To What Extent Are the Environmental Impacts of the Global Increase in Demand for Oil Acceptable?

To what extent are the environmental impacts of the global increase in demand for oil acceptable? [15 marks] After the industrial revolution, the demand for oil has been increasing globally. Over 100 million tonnes of oil are transported around the world on average a day.

There are countries like the US which consume almost one quarter of global oil output, which must be supplied from oil reserves, usually from countries like Saudi Arabia (Guinness, 2011, p. 245). This shows that the topic of oil consumption is a global issue as all countries need oil to develop and provide for their populations. The issue with this large consumption of oil is the fact that oil is a non-renewable source of energy and therefore has a limit.

Oil is formed from the remains of dead plants and animals in underground rock which is found in marine areas and therefore requires technology such as pipelines and drilling machines to extract the oil. The implications of this has caused serious environmental consequences which questions whether extracting oil to supply the demands of the world’s population should be permitted when the environment has to pay the cost, examples being oil leaks into the sea and the effects of that.

With a growing global population, energy companies are trying to find sources of energy and are therefore trying to construct pathways and routes to constantly feed people’s needs and demands. This has lead to companies searching and drilling for oil in fragile environments, such as the Alaska pipeline which crosses 3 mountain ranges.

The reason why companies are looking into areas full of permafrost is because global warming is causing the ice in the Arctic Circle to melt and oil rich sea beads are now being uncovered. The implementation of the Alaska pipeline has not caused any major environmental problems as many obstacles had been avoided when constructing this project, such as raising the pipeline on stilts so that that the heated oil would not cause the ice to melt.

However, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which occurred in 1989 did take place and still affects the environment, animal species and humans to this day. The oil tanker named Exxon Valdez was carrying 1.2 million barrels of oil when it ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, spilling 240 000 barrels.

The oil slick eventually covered 25 000 km2 coastal and off-shore waters and 1700km of coastline (RGS Worcester, n.d., para. 2). A major oil spill like this has resulted in devastating environmental impacts, which has caused social and economical impacts as well. The clean-up process, which included burning the oil (relatively effective as it reduced 113,400 liters of oil to 1,134 liters of removable residue), spraying chemicals on the oil which reached the shoreline and mechanical cleanup methods, did not eradicate the oil fast enough as the environmental impacts are still present after 21 years. 10000 people were involved in the clean up and it took 4 summers and cost 2 billion dollars.

This large number of people put their jobs on hold and attended to the effects of the oil spill, which could have caused a decline in the economy in Alaska (Exxon Valdez oil spill, n.d., para. 5). The biggest impact of the oil spill was on the wildlife. Some 2,000 sea otters, 302 harbor seals and about 250,000 seabirds died within a few days after the oil spill (Graham, 2003, para. 1). A decrease in biodiversity and the ecosystems in Alaska affect the environment significantly as it disrupts food chains and causes animals like ducks and other marine animals to lose their source of food. The biggest impact, in terms of wildlife, is the herring population and the effect on the herring industry in Alaska

. The spill occurred during spawning season that the inlets and bays where herring traditionally laid their eggs were choked with oil. Within four years, the herring population has disappeared. This has affected Alaskans in terms of their jobs and their source of food. Permits to fish herring commercially had been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars before the spill but became worthless, leaving many fishermen facing huge amounts of debt. Farmers used to earn 150000 dollars a year but this has dropped to 5000 dollars, showing the extent of the impact of the loss of herring (BBC News, 2010, para.

9). A weaker economy results in economical problems within the area and a change in employment structure as children of these fisherman can no longer have the opportunity to be a herring farmer. Economic problems can also result in social problems such as domestic violence, alcohol abuse, suicides and divorces, mainly due to massive unemployment.

This example shows that the environmental impacts can have their own impacts, which again questions whether the extraction of oil is worth all these consequences. After 21 years, 20000 gallons of oil still remain on the beaches of Prince William Sound (BBC News, 2010, para. 30). Therefore, the clean up hasn’t been very effective. It’s also worth pointing out that maybe all the environmental impacts still haven’t been determined, for example the soil and vegetation could also have been affected by the oil spill as the oil may have seeped through the sand of the beaches.

This would affect the growth of vegetation drastically. People don’t know enough to predict how long the effects are going to last as they can range from years to centuries. One wonders how long countries can continue to extract and consume oil when they still don’t fully know the extent of the environmental effects of oil spills and if their chances of occurring are more likely. The production of oil is also a process which causes a variety of negative effects on the environment.

An example is the tar sands oil extraction in Canada – the country which supplies the US with the most oil as it doesn’t have issues regarding transport, weather and the fact that there are pipeline installed from Canada to the US. There is enough natural gas to heat 3 million homes from the extraction of tar sands oil in Canada. However, it is expensive to extract the oil out of the sands (120 million dollars over the last 12 years have been invested) which has lead to environmental degradation in the form of excess use of water to extract bitumen.

The bitumen is then refined and the toxic sludge (not like conventional oil – mainly nasty impurities) that is left over after separating oil from impurities is usually dumped in ponds and lakes. In some cases, the toxic ponds are so big that they can be seen from space. The Athabasca River in Canada has a large number of toxic ponds, some being 60 km long in length. These companies, like SUNCOR (Canadian energy company), are dumping around 1.8 billion liters of toxic materials like sludge and impurities in these ponds, they will eventually reach water in the delta (Sustainable Guidance, 2011). The effects of these impurities in the water can be devastating to the wildlife.

There is a decrease in the number of fish as the sludge clogs up the fish’s gills, making it hard for them to breathe. The change in the ecosystem and food chain will also cause a decline in fish as smaller species like plankton may be affected by the impurities. The fish may also be contaminated and migratory birds which eat these fish will suffer and possibly die as they won’t eat healthy meat. Moose is another species which are affected by the toxic ponds as their source of food is contaminated and decreasing. This has lead to a number of endangered species. There is a 35 million acres coniferous forest (larger than the Brazilian forest) which is full of endangered species.

There have also been cases where environmental issues like toxic ponds are not released to the public as these details have been ‘covered up’ by companies like SUNCOR, leaving environmentalists like Green peace in conflict with these energy companies. This example has shown the harmful effects of oil production on the environment, which again makes us question whether this is all worth it (Sustainable Guidance, 2011). To a very small extent, the environmental impacts of the global increase in demand for oil are acceptable. It can be said, with great certainty, that oil production and consumption does not benefit the environment.

The environmental consequences may not be frequent but when they do occur, they cause a catastrophic effect, which takes the environment and the people decades or even longer to recover. These impacts are therefore not acceptable, which is why countries should start investing in producing renewable energy such as solar panels and wind turbines. Governments can’t suddenly start decreasing the amount of oil they consume as the people are already used to living with a high standard of living. The populations around the world should be educated about the problem and should be encouraged to start relying on renewable sources of energy. However, this raises the problem for developing countries and NICs.

It will be extremely difficult to develop without consuming large amounts of oil and will therefore cause the rate of development to decrease. This leaves these types of countries at a disadvantage, which questions whether it is acceptable for all countries to consume a smaller amount of oil when there are countries with different levels of development. Clearly the issue needs to be discussed before any strategies can be implemented.


BBC News. (2010, July 6). Alaska town slowly heals after 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Retrieved from

BBC News. (2010, June 17). Examining the legacy of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Retrieved from

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 24, 2013 from

Graham, S. (2003, December 19). Environmental effects of Exxon Valdez spill still being felt. Retrieved from

Guinness, P. (2011). Geography for the IB diploma. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

RGS Worcester. (n.d.) The Exxon Valdez – environmental catastrophe in a fragile environment? Retrieved from

Sustainable Guidance. (2011, April 27). Tar sands oil extraction – the dirty truth. Retrieved from