The science behind the oil supply breakdown in 'Last Light'

·5 min read

We haven’t seen Matthew Fox in a TV series since Lost ended in 2010. Now, Fox has returned as the protagonist of Last Light, a show developed from Alex Scarrow’s novel of the same name. Last Light is now streaming on Peacock. Minor spoilers below.

The story opens on chemist Andy Yeats — played by Fox — as he’s called away to handle an oil emergency just before his son is set to undergo experimental eye surgery. Yeats arrives at the refinery site where he discovers something is wrong with the oil. At the same time, the world is pockmarked by blackouts. It’s soon revealed that the world’s oil supplies have been corrupted as part of a coordinated attack.

The world immediately falls into a state of progressive chaos. With supply chain issues, climate change, and the ongoing transition to alternative renewable fuel sources, we can’t help but wonder what might actually happen of the oil supply chains were severed.

YOU MIGHT NOT NOTICE RIGHT AWAY

In the show, the effects of oil supply disruption are felt right away. Planes fall out of the sky and ships flounder in the water. It’s clear, whatever the source of the attack, it isn’t happening only at the source. All of the world’s oil is contaminated, even the oil you’re currently using. Where that to happen, we’d all know pretty quickly. It’s hard to power almost anything these days without a working supply of oil, for better or for worse.

Electric vehicles would keep working, but probably only as long as their batteries lasted. That’s because power plants largely use fossil fuels to generate power. Even those which don’t are pretty reliant on the rest of the global supply chain, which would break down if oil were immediately withheld.

The good news is that likely wouldn’t happen. If the world’s oil deposits suddenly dried up today, we’d be in trouble, but we’d have at least some cushion. Although, not much of one. At present, it’s estimated that the United States has something like 700 million barrels of oil stockpiled in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a series of underground caves in Texas and Louisiana.

Colorful Barrels
Colorful Barrels

Colorful Barrels Photo: VFKA/Getty Images

The bad news is the United States’ oil consumption sits at around 20 million barrels per day. At current consumption levels, we’d tap out our strategic reserves in a little over a month. Of course, most of that would probably be routed to strategic destinations and most of us would experience severe oil rations in an attempt to extend the reserve’s lifespan.

Countries around the world have similar stockpile programs which could stem the bleeding in the event of a supply breakdown. The fact remains, however, that we’d have to find a solution quickly or risk the machinery which keeps our society functioning shutting down.

Unless we take concerted steps toward transitioning to a more diverse energy profile, even a best-case scenario would cause our societies to stumble once global oil supplies are cut off.

COULD SOMETHING CORRUPT ALL OIL ON EARTH?

It’s unlikely. Most oil is held in deposits underground and discretely separated from other oil reserves. Any intentional attack would require a level of coordination never before seen. The antagonists of such a story would need to introduce a contaminant at every reserve all at the same time. Manually introducing a contaminant that would render oil unusable probably isn’t feasible. Unless, of course, it’s an act of nature.

Nature is very good at exploiting resources and by tapping into underground oil deposits we have exposed vast stores of material that are definitionally highly energetic. They’d make an ample food supply for the right organism.

In the show, Yeats learns early on that the characteristics of the oil samples aren’t right. Among other things, the viscosity is out of normal ranges. Importantly, the viscosity of oil is important to its proper functioning as either a lubricant or a propellant. If you could introduce an organism that somehow changes the properties of the oil, it’s possible that organism could spread across the globe and impact the entire supply. Although, getting the timing right would be a challenge.

Bacilli Bacteria
Bacilli Bacteria

Bacilli Bacteria Photo: Clouds Hill Imaging Ltd./Getty Images

There’s some evidence this sort of strategy might actually work. A study published in the journal Energy Sources investigated the results of introducing various microorganisms including Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Bacillus subtilis, and Klebsiella spp to crude oil. After introduction, scientists measured the viscosity of the intentionally contaminated oil compared to a control sample.

After only three minutes, the viscosity of the crude oil was reduced by more than 50 percent. In the wake of genetic engineering, one can imagine a situation in which an organism is engineered to chew through oil wherever it is found, changing it so substantially that it becomes unusable. Once it came into contact with oil anywhere, whether in the ground or in your car, it might be able to multiply rapidly, on timescales shorter than what it takes to run your errands.

An uncontrolled organism would be incredibly difficult to get our arms around quickly enough to prevent the worst effects. There’s no single point of failure, it’s a war we’d have to fight on all fronts, perhaps through the engineering of another organism to prey on or outcompete the threat.

Of course, the likelihood of any of this occurring is slim, better suited for the screen than the streets. Still, it might be worth putting a little extra emphasis on transitioning away from fuels susceptible to biological attack.

Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead