Oil is a natural compound of hydrocarbons. It is formed from dead flora and fauna, the remains of which sank to the bottom of oceans and lakes where they were subsequently covered over by sediment. As a result of trapped oxygen and the effects of pressure and heat, they were then broken down and transformed into gas and oil.
Oil is brought up to the surface on land and water (oil rigs) via drilling processes. It is then transported in oil tankers, trucks and pipelines and taken to refineries where it is processed into oil products. The products that are used for energy purposes can be divided into two main categories: combustibles (heating oils, petroleum coke) and motor fuels (petrol, diesel, aviation gasoline). But oil is also used in the chemicals industry, for example for the production of plastics.
The leading oil-producing countries today are Saudi Arabia, Russia, the USA, Iran, Mexico and China. OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) currently accounts for approximately 42% of global oil production.
Approximately two-thirds of Switzerland's oil imports are in the form of finished products, while the remaining third is in the form of crude oil. Around 88% of the crude oil imported into Switzerland comes from countries of North and West Africa, while finished products are imported solely from EU countries. Crude oil is taken to refineries in Cressier (canton of Neuchatel) and Collombey (canton of Valais), where half of it is processed into motor fuels and half into heating oil. Both these refineries are linked to the European pipeline system.
As was the case in most industrialised nations, the two oil crises in the 1970s also underscored Switzerland's vulnerability due to its high dependency on one energy source, and for this reason it subsequently reduced the proportion of oil products to overall energy consumption from around 80% (1973) to 56.5% (2005) (25.4% for combustibles, 31.1% for motor fuels).
During the past decade we have witnessed drastic developments with respect to oil prices. At the end of 1998, oil prices fell to their lowest level since 1986 as a consequence of the Asian financial crisis and an increase in production by OPEC countries that came at an extremely unfavourable time. The price of crude oil fell temporarily to below 10 dollars a barrel. There then followed a strong and lasting recovery at the beginning of 2003. The widely anticipated sharp increase in demand in China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East caused prices to rise to new record highs. On 8 August 2006, the price of crude oil reached 78 dollars a barrel, or eight times the price noted in 1998. Price fluctuations were also strongly influenced by chronic capacity shortages in the areas of refinery and transport, as well as by low production reserves in OPEC countries, the highly volatile geopolitical situation in the Near and Middle East, disastrous hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, and last but not least, speculative oil trading.
Oil prices dropped sharply again at the end of 2006, and opinions are divided as to whether this trend may persist in the medium term. This would require the step-by-step introduction of additional production and refinery capacities, as well as an easing of tensions in the major oil-producing regions, above all in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Guinea.
Experts estimate that peak oil production will be reached in the period between 2010 and 2030, after which oil will become scarcer and more expensive, since demand will then be greater than supply. Assuming that the level of consumption remains the same as today, and in view of the situation outlined above, economically exploitable oil reserves will probably be depleted within approximately 40 years. However, it is to be assumed that new reserves will have been discovered by then, and previously unviable oil sources (e.g. oil shale) will be utilised.