Environmentalists fighting to ban oil and gas need to learn about the 30 percent of the barrel they ignore when they espouse a world powered exclusively by electricity generated by renewables. Replacing the organic properties of petroleum is a life-threatening void in the hubris of the enemies of mineral energies.
…it is estimated industrialized nations currently consume petrochemical products at a rate of 3.5 gallons of oil per day per person.
A recent opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, “You Can’t Build Roads Without Oil,” pointed out the fallacy of the “keep it in the ground” movement against fossil fuels. Forced energy transformationists want an end to the internal combustion engine and shuttered fossil-fuel-fired power plants. It is a wind-and-solar world with existing nuclear plants maybe to continue. It’s all in the name of eliminating carbon dioxide (CO2).
The article’s subtitle asked: “Where does the Biden administration think asphalt comes from?” A good question. An even better question would be to inquire about what else comes from petroleum that is critical for the operation of our society and economy and cannot be replaced with substitutes.
By ignoring such issues, the environmentalists are handing our future to those few Malthusians amongst us who believe in fewer people and a pre-industrial lifestyle. Or maybe the environmentalists are just ignorant of the issue and have failed to consider the future world to which they suggest condemning the world’s population.
The Wall Street Journal opinion article was authored by Jacob R. Borden, an associate professor of chemical and bioprocess engineering at Trine University, a private university in Angola, Indiana. Professor Borden cited the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, which provides $110 billion to states for building and repairing roads and bridges. He then points out that Federal Highway Administration statistics note that 94% of U.S. road miles are paved with asphalt, which comes from “the bottom of the bottom of the oil barrel.”
With society and the economy prizing the lighter petroleum products – gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel ‒ derived from a barrel of crude oil, the bottom portion has always presented a challenge for refineries because its value is small. Borden points out that 70% of the oil barrel is refined for products used in combustion, leaving 30% of the barrel seeking alternative markets, such as the asphalt (where much of the sulfur from refining crude oil is buried) used to construct roads.
Another important product coming from that share of the barrel is petroleum coke, which is the main source for the anodes used in aluminum smelting. Approximately 40 pounds of coke are needed for every 100 pounds of aluminum. Based on a 2018 study by mining and metals business intelligence firm CRU, plug-in hybrid and full battery electric vehicles use 25-27 percent more aluminum than the typical internal combustion engine vehicle today.
Based on the actual and projected growth of electric vehicles in the global vehicle fleet, more aluminum will be necessary for the future meaning more petroleum coke will be required. Then there are the BTX petroleum distillates – benzene, toluene, and xylene – that provide the raw materials for products including dyes, synthetic detergents, and for making the polymers, plastics, resins, and solvents used in thousands of products critical for our economy and everyday life. Even sulfuric acid has its origins in the sulfur that is removed from petroleum during the refining process.
Products such as the insulation covering electrical wires and cellphones, as well as medical products such as catheters, IV bags, and pill casings are all derived from petroleum. Virtually, all our clothing, except for jeans and 100% wool and cotton clothing, has some synthetic materials that depend on petroleum.
Another very interesting market dependent on petroleum and which has made major contributions to enhancing society, lengthening lifespans and improving health, are the drugs from the pharmaceutical industry. Few people realize how key petroleum is to the pills they ingest every day to ease headaches, lower blood pressure, and treat infections among other uses.
Wait a minute. Do you mean every pill we take comes from petroleum? Ugh! According to petroleum.co.uk and based on 2015 data, it is estimated industrialized nations currently consume petrochemical products at a rate of 3.5 gallons of oil per day per person. The website states: “That means that, excluding fuel oil, modern life results in each citizen of an industrial nation using over 1,200 gallons of oil per year.”
Our guess is this relationship has remained static during the past half dozen years. But the website goes on to highlight the alternative uses of petroleum, primarily in petrochemicals. An important demand sector for petroleum is agriculture, which is increasingly being targeted by environmentalists who want to ban the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Such a ban was tried in Sri Lanka, which led to food shortages that sparked riots that resulted in the overthrow of the government that instituted the fertilizer ban.
The reality is that feeding our growing population requires using chemical fertilizers derived from the methane in natural gas but also diesel fuel to power farm machinery and food processing plants besides transportation to get the food products to market. Oil is also important in creating the pesticides that ensure healthy crops.
Besides plastics that populate our lives, transportation runs on tires. Up until 1910, tires were made from natural elastomers obtained from rubber tree plants. World War II saw restricted access to natural rubber from Asia and South America and forced the development of synthetic rubber, which is primarily a product of butadiene. Mineral oil and petrolatum (petroleum jelly) are byproducts used in many creams and topical pharmaceuticals. Tars that are used for psoriasis and dandruff control come from petroleum. But the most surprising petroleum contribution is the role it plays in creating pharmaceuticals.
Pharmaceuticals are typically large organic molecules, and petroleum is derived from organic matter, so it contains organic molecules that are broken apart and reassembled during the refining process. Drugs are constructed by starting with small organic molecules and linking them together as the product is developed.
Linking these small molecules together is normally done in a solution, but since organic molecules are not water soluble, they are linked in organic solvents such as methanol, ethyl acetate, heptane, toluene, etc., derived from petroleum. Professor Borden ended his opinion article with the following:
Humanity can’t be separated from its hubris, and that’s not all bad. Hubris, and hydrocarbons, took us to the moon and back. But it’s beyond hubris to believe that modern marvels that pass as everyday objects, developed with the guide of an invisible hand, can seamlessly be replaced through collective will alone.
Vaclav Smil: The Last Word
Therein lies the fallacy of ending our use of fossil fuels, especially petroleum. Energy professor Vaclav Smil has authored numerous books detailing how embedded petroleum is in our modern lives, which will make the transition to a decarbonized economy a multi-decade journey. In the introduction to his most recent book, How the World Really Works, Smil wrote:
The gap between wishful thinking and reality is vast, but in a democratic society no contest of ideas and proposals can proceed in rational ways without all sides sharing at least a modicum of relevant information about the real world, rather than trotting out their biases and advancing claims disconnected from physical possibilities.
In other words, environmentalists fighting to ban oil and gas need to learn about the 30 percent of the barrel they ignore when they espouse a world powered exclusively by electricity generated by renewables. Replacing the organic properties of petroleum is a life-threatening void in the hubris of the enemies of mineral energies.