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Author: Dr Eureta Rosenberg & Claire Janisch

( Article Type: Overview )


  • Oil has historically provided significant and diverse benefits to society including transportation, heating, electricity, industrial applications, and is an input into over 2000 end products.
  • Oil is a valuable commodity and the oil industry is phenomenally profitable for some corporations and governments.
  • Taxes from oil are a major source of income for some 90 governments. Petroleum is the largest single item in the balance of payments and exchanges between nations and a major factor in local level politics regarding development, jobs, health, and the environment. For many countries, oil is crucial to national economic viability, accounting for upwards of 80% of total national exports.
  • South Africa has little oil and therefore has to import most of its supply.
  • Worldwide discovery of new oil steadily declined to insignificant levels in 2003 and 2004. As a result, we are facing a potential oil production peak. The peak is the top of the production curve, meaning that only half of the world’s oil remains. Whilst it may seem as if there is still plenty of oil left, there are two distinct problems. Firstly, the remaining oil is much more difficult and costly to extract, of poorer quality and located mostly in places where there is political conflict. Secondly, whilst oil production is reducing, the demand for oil is accelerating at an astonishing rate. The combined effect of diminishing supply and increasing demand means that we are likely to be facing serious oil shortages in the very near future. Unless rapid and effective pre-emptive measures are taken, we may face severe domestic and industrial problems long before oil actually runs out. Oil price increases due to scarcity could have such a major impact on the wide range of oil and petroleum consumers as to completely change the way our society currently lives and works.
  • The damage to environments from exploration, drilling, and extraction can be greater than from a large oil spill. Major impacts include deforestation, ecosystem destruction, chemical contamination of land and water, long-term harm to animal populations, human health and safety risks for neighbouring communities and oil industry workers, and displacement of indigenous communities.
  • The oil and gas industry in the USA alone creates more solid and liquid waste than all other categories of municipal, agricultural, mining, and industrial wastes combined.
  • In addition to operational leaks, oil spills also occur during extraction. In 2002, it was estimated that 38 000 tons of petroleum hydrocarbons were released into the world’s oceans each year in the previous decade as a result of oil and gas operations.
  • Crude oil is transported great distances to refineries and consumer markets. Transportation of oil results in regular oil spills throughout the world. Although large oil spills are well publicised, smaller but cumulatively significant spills from shipping, pipelines, and leaks often go undocumented.
  • Refineries produce huge volumes of air, water, solid, and hazardous waste, including toxic substances such as benzene, heavy metals, hydrogen sulfide, acid gases, mercury, and dioxin. Local environmental impacts from oil refineries result from toxic air and water emissions, accidental releases of chemicals, hazardous waste disposal, thermal pollution, and noise pollution. Refineries also use thousands of litres of water per day for production and cooling processes. Treatment of liquid effluent does not entirely eliminate contaminants such as aromatic hydrocarbons (benzenes and napthenes) that enter public waterways.
  • The combustion of petroleum products by consumers contributes to numerous negative environmental impacts including air pollution, water pollution from gasoline and gasoline additives, and global warming.
  • The global oil industry provides a significant number of jobs and is a central component of the world economy.
  • The impacts of oil production, transport, refining, and consumption are significant and widespread. From cultural impacts on indigenous groups, health impacts on workers and communities, global climatic impacts, and military conflicts, oil is perhaps the single most controversial and influential commodity in the world.
  • Perhaps the most critical and contentious questions related to oil are ‘who owns, controls, or has access to this resource?’ Control over reserves, production, distribution, and refining is critical to the distribution of benefits and costs of oil and to deeper global, economic, and political dynamics. Access to and control over oil is as important today as actually owning it, and increasingly, private oil companies are exerting control over the industry.
  • At least four types of conflicts occur over oil: (a) conflict with indigenous groups over oil development; (b) civil unrest or war that uses disruption of oil operations as a tactic; (c) superpower geopolitics (e.g., control over Middle East oil reserves); and (d) terrorism targeting oil facilities.
  • Oil exploration, drilling, and extraction also lead to a range of acute and chronic health impacts.
  • Health impacts extend outside the walls of refineries, where studies have demonstrated a clear relationship between the proximity of communities to refineries and the incidence levels of cancer. Near the SAPREF refinery in Durban, Leukemia rates are 24 times the South African national average and respiratory problems are four times the national average. Residents report acute health effects such as coughing, burning eyes, headache, dizziness, and nausea, severe asthma and cases of rare diseases, such as teenage lupus erythromatosus and childhood kidney cancer.


  • Fuelwood is the cheapest and most commonly used energy source for the rural poor. Even after electrification many poor households in South Africa still use fuelwood for cooking because they cannot afford electric appliances and the monthly electricity bill. Fuelwood is therefore a most important energy source for the poor in southern Africa and Africa at present.
  • Fuelwood is a valuable national resource in South Africa that is being rapidly and in many cases unsustainably depleted at an alarming rate.
  • Fuelwood can be a renewable resource if it is sustainably managed.
  • Fuelwood is carbon neutral (although it takes decades to replenish)
  • Unsustainable harvesting of wood has many negative impacts including deforestation, land degradation, soil erosion and desertification.
  • Fuelwood is becoming scarce and poor women and children have to walk increasingly great distances to find and gather fuelwood for their cooking and heating needs.
  • People exposed to indoor air pollution from cooking with fuelwood run a high risk of many respiratory diseases

Associated Organisations:

Future Light , Beco Institute for Sustainable Business , BP SA , Bulgaz Convertors , City of Cape Town - Environmental Planning , Department of Energy , Eskom , Department of Trade and Industry , Durban Solid Waste Cleansing and Solid Waste , Spintelligent , Biolight , Savannah Environmental , International Institute for Energy Conservation - Africa , Kumba Resources , National Business Initiative (NBI) , Riso Africa , Nedbank Group , New Energy Technologies (Pty) Ltd , Programme for Basic Energy & Conservation , Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP) Southern Africa Secretariat , Sasol Limited , Living Green , Southern African Association for Energy Efficiency (SAEE) , SouthSouthNorth Trust , Chem-free Aqua , WSP Environment & Energy , International Technology Sourcing , I M Lighting , The Green Shop , Flexopower , African Windpower , Addicom , Green Life Store , eZee SA , Sunfor Technologies , ZM Pumps , i Power SA ve , Global Carbon Exchange , ELECTRIC BLUE LED CC , sustainableIT , Freefall Trading 115 , AdoGreen Recruitment , South African National Energy Association (SANEA) - , Greenability , Solarise Energy Solutions , Astronomical Society of Southern Africa - Dark Sky Section , Energywise Systems , SMA Solar Technology South Africa , Kestrel Wind Turbines , Exxaro Resources Limited , Nokia South Africa Ltd , MTN , Biofires cc , Energy Institute, Cape Peninsula University of Technology , Kwazulu-Natal Master Builders and Allied Industries , Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa (SESSA) , Utility Management for Africa (UMFA) , African Climate Reality Project - Food & Trees for Africa , Blue North Sustainability (Pty) Ltd , Confronting Climate Change Initiative , Africa Focus Consulting