A Free-Market Energy Blog

Can-do Petroleum vs. Can’t Do Renewables (Part I)

By Steve Overholt -- August 26, 2021

What are the most critical non-fuel uses of fossil fuels? What are the most viable “natural” and “renewable” alternatives to these uses? Are there any of these critical non-fuel uses of fossil fuels for which there are no viable “natural” or “renewable” substitutes? (below)

When I heard Joe Biden say in a presidential debate that he wants to “transition away” from petroleum by 2050, I wished I were there to respond. Here’s what I would have said: “We have to make things, Joe!”

There is an inconceivable truth for the renewables crowd, and it is this: Fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) are used in more ways than just burning for energy. They have important non-combustion uses… billions of tons per year of them worldwide. They are used to make things. These uses of fossil fuels are largely ignored in “news” media denunciations of fossil fuels as the wellspring of all evil.

Data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that 7% of fossil fuels are used for non-combustion uses, including 13% of petroleum 3% of natural gas, and under 1% of coal. But as will be detailed in this article, these non-combustion (non-fuel) uses have an outsized positive environmental impact.

What are the most critical non-fuel uses of fossil fuels? What are the most viable “natural” and “renewable” alternatives to these uses? Are there any of these critical non-fuel uses of fossil fuels for which there are no viable “natural” or “renewable” substitutes?

On a national and a global scale, what are the environmental consequences of the non-fuel uses of fossil fuels as compared to the environmental consequences of the “natural” and “renewable” alternatives? I will take a scientific approach to reveal the answers to these important questions in this article.

Several critical non-fuel uses of fossil fuels are:

  1. Synthetic polymers and chemicals
  2. Lubricants
  3. Dyes and colorants
  4. Pavement
  5. Helium production
  6. Pharmaceuticals

Part I today covers these six areas. Part II tomorrow focuses on fossil fuels versus so-called natural materials.

Unfortunately, when compared to the above fossil fuel-based materials, the “natural” materials the Far Left proposes are far more environmentally inferior, if not destructive. Drawbacks include:

  • Hundreds of millions acres of forest and prairie will be converted to crops and pasture to achieve the transition from synthetics to plant- and animal-based fibers and leathers.
  • Millions of tons of soil erosion, fertilizer application, and pesticide application will result from the massive increase in agriculture.
  • Extensive new irrigation projects will be needed to grow all those crops, dewatering rivers and depleting groundwater sources.
  • Millions more acres of forests will be cut for lumber and paper production.
  • Mountains will fall to mine and quarry metal and stone “naturals.”

In addition, the only viable source of the critical element helium is natural gas processing.

Let’s evaluate the above six industrial uses of oil, gas, and coal fossil fuels, four today and two tomorrow.


Plastic is probably the first material that comes to most people’s minds in this regard. As much as people love to hate plastic, it’s the least environmentally destructive material for many millions of tons per year of its uses.

But consider that plastics are just one of the many uses of synthetic polymers and chemicals. Among their most important applications are:

  • Three-dimensional parts (plastic parts)
  • Paints and coatings
  • Sheet goods
  • Fibers
  • Carbon-fiber/resin matrix
  • Packaging
  • Fertilizer and pest control products

The majority of synthetic polymers in the U.S. are derived from natural gas liquids (NGLs–which are hydrocarbons that rise from the earth with natural gas), and to a lesser extent, petroleum.

Let’s begin with a high-level look at the above uses of synthetic polymers and chemicals and review their “natural” alternatives. These will also be examined in more detail later in this article.

  1. Plastic Parts

Over the past century, plastic has replaced a variety of “natural” materials for three-dimensional parts. Among the most important are wood, metal, glass, ceramics, and stone. Because plastics display various combinations of the attributes toughness, light weight, rot-resistance, and easily machined or molded into intricate shapes, there often is no viable alternative among the “natural” materials.

On a performance basis, bioplastics are not currently viable as replacements for fossil-fuel plastics, but that is a good thing because bioplastics are far more environmentally unsound.

2. Paints and Coatings

Before the dawn of synthetic polymers such as acrylic, polyurethane, and epoxy; paints and coatings were primarily produced from the agricultural crop linseed oil (paint and varnish) and insect-shell-derived shellac (lacquer). It is important to note that a huge increase in the production of protective paints and coatings will be required if wood replaces plastic for three-dimensional parts.

3. Sheet Goods

Synthetics have replaced glass, tile, leather, and plant-based materials in a variety of applications including windows (acrylic), roofing (asphalt shingles), footwear (vinyl, polyester), and flooring (wood, clay tile, stone, plant- and animal-fiber carpets, and linoleum produced from linseed oil.)

4. Fibers

Synthetic fibers have replaced a large portion of the cotton, linen, wool, hemp, hair, fur, and steel previously used to create clothing, upholstery, carpet, rope, cable, and more.

5. Carbon-fiber/Resin Matrices

There is no “natural” alternative here.

Carbon fiber is made of carbon; the current source is fossil fuels. A proposed alternate source of this carbon is biomass. Biomass that is used for carbon fiber cannot be returned to the soil as organic conditioner and fertilizer. Rich farmland will turn to wasteland if enough biomass is removed to produce carbon fiber and all the other “green” uses the Left has planned for it.

Another proposed source for carbon is algae. There are so many reasons this is not feasible that they cannot all be discussed here. Suffice it to say that if it was feasible, it would have been done on an industrial scale by now, after nearly 60 years and billions of dollars in research spending.

Carbon-fiber materials make planes and automobiles much lighter, resulting in far less energy consumption than if they were made of steel or aluminum.

6. Packaging

As much as the Left loves to ban plastic shopping bags, they are only a small part of the overall packaging uses of plastics. Lightweight plastic bags and bottles for packaged food and beverages have saved enormous amounts of energy that would have otherwise been used to transport the heavy steel, aluminum, and glass packaging they replaced.

Many on the Left decry packaged foods–of course without considering the consequences. If we go all fresh, forest and prairie will be torn up for farmland to replace the spoilage that will result.

In an extensive 2012 study, the USDA estimated that spoilage of fresh vegetables in food stores exceeds 1 of every 9 pounds. For fresh fruits, loss rates range from 4% for bananas to 20% for apples, 33% for pineapples, and 43% for papayas. Loss in food stores for fresh meat, poultry, and seafood ranges from 6% for turkey to 24 % for shellfish.

This does not even include loss from spoilage in restaurants and homes.

The plastic wrap and zipper bags we use to protect foods at home would most likely have to be replaced by waxed paper, which easily tears and is difficult for consumers to seal. Currently, the wax for waxed paper comes from petroleum. Where would all the natural alternatives come from?

7. Fertilizer and Pest Control

Large-volume production of nitrogen fertilizer uses natural gas as a primary raw material. There simply is not enough compost or manure available as an alternative to synthetic fertilizers– especially once the Far Left gets rid of those methane-flatulent, global-warming cows.

Pest-control agents are primarily derived from fossil fuels as well.  Pest-control products include insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, and the like.

Today’s “natural” insecticides fall into four main categories:

  1. Biologicals such as bacteria, fungi, protozoans, and nematodes
  2. Botanicals (plant extracts) such as neem and pyrethrum
  3. Minerals such as diatomaceous earth, sulfur, and kaolin
  4. Oils and soaps

Biologicals must be cared for to stay alive, typically have a very short application window, typically require multiple applications, and may require very specific weather to be effective. Botanicals, minerals, and soaps typically have a short application window, very quickly degrade, and require repeated application as well, especially after rain.

The fact that pests develop resistance to a pesticide that is used against them repeatedly is well documented. It is therefore extremely important that we have a broad range of pesticides from which to choose in our eternal battle against pests. There is a much wider variety of pesticides available based on petrochemicals than based on “natural” sources.

Also, the already broad range of pesticides based on petrochemicals may be almost endlessly further modified in response to emerging resistance in the target pest populations. The wider variety and adaptability of petrochemical pesticides allows resistance to be overcome. This is not true of “natural” products, which by any rational definition exist only as originally found in nature.

In order to produce botanical insecticides, large fields must be plowed, fertilized, and receive pesticide applications (A plant containing an insecticide may not be resistant to a fungal disease) in order to harvest those plants for insecticides to protect other crops.

So, insecticide-producing crops must be grown in newly cleared forests and grasslands in order to protect other crops grown in other newly cleared forests and grasslands in order to yield a massive increase in cotton, hemp, corn ethanol, and other renewables. Apply rational thought to that process for a minute.


Next, let’s take a look a look at lubricants, an essential for greasing all those spinning windmill blades and electric-car wheels. The petroleum-based lubricants of today have almost completely replaced the plant- and animal-based lubricants of yesteryear. Again: Where will all of those plants and animals come from when we switch back to them?


Synthetic dyes and colorants are largely produced from coal tar and other fossil-fuel derivatives. Previously, dyes and colorants came from things like minerals, roots, vegetables, flowers, insects, walnut shells, wood, and even mollusk shells. Most of these produced muted colors or colors that were not very colorfast or fade resistant compared to synthetics. And again: Where will all of those minerals, plants and animals come from when we switch back to them?


This is a big one.

The two most common paving materials used in the world today are hot mix asphalt (HMA) and Portland cement concrete (PCC). HMA is made from sand, gravel, and about 5% by weight of a hydrocarbon binder called asphalt. Asphalt is a byproduct of petroleum refining for gasoline production. PCC is made from sand, gravel, and a binder called Portland cement that is produced from limestone and clay.

HMA is by far the most common paving material in use today. About 420 million tons (840 billion lbs.) of HMA paving material was produced in the U.S. in 2019. Of the 2.8 million miles of surfaced roads in the U.S, 94% are paved with HMA. Also, 80% of the 3,300 airport runways in the U.S are paved with HMA.

That’s an awful lot of asphalt paving to replace with concrete paving–its only viable alternative–especially when you consider the massive amounts of CO2 that are emitted in producing the Portland cement used in PCC.

The production of PCC emits over 10 times more CO2 per ton than HMA (0.1073 ton of CO2 per ton of PCC vs. 0.0103 ton of CO2 per ton of HMA.) This difference is primarily because the limestone (calcium carbonate) used to produce Portland cement must crushed and then heated with clay to over 2,500 °F in order to drive off CO2 as a step in producing Portland cement.

According to the National Precast Concrete Association, the production of the Portland cement contained in 3,900 lbs. (one cubic yard) of PCC is responsible for about 400 lbs. of CO2 emissions. So, if the 420 million tons of HMA used in the U.S. is replaced by PCC, then the increase in CO2 emissions in the U.S. will be 40.7 million tons each year.

Looking at this globally: The worldwide use of HMA in 2020 is estimated at 1.9 billion tons (3.8 trillion lbs.) So, the global CO2 emissions increase due to a switch from asphalt to concrete paving would be 187 million tons (375 billion lbs.).

And consider this: Over 99% of HMA paving is ground up, re-heated, and recycled into new pavement when past its original useful life. This is not true of concrete; new material must be used.

But could there be hope on the horizon for reducing CO2 emission from PCC production?

Several technologies aim to capture the CO2 emissions from Portland cement production and utilize the CO2 to make either binder or gravel for PCC. To date, none have been successfully commercialized. Some may argue that one or more of these technologies may prove out prior to 2050, the year that Biden wants to be forever rid of petrochemicals. However, if we grant such argumentative dispensation to PCC, we must grant equal dispensation to HMA and its petroleum precursor with regard to potential future environmental impact reduction.


When most people think of uses of the elemental gas helium, they may think “party balloons.” “Well okay,” they likely think, “we might miss them, but saving the planet would be worth it.” Unfortunately for them, according to Britannica Academic, helium has many higher and better uses such as:

  • an inert-gas atmosphere for welding metals such as the aluminum needed for lightweight, more energy-efficient cars and trucks
  • to pressurize rocket fuel tanks–especially those for liquid hydrogen–because only helium is still a gas at liquid-hydrogen temperatures
  • in meteorology as a lifting gas for instrument-carrying balloons
  • in cryogenics as a coolant because liquid helium is the coldest substance
  • in scuba-diving gas mixtures because of its low solubility in the bloodstream.

Other uses of helium are:

  • to cool the superconducting magnets in MRI scanners
  • to quality-check welds on pressurized tanks to ensure the tanks do not explode
  • to operate the Large Hadron Collider, used for cutting-edge physics research
  • to manufacture computer chips and LCDs.

Helium has been in critical short supply in recent years. From 2011 to 2013, and again in 2019 the helium industry faced shortfalls of 20%. This problem is far from solved. But it is about to get far worse under the Far Left agenda. That is because the only viable source of helium is to extract it when it comes up from a relatively few helium-“rich” natural gas wells, at about 0.4% up to 4% of the total gas volume. Ninety-seven percent of all helium is produced in this manner.

Helium is also very difficult to store. Because it has smallest of all atoms, it can escape through virtually any container man can make.


According the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), pharmaceuticals are primarily derived from petrochemicals. NIH reports that health care’s reliance on petroleum for pharmaceuticals and plastics is a longstanding concern.

Petrochemicals are used to manufacture analgesics, antihistamines, antibiotics, cough syrups, ointments, and much more. Synthetic plastics are used in heart valves and other specialized medical equipment. Petrochemicals are used in radiological dyes and films, intravenous tubing, syringes, and oxygen masks.

Petrochemicals provide the building blocks for most medicinal drugs. Nearly 99% of pharma chemical feedstocks and reagents are derived from petrochemicals. Natural alternatives do not exist for the vast majority of these building blocks, as Part II tomorrow explains.


Steven Overholt has a bachelor of science degree with a double-major in chemistry and biology. He holds six U.S. patents and is author of Mastering Technology Commercialization, Inventions, Patents, Markets, Money (2013).


  1. Antonio Cruz-Malave  

    Steve O:
    This great article (revised) provide new very important information about Helium and Pharmaceuticals and Other Health Care Products.
    Your article make me feel that “apparently” in our government no one is using “scientific very critical information” to remove and/or propose changes to the current handling of the petroleum base businesses and the USA future is, from my personal point of view, very uncertain if they do not revisit the plans.
    Antonio Cruz-Malave


  2. G Kamburoff  

    I am the canary in your coal mine. Being a former engineer for a large power company and having earned a Master of Science in Energy and the Environment, I had PV panels installed five years ago, with my estimated payback of 15-17 years, . . the right thing for an eco-freak to do. Before they could be installed, we acquired a VW e-Golf electric car. The savings in gasoline alone took the solar system payback down to 3 1/2 years. So, we added a used Tesla Model S, P85, and that took the payback down to less than three years, which means we now get free power for household and transportation.
    We do not need to go to gas stations, we fuel up at home at night with cheap baseload power. During the daytime, the PV system turns our meter backwards powering the neighborhood with clean local power, which we trade for the stuff to be used that night. If we paid for transportation fuel, the VW would cost us 4 cents/mile to drive, and the Tesla would cost 5 cents/mile at California off-peak power prices.
    No oil changes are a real treat along with no leaks. And since it has an electric motor, it needs NO ENGINE MAINTENANCE at all. We do not go “gas up”, or get tune-ups or emissions checks, have no transmission about which to worry, no complicated machined parts needing care.


    • rbradley  

      Mr. Kamburoff: How much government subsidy is involved in all this, from the Tesla purchase to the net metering.

      No doubt taxpayers can make the uneconomic ‘economic,’ but there is something wrong here.


  3. Steven Overholt  

    Please note that neither electric cars nor transportation are not mentioned in the above article. A comment regarding electric cars could be relevant to some other article that deals with combustion uses of fossil fuels rather than this one dealing exclusively with non-combustion uses.
    I am sincerely glad that the commenter enjoys his electric cars, but not so glad to help pay for them through subsidies and highway taxes on gas and diesel. The subject of problems with disposal of the toxic used batteries would make a great post to MasterResource if one has not already been published.


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