built the system that is failing.  Those who may be able to help save our system could be spread across the world and their fields may seem to distinct and far apart to be useful, but Achenbach believes that everyone can combine their individual expertise in novel ways to solve the most complex problems that arise.  As our research grows so do our social networks and our opportunities to combine research in new ways. We may not think that any single piece of research is too critical for our planet, but each scientific view that can be combined increases our perspective of a problem and increase the creativity which can be brought toward our solution.  In his book Achenbach shows the way that scientists from different fields were able to pool their knowledge and perspective to find a solution to a problem that threatened the entire Gulf of Mexico.

Activity Versus Passivity

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius believed that we existed on this planet to be active, creative, thoughtful, and engaged with the world around us.  At multiple points in his book Meditations he reminds us the value of action in our lives and the value of striving to work toward something.  Toward the end of his book brings up the idea directly stating, “Not in passivity, but in activity, lie the evil and the good of the rational social animal, just as his virtue and his vice lie not in passivity, but in activity.” In this short quote he is showing that on our own and without engaging the world our existence is a void. His thoughts in this quote can be better understood when looking at his view of the work we do (regardless of what that work is) which is summed up in a previous quote that I wrote about, “In the morning when though risest unwillingly, let this thought be present—I am rising to do the work of a human being. … Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed clothes and keep myself warm?—But this is more pleasant.—Dost thou exists then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? … and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?”

 

Combining the first quote from above with Aurelius’ outlook on work and human nature helps us see that he believes we are destined to be engaged social beings that strive to accomplish the work that is in front of us and asked of us.  We are not meant to simply keep our bed warm and to exist in isolation in our own comforts.  We may be unwilling to take action in our lives and may simply want to enjoy passivity, but we will not find our meaning in passive moments.  We can build ourselves up in a positive manner only through action, Aurelius explains, but our action also presents the option and chance for negativity.

 

Aurelius interestingly seems to favor the chance for us to be evil and to face danger and peril as opposed to being comfortable and disengaged from the world while passively lounging in our bed.  In his explanation we simply do not exist, neither in good terms not bad, when we don’t engage the world. We don’t have the ability to show the world our virtue if we don’t engage, but we also hide the parts that are evil. Keeping any part of ourselves to just ourselves and not the world, Aurelius would argue, is selfish and against human nature. In his view we should strive to fulfill ourselves as humans by action, even if that produces both positive and negative results. I think Aurelius would further develop the idea of our action leading to both good and bad by encouraging us to focus our thoughts and reflections back upon ourselves, so that we can understand whether we are using our talents in a positive way for ourselves and society, or if we are simply advancing ourselves at the expense of others.

The Consequence of Doing Wrong

Looking at good and bad actions in terms of self-reflection, Marcus Aurelius in his book Meditations provides us with a clear view of the good and bad acts that we do.  “He who does wrong does wrong against himself. He who acts unjustly acts unjustly himself, because he makes himself bad.” In this simple quote Aurelius gives us a powerful reason not to do bad acts, and he reminds us why we must build honest self-reflection and practices of self-awareness in our lives.

When we do not take the time to honestly assess ourselves and evaluate our lives we allow ourselves to live in a world where we see ourselves as always correct and always acting in the most logical of ways. If we do reflect on how we behave and the decisions we make, it often does not take long to peel back the gilded surface and recognize our flaws.  We may tell ourselves that we are always nice people who treat others with respect and give them the benefit of the doubt, but just under our surface we may see that we yell at people on the highway, tailgate, or have particular driving habits that are meant to simply annoy someone around us.  A small dose of honest self-reflection can help us see these areas where our behaviors do not align with our self-talk and our beliefs about the people we are.

Aurelius’ quote takes the idea of self-reflection beyond the easy to find reflections of why we should be nice while driving on the freeway, and extends it to areas far beyond. He argues that we should strive to be cognizant of the negative aspects of our life so that we can change them. When we allow our shortcomings to exist, we allow ourselves to be bad people, or at least not the best version of ourselves.  Recognizing when we have an opportunity to do bad, and understanding how our bad actions are diminishing, even if they don’t harm others, can help us grow to be more aligned with the views that we hold or wish to hold about ourselves.

Unbiased

One of the benefits of an increased awareness and sense of presence that Marcus Aurelius wrote about in his common place book Meditations, is the ability to begin to see things without as much bias.  He wrote his book to remind himself of lessons and values that he wished to build into his life, and this helped him create habits of self-awareness, self-reflection, and presence of mind to remain grounded and focused on the most important parts of his life.  What Aurelius found, and what I think we all can experience when working on goals related to self-awareness, self-reflection, or focusing on the present moment, is that those habits open new thoughts and new perspectives for us. For Aurelius a life built upon these foundations provided an ability to see the world with less bias.

 

“Say nothing more to thyself than what the first appearances report. Suppose that it has been reported to thee that a certain person speaks ill of thee. This has been reported; but that thou has been injured, that has not been reported. I see that my child is sick. I do see; but that he is in danger, I do not see. Thus then always abide by the first appearances, and add nothing thyself from within, and then nothing happens to thee.”

 

Through a practice of honestly evaluating oneself combined with a focus on the present moment, Aurelius believed that we could begin to see the world in a more honest way. We can’t ever see the world from every perspective possible, and we can’t fully understand the thoughts and motivations of others, but we can separate our emotional responses and pulls from the events and actions of the world around us.  Before acting and making decisions about things that happen around us or happen to us, we can take a step back and evaluate our world without the filters that tend to shape our decisions.

 

To me what this looks like in practice is slowing down our decisions and recognizing when we are bringing our own bias into a conversation. Honest self-reflection will allow us to see where our biases impact our thinking, and self-awareness will help us to understand when those biases are determining the perspective through which we are interpreting the world. When a family member or friend says something to me that is not the most flattering, Aurelius would encourage me to look at more perspectives to evaluate whether that individual is intentionally trying to harm me, or if they are being honest about the way that I present myself.  The Emperor’s thoughts also manifest in our political lives where our ideology and party affiliation has been built into our individual identity.  We can listen to political observations or statements from people who are from the same party or background as ourselves and approve of what they say, but it is much harder to honestly listen to people who we know are from a different party or background as ourselves. Remembering Aurelius’ quote may help us to see they message without a filter pre-determining whether or not we think the individual or their message is right or wrong. This will allow us to increase our thought and be more considerate of the world around us.

Obstacles and Opinions

In his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius talks about overcoming obstacles by changing our perspectives and judgements surrounding the difficulties that we face.  In his view, we are not directly affected by challenges and obstacles in our lives, but our mental state determines how we are limited or impacted. For Aurelius, how we will respond to and handle the obstacles that we do encounter is entirely up to our own decision making power.  We choose to see something as negative and detrimental to us, and we react accordingly. In Meditations he writes,

 

“If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it.  And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now.  But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost though not rather act than complain?”

 

This quote speaks to me because it becomes so easy to complain about or lives or parts of our lives rather than to take action to change our behavior or thoughts.  What Aurelius is reminding himself in this passage is that we have the power to determine what our outcome will be when faced with a challenge, and we can take steps to achieve what we would like during struggles rather than complaining about what is in front of us.

 

We may not find the perfect solution to every problem and it may not seem that we are much better off after any particular challenge, but we can always grow and learn from our difficulties.  Shifting our perspective helps us better understand the obstacles we face and gives us the ability to see the ways in which obstacle can help us grow.  It is in our power to see what we do not like and to take steps to improve it.  We can choose to complain and become cynical, or we can move forward, leaning into the obstacle and using it to help propel us in the direction we want.