It is the dream of many liberals, and environmental activists, including President Obama, to leave petroleum in the ground. It is a pipe dream, however, and any effort to implement such an agenda before we are ready with other comparable energy sources will choke the United States' economy and standard of living and that of the rest of the world. Solar and wind energy do not have the advantages that oil has such as portability and energy density and may never be the equal of oil in that regard. Fusion energy seems to always be out of reach, but if that source of clean energy ever became viable it would go a long way towards keeping some oil in the ground.
Oil is not used just for burning in our automobiles, trucks, ships, trains, planes, homes and businesses. It is also used in various types of plastics which are in almost every product we use (computers, water bottles, smart phones, toothbrushes, refrigerators, cars, hospital beds, airplanes, toys, shoes and millions more products). Oil is also used in constructing pharmaceutical drugs which save lives and relieve suffering. It is also used in asphalt for roads.
We couldn't leave the oil in the ground at this point in civilization's development unless we wanted to give back 200 years of civilizational development. We will always have some need for petroleum, at least until we can create the molecules we want directly from atoms.
Why is there oil in the ground?
Oil has got to be the most unexpected and greatest treasure to civilization that has ever been found in the ground on planet Earth. Humans had got along without oil for most of their history but it has been the fuel of industry and progress for the last 150 years. Without petroleum we'd still be using horses to get around, firewood or coal for heat and candles for light. It is unexpected because when you look at a planet you don't imagine that there could be oceans worth of fuel buried beneath its surface and over the millennia that we have lived on this Earth no scientists imagined such a thing. Oil has been known of in small quantities and by few people over thousands of years but its potential for use and the extent of its existence was unguessed at. And oil is the greatest treasure because of its unexpected extent, its truly mindboggling quantity (perhaps 50 trillion gallons used so far). The very fact that billions of people for the last 150 years have used oil directly or indirectly and it has not run out, in fact may not even be halfway gone, is a miracle or a coincidence of magnificent proportions. The fact that a burgeoning civilization found a plentiful fuel source just when it needed it (when the internal combustion engine was invented) and that it would last as long as it has is indeed a miracle.
Why is there oil in the ground and why is there so much of it there?Oil is produced deep underground where extreme pressure on dead carboniferous microbiological life forms results in a sludge which happens to be flammable. There is a smaller school of thought which says that petroleum is produced by purely geologic and chemical actions without biologic input (abiogenic petroleum origin theory). Whichever method produces the oil, clearly there is a great source of material. The production of oil continues as we use it because those same sources for the creation of oil whether biologic or not still exist in large amounts. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the pace of production is probably much slower than the usage of it, so at some point we may run out. If you subscribe to the mainstream theory that petroleum is derived from biological sources then clearly there is a lot of source material for making oil. Bacteria is supposed by scientists to make up most of the life on Earth by weight by far. Add to this zooplankton, plankton, algae and other life from the sea and you have a huge possible source of carbon for petroleum production. Over time this and other dead carbon-based life forms migrate down through the soil and become compressed under evermore pressure and heat in sedimentary rock. Molecular changes occur. That's the theory.
So we are left with the fact that we have oil under our feet - a lot of it. Do we use it or do we not? I look at it this way. Nature produces apples to be eaten so we and many other animals eat them. You could say that they are a gift of God or the bounty of Mother Nature. The same can be said of oil. Nature creates oil to be used or God creates oil as a gift to meet our energy needs. Everything has a purpose, an apple is a sweet and healthy food as well as a method of transporting seeds away from an apple tree. On our Earth, water's purpose is to support life. Oil's purpose is not to hide in caves 1000 feet below the surface but to bubble up to the surface and be used as the gift that it is for energy production and manufacturing of certain products.
Yes, burning oil produces pollution and carbon dioxide, but cars, trucks and planes are using it more efficiently than ever, and the exhausts from newer vehicles are much cleaner now than they have ever been. Carbon infusion into the atmosphere is down over the last few years. This gives us more time to find fuels or energy sources like fusion and improved batteries that can replace the dirtier fossil fuels. We'll get there. Let's be patient and wait for the scientists and engineers to do their thing before we throw away a potent source of energy that was clearly placed inside the Earth by Mother Nature (or as I believe, God) for us to use in our progression as a civilization. If we don't wait, if we truncate our reliance on petroleum without something of equal potency to replace it we will sabotage our economies, progress and increase human suffering.
Technology is advancing in spectacular ways in the first 15 years of the new millennium. If we're patient and persistent in our technological progress, I am certain that the energy developments that we need to replace fossil fuels will come. But throwing away a resource before it is actually obsoleted is like flattening your tire on the last pit stop of the race and expecting to win.