Despite Calvin’s fear of monsters, humanity has been putting monster theories to rest for centuries. In September of 1522 the remnants of Magellan’s Expedition returned to Europe and let contemporaries know that what lay beyond the horizon was not some monstrous void, but instead a series of oceans and landmasses wrapped around the Earth. As science advanced it became clear that all humans have lungs, a brain, a heart, and the same need to eat, experience joy, and the ability to endure emotional damage. However, while we were obliterating monsters of old, we were also creating new ones: tax laws, credit agencies, and Dr. Pepper. Of all the new monsters that we have created, though, fossil fuels are the worst, but not in the ways that most people imagine.
April 20th, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico on the Deepwater Horizon rig methane was able to shoot up from the ocean floor and explode into the drilling rig ultimately causing the rig to sink. Eleven people were killed, a number of others were injured, and it would take 87 days before BP and others were able to seal the well and stop the stream of oil from continuing to gush into the ocean. The fallout from the incident also saw people in the fishing and tourism industries lose about $300M in combined revenue due to the severe negative impacts of the event on the marine ecosystem. As of 2020, BP has spent about $70B in costs related to the Deepwater Horizon event. Besides the risk of dying on an oil rig and the constant risk of an explosion, there are additional risks to working on oil rigs. Not only are oil platforms in the middle of the ocean and frequently battered by weather events, like supercells, but rig personnel are required to stay on them for two or three consecutive weeks before they can rotate off. This means that those people have to give up invaluable moments with friends and family just to produce a barrel of oil.
Furthermore, working in isolation is not limited to those on oil rigs but it also includes those people who work long hours dragging gasoline from a refinery to locations many hundreds of miles away. Even employees at oil refineries have to work in a hazardous environment as well as a toxic environment. The chemicals involved in refining petroleum are not harmless and the chance of a lethal explosion is a constant menace. Some refinery workers also work in seclusion such as those that work in the northern part of Alaska in the U.S. In other words, to simply produce a barrel of oil means asking someone to potentially die or to have minimal contact with family and friends for consecutive days, consecutive weeks, and/or to work in a constantly hostile environment. In the United States, the long hours and isolation have perhaps reached a tipping point. A recent article on cnn.com states that fossil fuel transportation companies are having a very difficult time finding enough drivers to transport it from hubs to individual fueling stations. For many, the uncertainty of oil in last year’s environment was a good excuse to get out of oil, and between that uncertainty and the separation from home not many people are eager to get into the petroleum industry.
For the past several years a ship converted decades ago from transporting oil to floating oil storage and offloading vessel (FSO) that used to help move petroleum out of Yemen has been operating with a minimal crew and even less government help or oversight. Part of the reason is that there is no stable government in Yemen and the other part is that the FSO has proven to be a semi-useful bargaining chip of the Houthis government. However, the FSO has decayed over the past 10 years just like the political situation has in Yemen, and each day brings us closer to the day when a stray spark ignites the contents of the oil vessel. If that were to happen it would most likely result in the crew of the vessel being killed instantly, and even more human hardship in Yemen as well as billions of dollars in clean-up costs, billions that it would take decades for Yemen to cobble together. Such an explosion would also significantly negatively impact the fishing industry in Yemen, an industry that Yemen literally cannot live without.
August 9th, 1990 in South Auckland, New Zealand, and April 29th, 2007 in Oakland, California represent simpler but no less damaging consequences of fossil fuels. August 9th was a normal day for most people, but for Shirley Young and firefighter Royd Kennedy, that day altered every following day for the rest of their lives. On the evening of the 9th, a tanker truck with 30,000+ liters of gasoline smashed into the vehicle that 12-year-old Shirley Young was in, and Shirley ended up trapped under the tanker. It immediately started to spill its contents, and seconds later the tanker caught on fire. Over an hour later Shirley and Roy (who had rushed in to help her) were evacuated from the disaster, but not before their bodies were altered in dramatic ways. On April 29th early in the morning a semi hauling gasoline smashed into a guard rail and burst into flames on a major interchange in Oakland. The resulting fire melted in half an overpass that was above it, caused damage to the road the explosion happened on and made a morning commute for thousands of people a lot harder. After weeks of traffic congestion and after spending over $10M the damage from the explosion was finally remedied.
There are certainly further hidden costs of petroleum beyond the above examples such as money and time lost to smog checks. Yet, the above examples prove clearly that petroleum’s costs to this world are as much hidden as they are visible, but whether hidden or visible the outcome is the same: human suffering. Certainly, Shirley Young’s life is forever altered in painful ways was of no help to her and those close to her. People dying on Deepwater Horizon and people in the fishing industry having their livelihoods negatively impacted by that rig did not benefit from petroleum either. Almost as bad is asking people to go consecutive days without seeing their family or friends. In an already volatile situation, like the one Yemen has been facing, a literal ticking time bomb also only further needlessly endangers human lives and the stability of this planet. If someone has to die to produce a barrel of oil, miss the joy of seeing his or her daughter take her first steps, or work with hazardous chemicals to create a gallon of gasoline, then there can be no benefit to the end-user.
However, if fossil fuels go the way of the dinosaurs, then what will take their place? Luckily, hydrogen fuel cells are ready to take over. The use of hydrogen in fuel cells is spectacularly simple. Hydrogen is stored in a tank, similar to a gasoline tank, and when the fuel cell is engaged hydrogen goes from the storage tank into the fuel cell. As hydrogen enters the fuel cell its electrons are peeled off, fed into an electric motor, and then that electricity stream can power a boat, building, train, or a regular passenger vehicle. Simply put, wherever fossil fuels can be used so can hydrogen. After being used by the electric motor the electrons are sent back to the fuel cell and through a natural process combine with oxygen, which creates pure water. The water then can be expelled or stored for use later to water plants and so forth. With hydrogen fuel cells there will be no loss in jobs since hydrogen is only helping to create jobs, and best of all pure hydrogen is non-toxic and can be created very close to where it is pumped into homes or vehicles. Therefore, hydrogen workers can come home every night, and at work, they are free from being around hazardous chemicals and tempestuous oceans. As an added bonus passenger vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, such as the Hyundai Nexo, do not require making sacrifices like a Tesla does, such as long charging times. A Nexo can be refueled in about 5 minutes, they have a range similar to a Rav4, they are quiet, and they are more reliable than a gasoline vehicle since they have fewer parts and less chance of something going sideways.
Thanks to human expansion and information sharing we know that ogres, trolls, goblins, and many other creatures do not exist except in books and in the minds of creative thinkers. While we were laying those myths to rest, though, humanity created very real monsters in fossil fuels and those monsters have been robbing us of joy and life ever since. However, we are at a pivotal moment in history where we have the chance to start correcting a lot of the mistakes that were made in the 20th century. The worst part of making a mistake is not the mistake itself; instead, the worst part is not admitting to the mistake and not doing everything possible to correct it. It is now time to move completely away from fossil fuels, fully embrace hydrogen, and in so doing show future generations one of the best qualities humans possess: redemption. If we fail in any way to do those things, then future generations will not bestow on us something of equal value: forgiveness.