Wednesday, October 22, 2014
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Petroleum Fills More Than Your Gas Tank



Dwindling world supplies could change all those oil-based products in your house.

With the international economy suffering and oil prices having fallen back to between $40 and $50 a barrel, the world seems to have plenty of oil. But petroleum geologists predict that a point known as peak petroleum謡here worldwide oil production peaks and then declines until demand for oil exceeds any possible supply様ikely will occur before 2030, and some say as early as the next few years assuming an eventual economic recovery.

In hearing such a scenario, we think immediately about the price and supply of gasoline and heating oil. But what about that part of each barrel of oil that becomes chemical building blocks for consumer and business products容verything from synthetic fibers for clothes to ingredients for laundry detergent and cleaning supplies to plastics that wind up in ballpoint pens, children's toys, and medical supplies? An oil crunch could push up prices for all those items and even change how they are made.

In addition, that 30% of U.S. petroleum consumption that goes to uses other than transportation has impacts all its own on the climate and the environment. "Extracting, transporting, and refining crude oil takes energy and consuming that energy causes the release of global warming pollution," says Luke Tonachel of the New York office of environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Manufacturing trash bags and ballpoint pens also consumes energy," he adds様eading to more release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in generating that electricity. Once a product is used and discarded, still more greenhouse gases result in places where garbage is burned.

And many petrochemical-based products that wind up in landfills are not biodegradable so will remain there for a very long time. Daniel Goleman, author of a new book called "Ecological Intelligence" argues that consumers need to know not only what materials are used in products but what the environmental and health impacts are in manufacturing it.

Americans throw away about 100 billion plastic bags each year容quivalent to nearly 12 million barrels of oil.

On Goleman's Web site, he uses running shoes as an example. Manufacturing the synthetic rubber, he says, produces toxic byproducts that are carcinogens and have other negative health impacts on workers involved and potentially on a wider scale by escaping into the environment.

Over the longer range, dwindling availability of petroleum will curb the supply of oil not only for transportation and heating, but also for the chemical feedstocks like ethylene and propylene used to make plastics, synthetic rubber, and synthetic fibers. Looking ahead to that point, some companies already have begun substituting other basic materials for petrochemicals.

Ford Motor Co. for instance, has begun making seat cushions from soybean-based materials. Ford, which already has such seats in its Mustang, Escape, and F-150 pickup models, plans to expand this material to 40% of its vehicle seats. The company says producing the soy material reduces greenhouse gas emissions and energy use compared with petroleum-based foam.

As worthy as that achievement is, however, some environmentalists and climate specialists raise the question that has occurred with corn-based ethanol: Is this substitution diverting a food crop to other uses葉hus raising prices or diminishing supply of much-needed food?

"In looking for substitutes for petroleum, you clearly do not want to use a lot of arable land or fresh water to produce such materials," says Joseph J. Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., as well as author of "Hell and High Water," a book about the impacts of global warming and climate change. He also edits the organization's ClimateProgress Web site.

Several U.S. cities, including San Francisco, have banned plastic bags at stores.

Romm says alternate materials need to start with agricultural or other biological waste that is not needed for food supplies. In the future, he adds, scientists may be able to bioengineer algae so it can serve as a basic material.

While some of these climate and oil supply issues remain in the future, you can take action in your own household and community on a smaller scale.

Choose green products

Choosing personal care or household products that don't start with petrochemicals is a small step to help cut oil demand. For instance, consider laundry detergents made with plant-based materials instead of oil derivatives. One place to spot such detergents and other products is at the Web site goodguide.com. The site not only reports ingredients but also ranks the environmental and climate impacts of the companies that make various products. If you happen to have an Apple iPhone, you can download an application that would let you check the site for product ratings while you are in the supermarket aisle.

Carry reusable shopping bags

It already seems like a clich. But avoiding petroleum-based plastic bags really does help. Switching to paper bags only adds to forests cut down and air and water pollution involved in manufacturing paper. So get reusable bags and take them whenever you go shopping.

Support local rules

Several U.S. cities, including San Francisco, have banned plastic bags at stores. Other countries have been moving this way as well; China put in a total national ban on plastic bags. Some local governments, including New York, are considering following the example of Ireland, where a fee on plastic bags cut their use by 94%. Such initiatives, as well as tighter recycling regulations for such bags, help cut back on the estimated 100 billion plastic bags Americans throw away each year葉he equivalent of nearly 12 million barrels of oil.

Many petrochemical-based products are not biodegradable and will remain in landfills for a very long time.

In a broader policy sense, developing alternative energy sources謡hether solar, wind, or other technologies謡ill cut back the climate and pollution impacts from manufacturing oil-based products. For now, that will help the U.S. cut back on oil imports. In the longer run, such policies will better prepare us for the day when rising world demand and falling production means there simply is not enough oil.

Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."

Many products contain petroleum

  • All plastics that wind up in plastic shopping bags, children's toys, food packaging, ballpoint pens, Tupperware, and many more
  • Polycarbonate (plastic) lenses in eye glasses
  • Synthetic fibers用olyester, Dacron, rayon, and orlon
  • Printer ink
  • Synthetic rubber, including elastic
  • Lamination materials
  • Personal care products such as soap, moisturizers, hair dyes, lip balm, and many others
  • Seat cushions
  • Cleaning supplies, laundry detergent
  • Lubricants洋achine oils, motor oils, and greases
  • Paraffin wax
  • Natural gas to heat homes and run electricity
  • Asphalt
  • Fuels, including ethane, diesel fuel, gasoline, jet fuel, and kerosene
  • Petroleum-based coating around electrical wires
  • Foam insulation

Related Home & Family Finance Resource Center article

Going Greener With Your Next Car


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