A Free-Market Energy Blog

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

By Steve Overholt -- August 27, 2021

The drawbacks of petrochemicals and plastics are widely publicized by “news” media, singers, actors, professors, and most anyone else with a megaphone. But the black-sheep facts of the alternatives are quietly herded out of sight, especially by Big Tech censors. (below)

Yesterday (Part I) reviewed the use of carbon-based energies for synthetic polymers, chemicals, lubricants, and pavement. Part II today discusses the original “natural” things as a substitute for petroleum. Three areas are wood, metals, and bioplastics.


First, let’s examine wood as a substitute for making three-dimensional parts:

  • Huge areas of forests will be wiped out to get enough wood to replace plastic. This means thousands of miles of logging roads gouged through the mountains, causing erosion into pristine streams. Alternately, vast land areas will be converted to monoculture tree farms requiring pesticides and fertilizers for fast growth.
  • The logs will need to be transported to sawmills on trucks. In contrast, oil and gas are transported by pipelines, which are far more energy efficient than trucks.
  • Wood cannot be molded. Slow, energy-intensive milling processes must instead be used.
  • Milling cannot produce many of the shapes that can be molded.
  • Wood is weak in the grain direction.
  • Wood is porous and must be protected from humidity (swelling) and water (rot). High-tech and medical parts cannot be made of wood.
  • To protect wood, it must be painted or otherwise treated. Paints and varnishes today come from synthetic polymers. If these become unavailable, we must resort to what was used before synthetics, which was mostly linseed oil and shellac. But consider this:
    • To produce the amount of linseed oil required to replace synthetics in paint and varnish, vast swaths of soil must be plowed and planted with flax—the source of linseed oil. The erosion and resultant water pollution would make the petroleum industry look rosy by comparison. Fertilizer would minimize the total land obliterated, but fertilizer comes from phosphate and potash mines as well as energy-intensive reactions of natural gas and air. But what about using organic fertilizer instead of those nasty manmade ones? Well, cows (manure) produce potent methane greenhouse gas.
    • It takes upwards of 300,000 lac bugs feeding on tropical trees to produce 2.2 lbs. of shellac resin. This shellac must be dissolved in alcohol (Where will that come from?) to produce a lacquer used to protect wooden parts. The lacquer dries through evaporation of the alcohol, causing air pollution. Natural lacquer is brittle and has poor chemical resistance.


Consider metals as a substitute in making parts:

  • Metal comes from mines. Try opening one of those in the U.S. these days. And recycling cannot yield the vast increase in metals required to replace plastic. Say good-bye to that gorgeous mountain wilderness you love.
  • Metals are heavy. Using them instead of carbon fiber, etc. will greatly increase the energy needed by planes and electric cars.
  • Most metals must be protected from salts, acids, caustics, and water that synthetics can easily withstand.
  • Metal production typically requires much more energy than plastics production.
  • Metals are much more difficult to machine, and much more energy is required to mold or form them. Molds for cast metals are often not re-usable. In contrast, molds for plastics are typically re-used thousands of times.


Can bioplastics come to the rescue? A recent Netflix documentary entitled Broken examines problems related to fossil-fuel-based plastics. At the end of the program a well-meaning but destructively myopic “expert” advocates for using bioplastic “made from,” he said: “cassava, a tropical root found abundantly in Indonesia.”

Indonesia… as in that country pilloried by the Left for slash-burning rainforests for agriculture and critically endangering orangutans, rhinos, and tigers. Indonesia… the only place in the world where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants all live in the wild.

Greenpeace has on its website a page entitled: Indonesia Forests; Defending the Paradise Forests from paper and palm oil companies. Greenpeace bemoans the tragic destruction of 74 million acres of Indonesia’s rainforest for wood pulp and palm oil for export to make “things we throw away” such as paper.

Now the Left wants to throw cassava into the mix. Here’s the sad fact about growing cassava to produce bioplastics for the world: It would require 383 million acres of land, wiping out all the remaining rainforest in Indonesia, plus another 124 million acres from some other biodiversity hotspot.

One can only imagine the increased CO2 emissions and extinctions from ravaging the rainforest to grow cassava for plastic. Here is a clue for the clueless: as explained below, plastic can be produced with far less destruction by drilling a hole in the ground!

It is also important to understand that bioplastics are not biodegradable in the way people imagine. The only way bioplastics degrade in a reasonable timeframe is if they are put into industrial composting facilities at high temperatures. But, great care must be taken to sort petrochemical plastics out of the bioplastics before bioplastics go into the composter. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems in recycling plastics is sorting them by type. This was a major point driven home in Netflix’s Broken documentary.

Also important to know: As much as 95% of the plastic that is transported by rivers into the ocean comes from ten rivers in Africa and Asia. The most rational way to diminish the “Pacific gyre” of plastic waste would be to target that problem.

Next, let’s scrutinize bio-based products as a replacement for synthetic polymers in paints and coatings.

In 2020, 3.9 billion pounds of synthetic polymers were used as binders in paints and coatings in the U.S. Currently, virtually all paints and coatings are made of synthetic polymers.

Paint is basically a pigment and a binder that adheres it to a surface. This binder can either be synthetic-polymer based or bio-based.

Because there are many synthetic-polymer binders and several bio-based binders available, we will for the sake of simplicity compare a very common synthetic binder to its most viable bio-based alternative. These are acrylic and linseed oil, respectively.

Again for simplicity, we will consider architectural paint–the largest segment of the paint market–to represent the full spectrum of paints and coatings.

Regarding the use of acrylic as the binder: The most common raw material for acrylic is ethane from natural gas. On average, 927 Marcellus Shale gas wells can yield enough ethane to make all of the acrylic that was required for U.S. paints and coatings in 2020. If each well pad is assumed to occupy 50 acres, they in total require 46,335 acres.

Regarding use of linseed oil instead of acrylic: On average, 392 pounds/year of linseed oil are produced per acre of farmland. The production of linseed oil in order to replace acrylic for U.S paint and coatings production in 2020 would have required 10 million acres of land.

It can be seen that linseed-oil paint and coatings would require 216 times more land than acrylic paint and coatings. The 10 million acres required for linseed oil is more than one-third the size of Pennsylvania; it nearly equals the entire cropland acreage of Ohio.

In addition, linseed-oil paint is often solvent based, whereas acrylic latex paint is water based. Linseed-oil paint often contains petroleum solvents that pollute the air while the paint dries, and solvents are required for clean-up. Solvent-based paints have been severely restricted in favor of water-based paint by governments around the world for these reasons.

Linseed-oil paints and coatings have many performance limitations compared to available synthetic polymer-based paints and coatings.

Let’s look at synthetic polymer-based paint on a global scale: The land required to switch from acrylic to linseed-oil paint would be about 72,500,000 acres. This is nearly twice the land area of Georgia, and over half of all the cultivated land in Canada.

There are a few online claims that linseed oil paint may last longer and have more coverage in some applications than acrylic-latex paint, which if true may reduce the above land area somewhat.

It is important to note that linseed oil is used in paints and coatings because it is a “drying oil,” meaning that it solidifies relatively quickly. Soybean, corn, canola, and peanut oil, etc. are not drying oils and cannot be used unless chemically modified.

Now let’s switch to plastics in general and compare synthetic-polymer plastics to bioplastics for total global plastics production. In 2015 global plastics production was 421 million tons, virtually all derived from fossil fuels.

According to many sources, one of the best current bioplastics is polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from sugar or starch found in crops like sugar cane and cassava–both of which are grown in the tropics, often on cleared rainforest land.

We can make a good approximation of the impact of globally replacing all synthetic-polymer plastics with bioplastics if for the sake of simplicity we consider the most common synthetic-polymer plastic (polyethylene) to represent all synthetic-polymer plastics, and we consider PLA to represent all bioplastics.

If cassava is used to produce the PLA, the global substitution of PLA for polyethylene would require that 383 million acres of land be slash-burned to grow the required cassava. This is 2-1/2 times all the agricultural land in Indonesia. It equals 120% of all the harvested cropland in the United States and over 70% of all agricultural land in Russia, which is by far the world’s largest country.

In contrast, the production of the 421 million tons of polyethylene from natural gas requires only 4.2 million acres. Doing the math shows that bioplastics will require 91 times more land than synthetics.

If you have been seduced by State Media and now feel boxed-in regarding alternatives to fossil fuels, that is because you are. There is of course no free lunch. There are only more- and less-destructive options. The once-per-generation large oil spill is a small price to pay to avoid the annual global calamity of bio-based alternatives.


So… what to do? The simple answer? Learn the facts; all of them. Make informed decisions.

The drawbacks of petrochemicals and plastics are widely publicized by “news” media, singers, actors, professors, and most anyone else with a megaphone. But the black-sheep facts of the alternatives are quietly herded out of sight, especially by Big Tech censors.

On the political scale knowledge is neutral; its manipulation is not.


Steven Overholt has a bachelor of science degree with a double-major in chemistry and biology, holds six U.S. patents, and authored the book Mastering Technology Commercialization.


  1. Antonio Cruz-Malave  

    Steve O:
    Great job!
    I just have a few questions and/or concerns:
    1. Who is consulting the current administration on this very important subject?
    2. Who is “driving” the correct necessary changes to be implemented during the next 10, 15, 20 and/or 25 years?
    3. How we are going to properly managed this situation without causing other major consequences to the USA and/or world environment?
    Thanks for your very valuable information.
    Antonio Cruz-Malave


  2. Richard Greene  

    While this article is very interesting, the Climate Alarmists only oppose burning fossil fuels, not making products from them.


  3. Steven Overholt  

    It is of course also well known that the Left is pushing for the replacement of petrochemical plastics with bioplastics. One of the most potent examples of this is the fact that Democrats introduced the CLEAN Future Act in Congress this year. It would impose a three-year moratorium on the construction of new petrochemical plastics productions facilities as the first step in the elimination of petrochemical plastics.


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