Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why "Going Off Petroleum" is Difficult

What industries depend upon fossil fuels? Energy is the obvious one. But there are many others.
Agriculture is one, because of the dependence on fossil fuels for fertilizers. Without fertilizers, food can still be produced, but not at the same rate. The world population doubles every 40 years, and the agricultural industry plans on feeding everyone. Practically speaking, this can only be done by using petrochemical fertilizers and mechanization in planting, gathering, processing and distributing food. “Getting off of petroleum” sounds great but makes no sense in terms of global agriculture.
Petrochemicals now account for 50 billion tons per year of petroleum.
The steel industry requires metallurgical grade coke in order tow produce steel from iron ore. In round terms, this comes from some 400 million tons of metcoke per year or 500 million tons of metallurgical grade coal. Theglobal production of steel is around 1.2 billion tons.

Similarly, aluminum and many other metalscannot be made without consuming carbon, obtained from a combination of oil and coal. Some 60 million tons of carbon are consumed to make 140 million tons of aluminum. Aluminum is also an energy hog, requiring 3% of the global electricity consumed in order to produce it. Recycling requires much less energy, by the way.
Road building is usually done with asphalt, a petroleum product. If we switch to concrete, the best material is made with a certain percentage of fly ash from coal. In addition, you need energy to produce cement, some 500 million terrajoules per year, from burning some 10 million tons of carbon annually.
Glass also is energy intensive, and relies upon a combination of natural gas, coke and other products.
Look around you, and you will probably find that you are surrounded by fossil fuel products (either direct products or indirect ones), from the plastic in your computer, to the paint on the walls, to the vinyl siding on your house, the synthetics used in the carpet on the floor and the clothes you are wearing, the shingles on your roof, not to mention the cars in your garage.

At least 60% of oil isn’t used for gasoline at all, but instead is used for chemicals, plastics, cokes, pitches, heating oil, etc.
Some folks think that if we can only shut down coal, oil and natural gas, some new cleaner energy sources will naturally emerge due to market forces! Oh boy! To me when I listen to our politicians (including the President) explain how this will work, I am reminded of Linus explaining the story of the Great Pumpkin. It just doesn’t hang together for me. Still, shouldn’t we actually bring these new sources of energy (whatever they are) to market first, and then kill our old technologies second?

Many folks are disgusted that the US consumes some 25% of all the energy in the world! How horrible! Wasteful! Well, we also consume, on the average, some 25% of everything else in the world! To make it simple, just take the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and divide it by the world GDP, and darn if it doesn’t come out to be the same number as our energy consumption, give or take. The “problem” isn’t just our energy consumption, but our standard of living is much higher than the global average. So if you want to feel guilty about consuming too much energy, please feel free to feel guilty about everything else that Americans consume.

That starts to sink in for me when we turn to industries such as manufacturing. Auto and manufacturing, for example, would be a bit problematic without steel, rubber or plastic. Same with the transportation industry, and so on.

But what about the medical care industry? That doesn’t seem to require much energy, does it? Much of that is simply labor. The problem is, when the people get their paychecks, they want to have houses and cars and all the rest. So it winds up getting reinvested in more fossil fuel and more carbon.

I'm having trouble rationalizing how we are going to get off fossil fuels. Can anyone help?


  1. Thanks for the background information and expanding my thinking about petroleum products. Yes, we can reduce the 40 percent of petroleum that is consumed as gasoline, but a drop in demand will create an increase in price for all other petroleum products, especially the ones you mentioned: food, steel, aluminium, plastics, etc. It is much more complex than waiting for new technologies to emerge. Thanks Elliot.

  2. As someone who's been around too many hospitals and doctors' offices, I might comment that there are plenty of plastics in use in medicine - syringes, gloves (due to latex allergies), bedpans, pitchers, IV tubes, catheter tubes, etc. Also, as our medical community continues to expand the use of technology, energy consumption rises as well. Even blood pressure cuffs, these days, are being run on electricity rather than being pumped by hand. Great food for thought, Elliot!

  3. It's a question of resource substitution. The reason we use processes involving fossil fuels is that fossil fuels are just incredibly cheap-- coal is literally as cheap as rocks (and, actually, quite a bit cheaper than most rocks). There are plenty of alternative processes, but right now the most economic processes are not terribly sensitive to energy costs. If fossil fuel costs rise, different processes become economically favored.